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ADHD and: Perfectionism

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Imagine a teacher spending countless hours perfecting her lesson plans. But never feeling quite satisfied with her work. And her desires for perfection begin to create a cycle that ends in exhaustion. 

The need for things to be perfect can be a common challenge for some women with ADHD. These challenges often stem from other symptoms of ADHD, like trouble with focus or organization. 

Listen as Dr. J explains the connection between ADHD and perfectionism. And shares ways to help. 

Episode transcript

Dr. J: If I were to poll a group of women, I'm sure that many of them would say that they're a perfectionist. But is that really what it is? Today we're going to talk about perfectionism and similar behaviors that can mimic it. And I'm going to give you a few tips on how to cope and move past it.

This is "ADHD and," where we talk about everyday living and ADHD. I'm Dr. J and I'm a clinical psychologist that works with those with ADHD and coexisting disorders. And today we're talking about ADHD and perfectionism.

Now you might be wondering, "Dr. J, what do you mean that my perfectionism may be something else?" Well, when looking at the operational definitions of perfectionism in research settings, what we see is how it's defined is typically a combination of high standards of performance, being overly critical of your own behaviors, and a series of other factors.

For example, when looking at perfectionism in research settings, one clinical measurement scale breaks it down into concern over making mistakes, personal standards, parental expectations and criticisms, doubting of actions and organizations, etc. It's important to break all of this down so that we can see which elements of perfectionism are elevated in ADHD and which ones aren't.

Now here's a spoiler. Perfectionism as a whole doesn't appear to be elevated in those with ADHD. The research that looks at ADHD and perfectionism shows that those with ADHD are more likely to rank highly on factors like concern over mistakes and doubting their own actions. But on other required elements like organization, they score a lot lower.

So, while adults with ADHD may say that they're suffering from perfectionism, when we break it down, it's more common that those with ADHD don't actually have high standards of performance and some of the other elements of perfectionism. But instead, what is happening is they do harshly judge themselves for making mistakes.

So, what's important to keep in mind is that being overly critical of your mistakes or doubting your actions is just one component of perfectionism, so it doesn't lead to an elevation and perfectionism as a whole. But it does leave you with the problem of being unsure of yourself and beating yourself up over having everyday struggles.

So, this hypercriticalness is where those with ADHD can really get themselves hung up, because what you're trying to do is avoid making an initial mistake or replicating a mistake that you've made in the past. And this can get you stuck in a loop, because what you're trying to do is look for the ideal pathway. And that ideal pathway is seen as the one without a mistake, which is frankly impossible in most circumstances.

You can burn through all of your energy engaging in what I like to call faulty avoidance tactics. So, these are where you try to create the perfect or ideal environment where everything is just right or just so before taking any action steps. And what this can do is lead you to not making any movement toward the desired outcome.

One of the things to understand about the brain and human attention is that it naturally gravitates towards negatives. So, these can be things that would have an undesirable outcome, an emotional experience that you're trying to avoid, an interpersonal difficulty, or simply failing at the thing that you're trying to do. Now, this is difficult for anyone to cope with. I even have times when my brain gets stuck on a negative feedback loop.

But when you have ADHD, one of the things to keep in mind is that one of your core difficulties is attentional control and distractibility, and all you can focus on is not wanting to mess up, which in turn increases your anxiety about making the mistake, your self-doubts, etc.

And you can burn through all your mental resources just on this. It can be completely immobilizing and typically lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where we get the outcome that we were trying to avoid.

Now that we have an idea about what perfectionism can look like and those with ADHD, I want to give you some helpful tips on how to cope with the hypercriticalness and other perfectionistic traits that might come up for you.

So, my first tip is that you can develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. Growth mindset is a concept developed by psychologist Carol Dweck, which states that our abilities and our intelligence can improve over time based on learning, hard work, and dedication. This mindset contrasts with a fixed mindset, which is the belief that our traits and abilities really can't change over time and that they're static.

People with a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, and they're also more likely to bounce back from setbacks because they see these as a natural part of the learning process. They also tend to embrace constructive criticism as it helps with the growth and development of them as a human being.

This mindset encourages a focus on continuous learning and personal development, making it useful whether your issue falls in an educational setting, professional environment for personal growth, or really all of the above. A growth mindset can lead to increased motivation, resilience, and achievement.

If you've adopted a growth mindset, when you face a mistake, you'll be more likely to be compassionate with yourself, objectively, look at what went well and what went wrong, and set realistic steps for how to overcome and continue your growth. Which really leads me to the next two point I'd like to make.

