ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Perfectionism

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

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. Growing up, ADHD symptoms can make children the focus of excess criticism and punishment as hyperactivity can be disruptive while memory and attention issues can make getting schoolwork and chores done difficult.

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.

Impulsivity and executive dysfunctions cause you to neglect basic needs like nutrition and hygiene, forget deadlines, abandon tasks halfway through, and struggle to start things even when you want to do them. This can make you feel so powerless over your own life and fill you with frustration and shame. You bought the little planner. You made the to-do list. You broke the tasks into bite-size chunks. You set all the timers. And then, you just didn’t do it—or you started doing some of it but then got derailed.

For some, perfectionism becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism. It’s a way of trying to meticulously control every little detail as if just trying harder, just being more disciplined is all it takes to override executive dysfunction.

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.

For those who dealt with frequent criticism and punishment, perfectionism becomes a way to prove your worth and prove that you aren't lazy, unmotivated, or lacking discipline. Often, in the perfectionist mindset, the only way to prove those things wrong is to become the complete opposite of them. It’s not enough to get accepted into college, you need to get into an ivy league. It’s not enough to go to an ivy league, you need to enroll in the honors program and graduate magna cum laude.

Complications of Perfectionism and ADHD

The trouble with using perfectionism as a coping mechanism for ADHD is that it kind of works. The stress and pressure you put on yourself to meet this impossible standard become a substitute for the lack of a functional dopamine reward pathway, a key source of motivation.

While the pressure to perform can work as source of motivation, it can ultimately lead to burnout and procrastination because of the constant negative feedback and self-criticism you experience as your ADHD brain fails to live up to your perfect standard.

Eventually, that pressure not only puts you at risk of giving up on your goals but makes it difficult to recognize the accomplishments you have made. Say you don’t get accepted into an ivy league but you do get into one of your safety schools. Not only will you see this as a failure—even though you did actually get accepted to a university—you might feel like it’s not even worth going to college at all because it’s not good enough.

How to Combat Perfectionism in ADHD

For perfectionists with ADHD who have been relying on the stress-induced pressure to perform as a substitute for motivation, it can sound like giving up on the one source of drive you have to get anything done. But you can still have ambition and you don’t have to settle for mediocrity or disappointment. The goal is to find positive ways to motivate yourself and manage your ADHD. 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.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Christian C, Bridges-Curry Z, Hunt RA, Ortiz AML, Drake JE, Levinson CA. Latent profile analysis of impulsivity and perfectionism dimensions and associations with psychiatric symptoms. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2021;283:293-301. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2021.01.076

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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.