When I think of “perfectionism”, my mind goes to ballet. It’s my favorite form of performance art, and I’ll watch any TV show or movie about it (looking at you, Center Stage). To me, it’s the epitome of strength and beauty wrapped up in tulle – a recipe for excellence.
But I know that ballet is hardcore, and many ballerinas feel immense pressure to be the most beautiful, the most technical, and the most perfect dancer. They get treated harshly by critical parents, directors, teachers and partners who demand greatness at any cost.
I think it’s truly wonderful to watch a ballet unfold on stage, but my mind always wonders about the dancers and how much pressure they’re under.
Why ballet? We’re talking today about perfectionism, and I think ballet is a classic example of it. It’s over-adherence to routine, rigidity, discipline, and impossible-to-attain standards. It’s an obsession with “best”, and it’s hours of work to get there.
How Do I Know I’m a Perfectionist?
If you can identify with the majority of the things on this list, you may be a perfectionist. I mean, this isn’t a clinical diagnosis – but a possibly.
- I won’t begin a task or project until I know I can do it perfectly because failure is not an option
- The end result is more important than the means to get there, and what I learn on the way doesn’t matter if I don’t achieve my goals
- A task isn’t done until I say it’s perfect
- It takes me longer to complete most tasks than others because they aren’t giving it as much attention to detail as I am
- I regularly compare myself to my peers because everything is a competition
- If I don’t achieve all of my goals then I will be a failure
- I don’t respond well to feedback because it feels like a personal attack on my character or my work
- I currently have 10+ goals that I’m trying to achieve
- There’s achievement, there’s failure, and nothing in between
Where Does it Come From?
Perfectionism doesn’t look the same to everyone, and it doesn’t all come from the same root causes. For some, it’s a desire to please an overbearing parent, coach or teacher. For others, it may be a message they’ve received from society that their worth is measured in their value to others.
A lot of people with ADHD align with perfectionism, and I believe one of the main drivers could be a lifetime of being told that if they just worked a little harder, they might live up to their potential.
How many of us got that report card over and over as a kid? “Great potential, needs to just…”, and then it’s pay more attention, work harder, focus better, stop talking so much. Honestly, I can’t recall a report card of mine that didn’t say something to that effect.
So, as kids, we raised our standards. We told ourselves that if we put in more hours we could achieve more. That if we just changed this behavior and that way of thinking, it would magically allow us to be the best version of ourselves.
We decided that the reason we don’t live up to our potential is because we aren’t trying hard enough to be perfect. That perfection will finally bring with it the praise we so rarely get, and so desperately need (and rightfully deserve!).
We spend so much of our time trying to hide our truest selves, because from early childhood that image was deemed “not good enough” by teachers, parents, and coaches. All of that adolescent pressure maybe led to a pattern of perfectionist tendencies that are making our lives harder as adults.
What Does it Look Like?
Not everyone will align with everything in the list above. From a very brief and very informal survey of the neurodiverse community, I’ve identified four ADHD traits of perfectionism.
I Won’t Start Things That Aren’t Perfect
I see this mentioned frequently by the people I follow on social media. I’ve experienced it too.
And of all the manifestations of perfectionism, this makes me the saddest, because it leads to the most missed opportunities.
This idea that we can’t start things because we either don’t know how they’ll turn out, or we just assume they won’t go perfectly our way, often keeps us from doing things we might really enjoy.
With ADHD, I believe it can come from constant frustration over feeling like nothing turns out right. From being told that our essay wasn’t good enough in class, to being told that our work isn’t good enough at our jobs.
Even with a huge amount of concentrated effort, we’ve spent so much time hovering around or below average because of the wrong approach, and it’s hard to shake that history. So, we decide that we’re not going to try anymore if it won’t turn out the best, because being anything less than the best feels terrible.
Otherwise, I believe it can come from an inability to identify the path we want to take. I talk a lot about how ADHD affects the memory, and causes difficulty in pulling up past events or emotions and re-using them for current situations. It also affects the ability to see the future, which can make planning difficult.
When we want to start a project, we don’t see a clear beginning, middle and end. We see a jumble of thoughts and ideas with no clear organization. So, it becomes easier to never start than to carve out the path because we don’t know that it’s going to go perfectly the way we want. We don’t know how to make it go the “right” way.
I Have to Be Immediately Good at Everything
Here’s how this one goes, if you’re unfamiliar: If I’m not good at something on the first try, then I’ve failed at it and I must give up.
I joke a lot about how I wish I could learn new skills from a five-minute movie montage. It’s silly, but I’m not really kidding either. I want things to come easy, and it’s not because I don’t value hard work. I don’t just want things handed to me because it’s easier that way.
It’s just really difficult for me to conceptualize the path it takes to get to proficiency, and it’s harder for me to stay on the path once I’ve started.