Building a strong self-compassion practice can be a useful tool for mitigating hypercriticalness and perfectionism. Self-compassion is a concept that involves treating yourself with the same kindness, support, and concern that you would a dear friend who was struggling with a bunch of difficulties.

Self-compassion is a great tool for counteracting the effects of hypercriticalness and perfectionism, and I'm going to share with you a few reasons why.

The first reason is reduced self-criticism. Self-compassion encourages you to be kind and forgiving of yourself, which can counteract the often harsh criticism that comes up in those with ADHD when they make mistakes. This can also help to counteract that like need to be flawless or to have the situation be perfect before getting started.

The second reason why self-compassion is helpful is actually increased resilience. By fostering a compassionate view towards your failures, your mistakes, what ends up happening is this self-compassion helps you to bounce back a lot faster. It's actually your criticism that slows you down.

The next reason why self-compassion is so great is that it can help you to embrace imperfection. Self-compassion helps you to understand that making mistakes is a universal human experience. This acceptance can decrease your shame and fear and shift the focus away from avoiding failure to learning and growth.

Self-compassion allows individuals to put their failures and their successes in a broader, more realistic context, and this can allow us to shift our focus away from I have to be perfect all the time to being able to view yourself across the spectrum and having an understanding that sometimes things go really well, sometimes they don't. And if I can look at myself across a span of time, I can see that I'm improving incrementally.

And lastly, I want to talk about setting realistic goals. I often fall back on the acronym of SMART goals for this, and I usually add in a few of my own Dr. J pointers, which I'll give to you as well.

The process of setting realistic goals involves crafting objectives that are challenging yet achievable. Here are the key components to ensure that your goals are realistic using the SMART acronym.

The S and SMART is for Specificity. Goals should be clear and specific and avoid any sort of vagueness. Being specific helps to focus your efforts and to be really clear on what you're going to do.

M is for Measurability. It's important to have your goals be measurable so that you have an idea of how to track your progress across time, and so that honestly, you realize when you've reached your goal.

A is for Achievability. So, goals need to be realistic and attainable. This means that you want to consider whether or not the goal is achievable based on your current capabilities and constraints.

The R is for Relevance, so you want to ensure that whatever goal you have is relevant to your broader life plans. When goals align with your values and just where you want to be going in life, this will increase your motivation toward that goal and lead to you working harder and being able to work longer at attaining that goal.

T is for Time-bound. So, every goal should have a deadline. This creates a sense of urgency around it and motivates us for action.

And then lastly, I want to give you my couple of Dr. J pointers that you can use along with the SMART acronym. The first one is to be flexible. While goals should be specific and measurable, if they're really rigid, this actually will get in the way of you accomplishing that goal. Life changes and your circumstances might as well. So, your ability to be flexible and to adjust your goals or adjust your timelines is necessary.

And being flexible allows you that space to make these changes without feeling like you're failing and understanding that I can make these adjustments without changing the core purpose of the goal.

My second tip is around positive framing. Framing your goals in a positive manner actually improves motivation. So, what this means is instead of having a goal like "Stop eating junk food," have the goal of "Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day" as that is a lot more helpful.

Incorporating these components when you go about setting your goals will actually create a structured path towards achieving them, it will reduce the likelihood of setbacks, and also enhance your satisfaction derived from the achievement.

In closing, I really just want to say that you may never feel good about making a mistake. In fact, it's really natural to want to do well. But where the issue lies is when we're unduly harsh with ourselves. My hope is by adopting a growth mindset, fostering self-compassion, and also setting realistic goals that you actually increase the amount of success that you achieve and learn how to be kinder to yourself along the way.

Thank you for joining me on this episode of "ADHD and." If you decide to try out any of these strategies, or you have any questions or topics you'd like us to address in the future, please let us know.

This show is brought to you by Understood.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org.

"ADHD and" is produced by Tara Drinks and edited by Alyssa Shea. Our video producer is Calvin Knie. Ilana Miller is our supervising producer, Briana Berry is our production director, Neil Drumming is our editorial director. Our audio engineer and music composer is Justin D. Wright. Our executive directors are Laura Key, Scott Cocchiere, and Seth Melnick. And I'm your host, Dr. J.

Hosts

  • Jaye Lin

    is an ADHD Coach, speaker, instructor, and podcaster.

    • Cate Osborn

      (@catieosaurus) is a certified sex educator, and mental health advocate. She is currently one of the foremost influencers on ADHD.

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