ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Perfectionism

Chef in commercial kitchen seasoning food

Philippe Roy / Getty Images

Given all the stereotypes of being lazy and scatterbrained, people don’t usually link ADHD to perfectionism. But for those with ADHD, it’s an all-too-common reality. There seems to be a perpetual, growing gap between what you want to achieve and what you’re capable of achieving.

The Link Between ADHD and Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the most common cognitive distortion reported in adults with ADHD. It often manifests in procrastinating because conditions weren’t “just right” or in a negative self-image.

Studies also find a strong correlation between perfectionism and impulsivity, another symptom of ADHD. Together, they form a negative feedback loop in which someone with ADHD sets impossible standards, fails to meet them, and makes rash decisions out of frustration. These decisions can then have negative consequences that further reinforce the idea that they’re worthless.

Going into high school, for example, my perfectionist attitude was heavily focused on my increasingly difficult to ignore mental illness. The more complex my classes and social life got, the more difficult it was for my ADHD brain to balance it all.

As part of an effort to pretend everything was fine, I tried out for cheerleading, despite having the demeanor and mannerisms of Daria and no dance or gymnastic training to speak of. When I didn’t make the cut, I took it as proof I was a hopeless case. It was the start of a cycle of trying to be someone I wasn’t, failing, and then becoming self-destructive and reckless (because that’s all I really was, after all, according to my increasingly negative self-image).

If you or a loved one are struggling with ADHD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

When I look back, that fixation with cheerleading seems so bizarre. As a resolute introvert, being the center of attention is a nightmare, and I’ve never been a fan of dancing or performance. If they’d actually put me on the squad, I would have hated being a cheerleader.

But I was trying to force myself to become an entirely different person, since I felt like the person I was wasn’t good enough. When I couldn’t do it, I took it as confirmation that I was not, in fact, enough and punished myself for it.

Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism

Despite mostly being seen as a negative trait, there is actually such a thing as adaptive (beneficial) perfectionism. That’s good news for people who struggle with perfectionism because it means you don’t have to completely rewire your personality. You just have to tweak it a bit to get rid of the maladaptive thought patterns and habits and hone the adaptive ones.

Maladaptive Perfectionism

  • Extreme concern or criticism for mistakes
  • A chronic sense of inadequacy or doubting your own abilities
  • Setting impossibly high standards for yourself
  • Placing excess importance on being perceived as perfect by others (Being driven more by how others see you than by what you actually want in life)

In other words, maladaptive perfectionism is when you never feel like you’ve done enough, no matter how much you’ve actually achieved. The house is never clean enough. The project is never quite ready to submit. Your outfit is always a little off.

When you combine those maladaptive aspects of perfectionism with ADHD, it can be hard to accomplish anything. Your brain already struggles with a chronic lack of motivation. So how do you motivate yourself to start a project you “know” you don’t have the skill to do perfectly? How do you start anything at all unless the precise conditions are in place to make it possible to work?

But if you can rein it in, you can make your perfectionism work for you.

Adaptive Perfectionism

  • Strong organization skills
  • Ability (and drive) to learn from mistakes so that you can do better next time
  • Ability to recognize your strengths
  • Ability to recognize your weaknesses (without viewing them as character flaws)
  • Ability to take pride in your achievements
  • Understanding the effort and time required to achieve mastery of a skill or goal (instead of expecting to be an overnight success)

You may have ambitious goals, but you also have a realistic idea of how to achieve them and are prepared for the hard work required to get there. You’re also able to recognize and appreciate your milestone achievements along the way.

Instead of taking guitar lessons because you want to be a rock star—and then giving up when you realize you can’t nail that Jimi Hendrix solo you love within a week—you take lessons because you enjoy music and want to become a professional musician (whether that means worldwide fame or just getting steady gigs at the local venues).

You’re prepared for the reality that it takes a ton of practice before you’ll reach the point where you can write your own songs, let alone get paid to perform, but you’re ready to spend as much time as it takes practicing chords and sounding awful to get there.

