Perfectionism, Grass is Always Greener Syndrome and Being Neurodiverse

The twice exceptional profile (gifted with a learning difference) often comes with perfectionism – a drive to do and be better. Sometimes that perfectionism reaches a high enough level to become unhealthy. I’ve written multiple blogs about this subject and the importance of praising effort over result to stop unhealthy perfectionism in its tracks, particularly for gifted and 2e kids. Sometimes perfectionism rises to such a high level that it begins to affect not only the perfectionist but all the people around her. A specific type of ‘longing for best’ is referred to as the “Grass is Always Greener Syndrome” (GIGS). To address and change this state of perpetual unrest, always wishing for things to be different, always seeing others as having more or better than you, requires deep work including awareness, mindfulness and gratitude.

GIGS is not an actual clinical syndrome, but for many twice exceptional people, the characteristics and description are frighteningly accurate. GIGS is defined as,

the idea that there is always something better that we are missing. So rather than experiencing stability, security, and satisfaction in the present environment, the feeling is there is more and better elsewhere, and anything less than ideal won’t do. Whether it’s with relationships, careers, or where you live, there is always one foot out the door. (Nathan Feiles, MSW, LCSW-R, March 16, 2013, The ‘Grass is Always Greener’ Syndrome, PsychCentral).

A parent suffering from GIGS may constantly second-guess herself or impose her thinking on her child, never feeling satisfied with her child’s accomplishments or behavior. For the 2e child this is detrimental to the parent-child relationship, as well as the child’s own self-perception, happiness and ability to individuate. The child learns that no matter what she does, it will never be good enough. We see children whose parents suffer from GIGS, giving up, asking others to do things for them and in severe cases, harming themselves. Unfortunately, children brought up in this atmosphere often carry on the GIGS legacy, suffering as adults. As an adult, GIGS keeps you from enjoying what you have, from feeling happiness and freedom, from experiencing calm and satisfaction.

Underlying GIGS is fear – fear of failure, fear of not measuring up, fear of being seen as less than — many of the characteristics indicate some level of anxiety. Characteristics as outlined in “9 Signs of Grass is Greener Syndrome,” include:

  • Always searching for something better
  • Excessively comparing yourself to others
  • Running away from situations
  • Constantly complaining
  • Impulsivity
  • Fear of commitment

Someone suffering from GIGS is rarely satisfied with what they have. This can be about themselves, other people and their possessions. Nothing seems good enough. Their house could be bigger or in a better neighborhood, their job could be more prestigious, their friends aren’t good enough, their child isn’t performing well enough or meeting their expectations. Their motto might be “holy grail or bust” – just insert the high achieving school, job, or grade for ‘holy grail.’

Because they’re rarely satisfied, people with GIGS look to what others have and assume it’s always better. Whether disappointment in what they have fuels their incessant comparisons, or the comparisons fuel their disappointment, their conclusion results from mislaid assumptions or cognitive distortions about other people’s happiness. There is genuine surprise when they learn that someone who appears happy, is not. The constant comparisons set up unfair and inappropriate expectations leading to feelings of perpetual “you’re not good enough,” “your broken,” or “others are better” tropes.

Unfortunately, suffering from GIGS may result in sabotage or self-fulfilled prophecies. If your child feels as though they can never meet your expectation they may stop trying. If you cannot tolerate the effort and process it takes to get the result you want, you won’t get there. The cup you keep trying to fill has a big hole in the bottom and this feeling of emptiness leads to constant complaining. Complaints are often worded in ways that shame. “Why can’t you be like other kids?” “Why can’t you be supportive like so-and-so’s spouse?” “Why didn’t you do better?”

I recently heard an impactful quote on Demi Lovato’s podcast, “4D with Demi Lovato,” where her guest, Alok Vaid-Menon who was describing their gender journey, stated that “Shame is joy interrupted.” Wow. Think about that for a second.

Shame is joy interrupted.

The application of that phrase to the 2e experience is palpable. Twice exceptional people tend to enter a room or a situation in a big way; with big feelings, big reactions, or big excitement. This sets them apart and often invites judgment and criticism. If a parent doesn’t appreciate or understand their 2e child’s behavior, or when that child grows up, they work very hard on changing their child or themselves. With GIGS, the constant comparison naturally indicates that a 2e child is different, does not conform, sticks out, is noticed. The parent suffering from GIGS reacts impulsively and a barrage of stinging words contribute to an ongoing cycle of shame.

Why does this syndrome occur? There are several reasons including negative self-perception, anxiety driven preoccupation with the future, and unhealthy perfectionism that lead to black and white thinking and obsessive thoughts. Perhaps someone was brought up by a parent with GIGS, or they were made to feel like they were never enough. If the person is neurodiverse herself, perhaps she always felt different and worked hard to ‘fit in.’ These patterns tend to play out over and over again. Those affected by GIGS tend to lack positive influencers in their life.

The ancient saying, “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot Ethics of the Fathers, Mishna 4:1) describes an ideal reality where someone feels as though she is precisely who she ought to be. In order to find inner peace and satisfaction someone affected by GIGS needs to do deep work. Several strategies are recommended in the article, “Grass is Always Greener, Is this You? And 7 Ways to End it” including:

  1. Contemplating why you feel this way.
  2. Challenging your negative thinking.
  3. Instituting a gratitude practice.
  4. Mindfulness.
  5. Intentionally balancing your thinking.
  6. Therapy.

Consider why the grass is always greener elsewhere. Were you taught this pattern of thinking? Do you depend on external motivation to feel accomplished? Is it difficult to find happiness unless you receive positive feedback from the outside world? When you were a child, did you receive the message that you were ‘less than?’

Practice challenging your negative thinking and comparisons you are used to making. Do you really know for a fact that the people against whom you measure yourself are truly happy? Social media is a supreme example of false consciousness – people don’t tend to post the crappy stuff about their lives. That colleague, fellow parent or other child the same age as yours may hold it together for the outside world, but chances are in private, they have their own struggles, demons and disappointments.

Finding the little and big things you are grateful for helps to reorient you. Did your child do something you’ve been waiting for them to do? Stop there. Don’t expect or wish for the next thing. Notice the accomplishment in the moment and let it be enough for today. Be mindful of that inner dialogue. Tell the negative self-talk that you are the boss of you, and that you won’t listen to the inner critic. Focus on your breath when you can’t stop the voice in your head. Breathe. Let go of thoughts. Breathe again.

When thoughts are intrusive and you can’t let go, play them out to the end to see if the worry is really worth it. For instance, in the case of a child who is constantly in trouble for her inability to stand still during ballet class, and the thinking is, “If my child could just attend this ballet class and follow directions, stand still, listen, not poke the other kids, it would be so great.” Would it? Would she be happy? Or is it movement itself that makes her happy? Note the question is not would YOU be happy. The question is also not would your child feel like she fits in. If ‘fitting in’ is the goal, then that has superceded the goal of being happy; it uses societal constructs to define ‘happy.’ Your child’s reality is not meant to cater to your hopes and dreams, it’s to create her own.

Along with all of these suggestions, I strongly recommend therapy. Being honest with your therapist so you can uncover where these tendencies originated and how to rewire your brain to view your circumstances differently, this can provide the most needed intervention.

If gratitude is hard for you, engage in the flip side; think about the challenges you do not have.  Rather than trying to fix and change everything around you, focus on you and see whether hard work can help you recognize that the grass is pretty darn green right under your feet. When you are able to do this, you start down the road of role modeling happiness for your kids. In order to ensure the joy you wish and hope for, you have to start that process and interrupt your own pattern.

Julie Skolnick
Author: Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

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Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

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