Most people learn in early childhood that practice is critical to learning any skill. On some level, I always understood that concept, but I couldn’t actually wrap my mind around how to do it until my 20s. Kind of a late start in life at, you know, working on stuff.
Practice entails routine and consistency, and with ADHD, neither thing comes easy, so we have to exert more effort than a neurotypical person might require. Imagine that with all things, all the time. It’s exhausting.
And those aren’t our only obstacles. Impulsivity can lead to the desperate need of wanting it right now; I must have it immediately, I can’t wait, it hurts to be patient. Difficulty with activation means just starting practice is incredibly hard. Trouble with memory means forgetting what we learned last time, and needing additional practice for it to sink in.
So, we tell ourselves over and over that maybe this time around we’ll try something new and won’t need the practice. We’re going to turn out to be a prodigy, and immediately be great, because the idea of practice over a long period of time is just too much for us to handle.
This of course is never the case, and we drop the new thing out of frustration and move on to the next. A pattern begins of avoiding anything new because perfectionism won’t let us.
The Details Are More Important Than Anything Else
ADHD is often a condition of control. Or really, an inability to control. We can’t control our attention or our emotions or our anxiety. We have the tools but we just don’t have the manual that shows us how to use them.
It seems counterintuitive, but there are a lot of people with ADHD out there who love details. I’m one of them! I’m very detail-oriented and I often struggle to see the big picture. I get so lost in the little things that I forget what they add up to.
I think this really comes down to a measure of learning what we can and can’t control. We don’t have very much control over other aspects of our lives, but we can typically control the small details because they seem easier to tackle.
We can move that icon six pixels to the right. No, back to the left. We can measure exactly one foot between pictures to hang on the wall. Hey that isn’t straight, let’s try again. We can compare paint colors for hours until we have the exact shade, or we can rewrite the introduction to an essay five or six times until it’s just the right balance of interesting and funny.
We can control and plan every detail, and we think that doing so will make the finished project perfect.
This is the life we live, with the assumption that perfection of detail is the only way to achieve perfection of finished product, so we get completely bogged down and forget what we’re working toward.
If I Don’t Achieve, I Am a Failure
I’m well aware how much the Internet hates participation trophies. It’s not so much a crusade today as it was around 2010, but people love to rant against handing out any kind of award to kids (or adults!) just for trying their best.
And their argument is always the same – that it will teach kids that losing is okay, and that mediocrity is fine.
This makes me furiously angry, because it predicates on the concept that there’s achievement, there’s failure, and nothing in between matters.
That’s a whole crock of bullshit and it’s helping turn kids into perfectionists with low self-worth.
Guess what? TRYING is ACHIEVING. You don’t have to be first place to have won something (hint: it’s called growth), and we need to stop telling children that their worth is based on being the best at anything.
Some kids are just okay at a lot of things, and they never quite win – whether it’s first in the class academically, or funniest, or prettiest, or best smile, or most creative. By only handing out awards to those at the top we’ve essentially told those children in the middle and at the bottom that they aren’t worthy of accolades. That only winning matters, and if you’re not first, you’re last.
Trust me when I say – that message will sink in, deep, and stick around for many decades. It’s hard to unlearn.
Toss ADHD into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a lifetime of perfectionist thinking! Because kids with ADHD learn early on that they’re “deficient” in some way, and they see their neurotypical classmates winning awards with seemingly no ease. So, they decide to work harder, harder than anyone else in the class, because they too must achieve to be worthy.
Well, That All Sounds Familiar…
If it does, I’m not here to judge, because I get it. I can tend toward perfectionism, especially after a lifetime of being told that if I tried harder and applied myself more, then I would achieve at the top of the class. That message really settled in during my formative years, and there’s still a big part of me that wants someone to pat me on the head and tell me I’m the best!
Unfortunately, taking perfectionism too far can lead to some serious issues. The amount of stress it forces you to place on yourself can lead to feeling of anxiety, depression, and obsession.
Striving to be something that isn’t attainable leads to unstable self-worth, and perfectionists tends to engage in negative self-talk on a very regular basis. Perfectionism is linked to disordered eating, insomnia, and self-harm.
And perfectionism doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Many perfectionists tend toward being workaholics who rarely take breaks, and recent studies have shown there is likely no link between working additional hours and achieving at a higher rate.
How Do We Move On?
Breaking the shackles of perfectionism isn’t easy because it requires a complete reframe of how you view yourself and your personal value. But I will do my best to offer some tips in Part 2 – coming soon!
For now, if you identified with this post, I’d like you to take a deep breath and repeat after me: Growth is success. Growth is success. Growth is success.
Have any stories about your perfectionism helping or getting out of hand? Come talk to me!