For people with ADHD, these adaptive forms of perfectionism can help compensate for some of the challenges of the condition.

A healthy perfectionist drive can provide some of that intrinsic motivation to complete a task that would otherwise be too boring to hold your attention. It can also help compensate for other executive dysfunctions like time management and organization.

How to Turn Maladaptive Perfectionism into Adaptive Perfectionism

You don’t have to completely change who you are or even give up your goals in life to become a healthy, well-adjusted adult. Here are a few tips for keeping your perfectionism in check.

Counterbalance Negative Thoughts With Positive Ones

For me, the slow process toward recovery started with simply finding a positive point to counteract each of the critical thoughts in my head. Instead of finding everything that was wrong with the things I was doing, I was now looking at what I was doing right, too.

In the beginning, my overly-critical brain wasn’t really convinced. The mistakes still seemed to largely outweigh any of the accomplishments. But with time, the balance shifted.

Some of the “mistakes” I used to find turned out not to really be mistakes. Some were easy fixes, and some were legitimate areas where I needed improvement. But above all, I learned to recognize my strengths and what I was doing right. Even legitimate mistakes weren’t a sign of utter failure anymore. They were just a few areas that needed to be polished in an otherwise strong piece of work.

Focus on the Positives in Others

An ugly part of my own perfectionism was my tendency to compare myself to others. I had this almost constant inner monologue judging others and looking for something to criticize in hopes of feeling better about myself.

When I challenged myself to focus on the positives in others instead, I thought it would unravel me—like I’d start seeing everyone else as better than me and feel even worse. Instead, it took the pressure off.

The more I looked for the positives in others, the easier it was to find them in myself. I also stopped assuming everyone else was secretly judging me as harshly as I was judging them.

You’ll become less afraid of making mistakes in front of others and find it easier to ask for help, too, because you aren’t living in a distorted world where everyone is laser-focused on catching your every misstep.

Don’t Dismiss Praise

If you’re a perfectionist, it’s easy to dismiss any praise you get. They had to say it, but they didn’t really mean it. They don’t even know enough to see how many mistakes I actually made.

It may be hard to quiet those thoughts. But, as a starting point, commit to no longer verbally dismissing that praise. Instead of saying, “It really wasn’t that good” or “You’re just being nice,” just say thank you.

Learning to at least pretend you accept the praise is a step toward internalizing it.

Revisit and Redefine Your Expectations

Being ambitious is one thing. Expecting the impossible from yourself is another. Red flags that your expectations are unrealistic include:

  • Feeling disappointed when you aren’t naturally or immediately good at something
  • Moving the target anytime you actually do meet your expectation
  • Becoming stressed or overwhelmed when things don’t go exactly as planned
  • Fixating on small details
  • Worrying more about being seen as perfect, than about actually succeeding

To rework your expectations into something more realistic and beneficial, think about the why.

Why are you pursuing this goal? What are the benefits of living up to these standards you set? Are they actually helping you live a full and rewarding life or are they just your effort to feel like you deserve to take up space?

Find the Doable Tasks

Instead of fixating on how impossible the project is or how imperfect the conditions you have to work in are, find the pieces you can do. Maybe you can’t focus long enough to read the entire assigned chapter, but you can read a page—even if it requires rereading that last paragraph five times to actually absorb it.

There is always a doable task hiding inside in the impossible ones, and getting those done on the bad days not only makes you feel a little less like a failure but also gives you a head start for the good days.

Make Sure Your Schedule Is Realistic

When you combine ADHD time blindness with perfectionism, you’ve got a recipe for wildly unrealistic schedules. You might expect yourself to complete a project that realistically takes four days in four hours. When you inevitably fail to finish in that impossible time frame, you assume you’re the problem, not the schedule.

To start, a good habit is to give yourself at least double the time you think it will take. Then, consider using time tracking software or manually tracking your time so that you can start getting a realistic sense of how much time you need for different tasks.

4 Sources
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