We all know a perfectionist, or maybe we’re the perfectionist ourselves. We witness their (or our) own antics that scream "perfectionist," but there's a lot more to this personality style than meets the eye. And more often than not, it's the result of something deeper than just a desire for things to be 'perfect'. Let's explore how perfectionism can develop in people with ADHD.
Too long; didn't read
- Perfectionism is when someone places unrealistic expectations on themselves with regard to performance, appearance, and people-pleasing.
- It's common for people with certain mental health conditions to have a perfectionist mindset.
- Perfectionism can cause someone to develop physical health issues, depression, and anxiety.
- People with ADHD may become perfectionists due to adverse childhood experiences or rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD).
- Accepting imperfection is the first step to overcoming a perfectionist mindset.
⚠️ Content warning: This article briefly mentions suicide, which may be triggering or distressing for some readers. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visiting their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
What is perfectionism?
The official psychological definition of perfectionism is "imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself." However, in some ways, perfectionism can be seen as a good thing – it means you have a motivational drive that comes from within and may help you reach greater success than someone who is not a perfectionist.
However, there is also a dark side to perfectionism.
Those who are perfectionists not only strive for everything to be perfect, but they also might feel:
- Feelings of failure
- Low self-esteem
- Decreased productivity
- Health issues
- Struggles with relationships
Mental health conditions linked to perfectionism
One of the most common mental health struggles linked to perfectionism is anxiety, which includes conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Studies show that people who suffer from anxiety also tend to have traits that would categorize them as perfectionists.1
As a perfectionist, you can get overwhelmed with anxiety by the need to do everything perfectly. The fear of failure is exceptionally high, which causes perfectionists to determine their self-worth only by what they can achieve.
This can lead to one of two extremes: either performing incredibly well in jobs and other task-based areas of life, or it can lead to crippling anxiety due to the perceived failure at the inability to reach their own standards.
Studies show that depression and suicide are linked to perfectionism. One study found that over 70% of people whose lives ended by suicide were known to have perfectionist tendencies. 2
Additional studies have shown that 30% of college students show symptoms of depression, and one of those symptoms included the drive for perfectionism in class. 3
Another mental health condition that has links to perfectionism is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
A study found that perfectionism was at the top of the list of self-reported cognitive distortions for those with ADHD.4 Often ADHDers set high standards or specific "rules" for how they can complete a task, which can lead to the inability to complete said tasks if the conditions and rules aren't met.
One example of this is when someone with ADHD feels they got a late start to their morning and, thus, do not have the perfect conditions to complete the tasks for the day and end up unable to do anything.
What is the connection between ADHD and perfectionism?
1. Previous negative experiences
Children with ADHD often receive more negative attention than neurotypical kids, likely because young ADHDers may be more likely to struggle with executive functioning skills at school and home.
Growing up in this way can cause ADHDers to develop in a way that conditions them to be a perfectionist to avoid the negative attention they received as children.
2. Rejection sensitive dysphoria
ADHD adults and children who have faced rejection in the past (or currently find themselves facing it) often experience it via criticism. This means that it becomes the child and child-turned-adult's inherent nature to strive for perfection to avoid further rejection and prove that the critical message they received was incorrect.
This is referred to as rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which causes significant emotional pain.
3. Task completion challenges
Perfectionism can work in favor of ADHDers when they're in a state of hyperfocus, but this need for perfection can quickly go from being a friend to a worst enemy when that focus goes away.
The pressure to complete tasks may help with motivation, but it will inevitably lead to burnout when the ADHDer gets overwhelmed by this loop of negatively-fueled task completion. They may feel as if they could always be doing better and struggle to find the time to reflect on their accomplishments and progress.
And when that burnout hits, it's trouble, and often leads to the inability to do much of anything as well as:
- Lack of productivity
Unfortunately, many of the traits that come along with ADHD are viewed by others as signs of immaturity.
Some of these traits are:
This can cause ADHDers to feel as if they're 'failing at adulting' and, thus, feel overwhelmed with concern about being judged by others.
The result? Masking.
Masking is an ADHDer's coping mechanism that causes them to hide the ADHD traits that cause them to feel less-than in such a way that they hope no one else can tell they're struggling.
Examples of perfectionism in ADHD
So what does perfectionism look like in ADHD?
Here are some examples:
- Playing the comparison game
- Negative self-talk
- Procrastination in an attempt to avoid failure
- Inability to ask for help
- Rejection sensitive dysphoria
- Feelings of failure
- "Should" mindset rather than accepting things as they are
- Blaming their lack of achievements on personal flaws
- Missing deadlines due to a need for perfection
- Impossibly high or rigid standards
How to accept imperfection
Whether you have ADHD or not, no human is perfect. We are all, well... human.
1. Adopt a growth mindset
How we learn and grow is to make mistakes, and such is life. This approach to living is referred to as having a “growth mindset”, a type of mindset in which you reward yourself for effort. This distinction may seem small, but it makes a world of difference.
Here's where a growth mindset shows its power:
Research found that those with a growth mindset (versus a fixed mindset that focuses on achievement) actually achieve more because there’s less pressure to please others, allowing them to focus on growth and learning processes.5 As a result, the need for perfectionism is stifling.
2. Practice compassion
Has there ever been a situation in which you were hard on yourself, and it ended up making you feel better? I'm willing to guess the answer to this is "no." However, we are taught to be kind to others, and it's time to turn that lesson to you and focus on self-compassion.
When you feel negative feelings or thoughts come in, try these things:
- Close your eyes to cut out distractions and think about what's making you so upset
- Put on calming music
- Go for a walk
- Call a friend or loved one
- Dance to your favorite song
3. Recognize your achievements
Perfectionism can cause us to put our blinders on when it comes to the successes we've had and instead always has us focusing on the next task we need to perfect.
Take time to look at your progress and give yourself credit, whether you achieved the task perfectly or not. Remember, you're growing and learning, and that's the most important thing.
1 Journal of Clinical Psychology | The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis
2 Archives of Suicide Research (ASR) | Shame behind the masks: the parents' perspective on their sons' suicide
3 Personality and Individual Differences | Why does socially prescribed perfectionism place people at risk for depression? A five-month, two-wave longitudinal study of the Perfectionism Social Disconnection Model
4 Psychiatry Research | Assessment of the relationship between self-reported cognitive distortions and adult ADHD, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness
5 Nature | A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement