Perfectionism in Highly Intelligent Clients: Therapeutic Strategies By Paula Prober, MS on 7/28/22 - 2:54 PM

In my therapy practice, I work with adults who have what I call rainforest minds. They are often, but not always, also called gifted. These are people with advanced intelligence and high levels of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, and intuition. They love learning new things and often have many interests. They may or may not excel in school. It can be hard for them to find friends or partners due to their intensity and intellectual complexity. In my many years of working with them, I have seen that they all experience one or both types of perfectionism. Understanding this distinction, along with the other particular traits that often accompany their rainforest minds, has helped me make progress with these clients who might otherwise feel stuck or lost in therapy but not know why.

These clients do not enter therapy because of their struggles with perfectionism or even for the challenges of being gifted. They come to counseling for the typical reasons: anxiety, depression, childhood trauma, and relationship issues. But, as I get to know them, and if I see they have rainforest minds, and the perfectionism that comes with that, I have these strategies ready to share.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Healthy Perfectionism

My clients who manifest “healthy perfectionism” set very high standards and expectations for themselves. They strive for beauty, balance, harmony, justice, and precision in many areas of their lives. This can look like obsessive research, overthinking, or many hours spent in order to find the perfect word, music, color, book, surgical technique, equipment, course, choreography, or whatever they are working on. It can look like continually raising the bar when they reach a goal, not out of fear, but out of the excitement of intellectual curiosity. It can look like the meticulous, detailed designing of an iPhone.

This type of perfectionism is not easily recognized or understood. It can be underappreciated by the client as well as by their friends, relatives, and therapists. But it is truly how humanity advances and great beauty is created. There are challenges that go with this perfectionism, though, when it becomes all-consuming, overwhelming, or misdiagnosed.

Therapeutic Strategies for Healthy Perfectionism

I have found offering the following “normalizing” strategies helpful when working with clients who experience “healthy perfectionism”:

  • Understand what healthy perfectionism is. It is not something you can change or should want to get rid of. See it as a strength. Imagine how the world would be if everyone had such a desire for depth, comprehensiveness, and accuracy. Appreciate this about yourself.
  • Let this striving for perfection feed your soul, even if no one else understands. Even if they are labeling you obsessive or neurotic.
  • Give yourself permission to feel emotional over a gorgeous sunset, a star-filled sky, an exquisite symphony, a towering cathedral, a stunning painting, or a perfect paragraph.
  • There will be times when you need to compromise to get something important finished. Prioritize your projects and let the unimportant items be less than beautiful or precise. Do you really need to spend hours on that 3-sentence email?
  • Recognize that others may not share your high standards. This does not mean others need to change or work harder. You may have a greater innate capacity to produce quality. Find patience and tolerance for others. At the same time, keep looking for others with rainforest minds so you can feel seen and understood.
  • Get feedback on your work from other people with high standards and similar expectations. Then, you are more likely to respect and believe what they are telling you.
  • Remember you can have excellence without perfection. Your excellence may, in fact, look like perfection to others.
  • If you produce something less than brilliant, it is not a failure.
  • Find ways to get intellectual stimulation. You need it, just like others need food and water.
  • If you are in school or at a job and have a deadline you must meet, try to evaluate your work through a different lens. Is this good enough for the situation? Will you still get an A even though it doesn’t meet your standards? How important is it that this be as thorough as you would like? Will anyone else see all of the connections you see?
  • Read Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth. The chapter on perfectionism includes case studies from my counseling practice and many more resources.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

Anyone can experience unhealthy perfectionism from growing up in a dysfunctional family. Clients who have rainforest minds, though, might be perfectionists for additional reasons. As children, rainforest-minded clients who have developed “unhealthy perfectionism” were often ahead of their peers in academic abilities and achievements. If their parents and teachers over-praised them for how smart they were, or repeatedly emphasized their accomplishments, the children may have felt the acceptance and love as conditional, based on being the best, winning, and achieving at all costs. As they grew, this pattern morphed into an extreme fear of failure, procrastination, avoidance of difficult activities, and generalized anxiety. Early on, their sense of self became dependent on what they did instead of who they were and would become. If they did not achieve at the highest level, then, they felt worthless. This dynamic laid the foundation for heightened anxiety, pressure to achieve, fear of failure, and avoidance of intellectual challenges. It also often became disabling in adulthood, especially if not understood and deconstructed.

Therapeutic Strategies Offered to Clients with Unhealthy Perfectionism

I have found the following to be very useful in working therapeutically with clients who are struggling from the impact of “unhealthy perfectionism”:
  • This is complicated and usually starts at a young age. Take time to unravel the threads of how your perfectionism began and allow for slow progress. You do not need to blame anyone for over-emphasizing your intelligence. They were probably not aware of the impact it might have. It can be hard not to overreact to a highly articulate or a cognitively advanced young child.
  • Strive for wholeness and balance instead of perfection.
  • Put more emphasis on the process versus the product. Measure your success by effort, enjoyment, complexity, opportunities for growth, learning, or meeting new people.
  • If you have a loud inner critic, spend time with them in a journal. Start a dialogue. Ask them what they need. What are they protecting you from? What can you do that will allow them to step back?
  • Avoid all-or-nothing thinking, such as that something is either perfect or a failure. One error does not make the entire project a failure.
  • Remember you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.
  • Failures make great stories for holiday gatherings, memoirs, and TED talks.
  • Learn about the growth mindset that Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset. Being smart is not an either/or proposition. You may have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another. Even though you may have been born with a high level of intelligence, you can always change and grow. It will be important to explore new areas where you risk mistakes and failure.
  • Read the book Procrastination by Burka and Yuen. It provides an in-depth look at perfectionism as it relates to procrastination.
  • Break down projects into small steps if you are overwhelmed. Make a list of the steps then set either a minimal goal or a time limit to get you started. Give yourself small rewards as you go.
  • If you are used to easy A’s or quick success, you may panic if you run into a challenge. Know that this is common when you have a rainforest mind. It does not mean you are no longer smart if something is difficult. In fact, it is a good thing to have to struggle. Think of it as giving your brain an upgrade!
  • Make a list of self-soothing tools if you are often anxious. Check out apps such as Calm and Headspace. Read The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Bourne.
  • If you are the parent of a child with a rainforest mind, place more emphasis on their traits such as their compassion, empathy, and love of learning instead of their achievements. Rather than say “You’re so smart,” give specific feedback such as, “Your story has some fascinating characters, tell me more about them.” Encourage their curiosity and kindness. Ask how they feel about an accomplishment or what they might do differently next time. Avoid generic praise. Find opportunities where they have to work at something over time, such as learning a musical instrument, a new language, or a sport. Listen deeply.


Perfectionism in our clients is often seen as something to avoid and that is always problematic. And yet, for someone gifted or with a rainforest mind, it is not that simple. In fact, there are often two specific types of perfectionism in these clients that need understanding, explanation, and strategies. The reasons for perfectionism in this population are more complex, as are the solutions. When a therapist sees this in a client and explains the patterns and difficulties through the lens of the rainforest mind, change is possible, in ways that might otherwise be overlooked or dismissed. It can make all the difference. It certainly has for me in my work with these complex and fascinating clients.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections