ADHD and perfectionism often go hand in hand. That can be surprising to people who don’t know much about ADHD as it goes against the stereotypical image of ADHD.
But not if you have ADHD!
Perfectionism is a personal standard that makes you want to be the dictionary definition of ‘ideal’ or perfect.
Perfectionism doesn’t show up on a list of symptoms of ADHD, but it’s widespread.
There are several reasons why ADHDers are prone to perfectionism.
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ADHDers have problems with executive functions. Executive functions are high level cognitive processes that regulate other cognitive processes.
Two things that executive functions are involved with are planning ahead and monitoring behaviour.
If, however, your internal sense of…
- the amount of time a task will take and/or
- the amount of effort the task requires…
is compromised (which is true for many ADHDers), then inner check points like ‘this task has a low level of importance so I will get it done in 15 minutes’ aren’t in place.
Therefore, your ability to match your time and effort with the value of the task doesn’t kick in.
That means every task is weighted the same and the only end point is perfection.
Perfectionism is a coping strategy for ADHDers. It is often developed at quite a young age, to protect against critical comments and feedback from the people your life.
Two phrases people with ADHD hear many times throughout their lives are ‘should try harder’ and ‘stop making careless mistakes.’
As a way to compensate, you strive for perfection, (which takes a lot of effort energy, by the way).
A child living with diagnosed (or undiagnosed) ADHD receives more negative feedback every day than a child that doesn’t have ADHD.
Negative feedback can be internalized many different ways and one of those ways is for you to decide (perhaps subconsciously) to be perfect. After all, if you are perfect you can’t be criticized.
Another common reason why ADHDers are perfectionists is they have critical parents who held them to high standard. Being perfect became a way to protect yourself from criticism and rejection.
Lots of people with ADHD have impostor syndrome – a feeling that they don’t deserve the job/position/relationship/etc. they have. They hide their struggles behind the veneer of perfection.
Positives of being a perfectionist
There are some positive pay-offs to being perfect.
Praise, feeling in control, doing well in certain areas of life like getting good grades, a pay raise, promotion, etc.
What are yours?
Negatives of being a perfectionist.
There is a high price to pay for perfectionism.
It can cause procrastination, anxiety, feelings of failure, lack of motivation, negative feelings towards yourself and life, frustration, anger, stress, lack of motivation and feeling inadequate when you don’t meet your own high standards.
It can also stop you doing things you might enjoy, because you don’t want to try something unless it will be perfect.
Perfectionism can eat into your quality of life. If you spend 20 times longer on a task in order for it to be perfect, you have less time to do your hobbies, be with loved ones or relax.
Your thoughts can be dominated by your inner critic, second guessing and agonizing over small details. You can feel like you are being tortured.
ADHD and obsessive behaviour
ADHD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have a high co-morbidity (or co-existing rate), especially in children. You can learn more about ADHD and OCD here. However, lots of people with ADHD are perfectionists and don’t have OCD.
If you are an extreme perfectionist and think you might have OCD, make an appointment with your doctor.
It can feel really scary to try and let go of being perfect. It helped you achieve all your successes to date and feels like your security blanket.
There is often is a tipping point in a perfectionist’s life, where life gets busier and you have more responsibilities at work, at home, in significant relationships. All of a sudden, your trusted ally perfectionism isn’t working any more.
You are stretched to the max and feel like you are going to implode if you don’t find a new coping strategy.
This is often when someone decides to work with me because they need practical new ways to manage life.
5 ways to help you with ADHD and perfectionism.
Remind yourself that you got your successes because of your hard work and effort, not because of your perfectionism.
You will still have high standards and do excellent work but your end goal is no longer perfection.
Instead of trying to make everything just right, pick the tasks that are most important to you and spend more time on those. For example, a quick message to a friend confirming dinner won’t get the same attention and effort as your CV or resume.
3. Done is better than perfect
Make this your new mantra.
‘Done is better than perfect.’
Imagine you were working on an assignment trying to make it perfect. Then because perfection takes a long time, you miss the deadline and get 0 marks. On the other hand, if you hand in the assignment on time at good standard (not perfect) you get 80 marks.
This example is a good reminder to keep you moving forward with your eye on the prize of finishing rather than getting to perfect.
4. Forgive yourself
If you carry around a mental list of ‘mistakes’ you have made over the years that relive again and again… forgive yourself.
There is a saying, ‘when you know better you do better.’
If a memory from your past pops into your mind, gently remind yourself that you did your best at the time, even if you would do things differently now.
5. Nothing ever is ‘perfect’
When the TV show 60 minutes did a feature on singer Shakira they described her as one of the most hard-working people in the music industry. This was based on her attention to detail and the number of hours she puts into rehearsals, etc.
However, during the interview, Shakira said when she thinks back to her performances or happens to see one of her videos, she sees something she could have done better.
Yet to everyone else, they look nothing less than stunning.
This is an excellent example that nothing is ever perfect… so perhaps it’s an ideal you could let go of.
Are you a perfectionist?
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