ADHD & Perfectionism: The Connection Between the Two & Practical Ways to Combat the Need to be "Perfect"

ADHD & Perfectionism: The Connection Between the Two & Practical Ways to Combat the Need to be "Perfect"

"Though it’s often romanticized as a trait that drives people to tackle goals and achieve success, perfectionism is usually devastating for the perfectionist."

Plagued by the fear of disappointing themselves or others, perfectionists tend to set unreasonable expectations, get bogged down by anxiety, and then feel like they’ve failed in a never-ending cycle that fills them with shame. At times, perfectionism can even turn into procrastination; this happens when a person feels so afraid of a negative outcome that they feel paralyzed and can’t proceed.

While it’s not typically listed as one of the most common ADHD signs, perfectionism is highly connected to the condition. And it can take a massive toll on one’s self-esteem, leading to stress, anxiety, anger, and sadness. In fact, some studies indicate perfectionism is a risk factor for self-harm in adolescents with ADHD.1

Learn more about the connection between perfectionism and anxiety as it relates to ADHD, how to recognize perfectionist behaviors and thought battens, and where to seek support.

Exploring the Relationship between ADHD & Perfectionism

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.2 Though it’s often romanticized as a trait that drives people to tackle goals and achieve success, perfectionism is usually devastating for the perfectionist. Over 20 years of research has linked the trait to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.3

Research also links perfectionism to ADHD.4 According to Sharon Saline, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with working with children and teens with ADHD, anxiety, autism, and learning disabilities, perfectionists with ADHD often live in fear of failing to meet the standards they set for themselves in comparison to neurotypical peers.5 This is especially true if they’ve struggled or failed to meet those goals in the past. 

How Perfectionism can Exacerbate ADHD Symptoms

For some, perfectionism manifests as an overcompensation for mistakes made in the past due to ADHD symptoms. For others, perfectionism can lead to procrastination. Here are some other ways perfectionism can exacerbate ADHD symptoms:

  • Impulsivity: Perfectionism worsens impulsivity by forming a “negative feedback loop” in which a person with ADHD fails to meet their own unreasonable standards and then makes impulsive decisions out of frustration.6 
  • Procrastination: As stated above, perfectionism can lead to procrastination as the person with ADHD tries to avoid or delay the discomfort that comes with attempting to meet their impossible standards.
  • Hyperfocus: Hyperfocus refers to the intense focus or fixation a person with ADHD may experience when they are working on something that interests them. In some cases, this can be an advantage, allowing the person to accomplish more than they intended, improve their skills, and complete a fulfilling task. However, a perfectionist can also get stuck in a state of hyperfocus, taking too long to prepare, giving too much detail to insignificant portions of the task, or feeling like a failure if things didn’t come out exactly right.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety often co-occurs with ADHD and can be exacerbated by perfectionism. They might feel excessive worry over meeting their irrational standards and then worry afterward that things didn’t turn out perfectly. They might also become preoccupied with seeking approval from others, which is linked to social anxiety.

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Recognizing Perfectionist Behaviors & Thought Patterns 

What is perfectionism? Here’s how to identify common perfectionist behaviors and thought patterns in a person with ADHD:

  • Setting unrealistic standards of performance
  • Persistent fear of failure and disappointing others
  • Constant comparison to others (commonly neurotypical peers)
  • All-or-nothing thinking with no middle ground (e.g. “If it’s not perfect, it’s a failure.”)
  • Heightened sensitivity to criticism or constructive feedback
  • Consistent seeking of approval from others
  • Tendency to dismiss praise or recognition
  • Procrastination in the form of feeling unable to to start or finish a task or distracting oneself with less pressing tasks

Challenging Perfectionistic Mindsets & Cultivating Self-Compassion

For some people with ADHD, perfectionism serves as motivation to complete tasks and perform well. Challenging these perfectionist tendencies can feel like sabotaging one’s drive to succeed (even if they end up feeling dissatisfied by the outcome). To break this pattern, which often leads to anxiety and stress, it’s essential to challenge perfectionist mindsets and cultivate self-compassion. In fact, one 2018 study found self-compassion counterbalances the link between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in both adolescents and adults.7 Here are some ways to do that:

  • Treat yourself with kindness: If you saw your friend or loved one beating themselves up over an unrealistic goal or belittling themselves if they failed to do something just right, what would you say to them? Taking on a nonjudgmental attitude toward your inadequacies and failures is an important step towards practicing self-compassion. Instead of avoiding or trying to counteract painful experiences, try to be open and curious about difficult emotions, extend kindness toward yourself, and know that others have felt this same way.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness helps a perfectionist slow down and bring awareness to self-defeating thoughts. Mindful breathing and meditation are powerful ways to learn how to focus on the present moment and reduce the anxiety that accompanies the fear of imperfection.
  • Shift focus to what’s working: Instead of dwelling on past mistakes, shift your focus to what went well and celebrate even the smallest achievements to help rebuild the self-worth that gets destroyed by perfectionist thinking.
  • Practice positive self talk: Some helpful phrases might include: I’m trying my best. Everybody makes mistakes. My worth is not defined by my achievements. I accept myself as I am.

Setting Realistic Expectations & Goals 

To set realistic goals, it’s important for a perfectionist to stop comparing themselves to others. Considering one’s own capabilities instead of blindly applying unachievable standards seen in others or set by others is a recipe for stress and potential failure. Can you be more honest about what you can handle? Can you be more flexible with time and deadlines? Once you’ve set a realistic deadline, you can patiently work toward achieving it. And when you do, enjoy the achievement, however large or small.

How to Embrace Mistakes & Learn from Failure

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but mistakes are inevitable. When you learn to accept that perfectionism is an impossible goal, you can start to see mistakes not as failures, but as learning opportunities. You might even purposely make a few mistakes in low-pressure situations (like sending an email with a few spelling mistakes or talking in a meeting without rehearsing first) just to expose yourself to what it’s like to make a mistake and survive it. 

Additional Time Management & Organization Techniques 

Some techniques that could be helpful in tackling perfectionism include:

  • Use visual calendars and schedule reminders to stay on top of deadlines
  • Make to-do lists of small, attainable goals and check off each accomplishment for easy dopamine hits that motivate you to keep going8
  • Avoid last-minute scrambles by breaking down large tasks into small chunks, ideally beginning with the easiest pieces first
  • Give yourself double the amount of time to tackle a task, rather than trying to finish something in record time
  • Keep track of your achievements by journaling them and turn to this journal when self-defeating thoughts creep in

Seeking Support: Therapy, Medication or ADHD Coaching

If perfectionism is negatively impacting your daily life and mental health, it may be time to seek more support through therapy, medication, or coaching.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy that can help you dismantle a perfectionist mindset. This therapy employs several techniques to challenge and change negative thought patterns and replace them with healthier ones. Seeing an ADHD coach can help you learn useful techniques in dealing with perfectionist tendencies and other problematic ADHD traits.

If you’re curious about trying medication, non-prescription Brillia is one option. Free from harsh synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia is clinically proven to reduce anxiety, which often accompanies perfectionism, as well as impulsivity, restlessness, and irritability, which can be exacerbated by perfectionist tendencies. The active ingredient in Brillia consists of antibodies to the brain-specific S100B protein, an important regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes. Extremely specific and gentle on the system, Brillia will not cause any of the side effects associated with prescription medications for anxiety or ADHD, such as drowsiness, upset stomach, or dependency. And if you or your child are already taking medication for ADHD, Brillia can be added to your regimen without worry because there are no contraindications.

Learn more about how Brillia works for children and adults

If you’ve always struggled with perfectionism, it’s not too late for change. Learn more tips on dealing with other problematic traits related to ADHD and anxiety at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
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