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How to Cope with ADHD and Perfectionism

Tools to turn down the noise of self-criticism and feel "good enough" every day.

Key points

  • ADHD and perfectionism can often co-occur.
  • With or without ADHD, perfectionism can be at times be adaptive—but more often than not, it limits people.
  • Using mindfulness can help shift focus away from negativity to noticing what works.
Source: Koldunov/iStock

Do you set unrealistic goals for yourself, fret about disappointing others, and compare yourself negatively to those around you? If so, you are probably like many other people with ADHD who struggle with perfectionism.

At times, you may want something to be right so much that it becomes difficult to start tasks, assignments, and projects, and complete them. In other moments, the desire to do something well motivates you to give your best efforts and helps you feel proud of your work.

Sometimes, though, trying to have things just right keep you overfocused on the end result, critical of what you accomplish, and never satisfied. It’s a cycle of aiming for personal excellence that increases anxiety. You’re tied to a negative, fixed mindset and expectations based on “shoulds” instead of focusing on what you actually can do, taking risks, and learning from your experiences. Deep inside, you may be walking around feeling ashamed and deficient.

The reality is that there is no perfection and aiming for it leaves most of us frustrated and unsatisfied. Perfectionism itself shares many similarities with ADHD. Perfectionists are often driven by the fear of disappointing themselves or others. They are “all-or-nothing” thinkers; if it’s not completely right, then it must be a failure. Setting unreasonable standards and constantly comparing themselves negatively to others are common issues for perfectionists, just as individuals with ADHD often compare themselves critically to neurotypical peers. Both perfectionists and people with ADHD tend to be sensitive to criticism and can be easily discouraged when they can’t complete goals.

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Perfectionists tend to over-focus on the end result, not the process of getting there. They discount the learning that’s happening along the way and fixate on the accomplishment. Without meeting the end goal, there’s a perception of failure. Low self-worth, sensitivity to feedback, defensiveness, and sadness stemming from incomplete goals are also common.

Perfectionism among neurodiverse folks is often a misguided effort to manage shame and compensate for cognitive challenges. Although it may have served you in the past in some way, for many people with ADHD, it becomes toxic and longer useful, keeping them stuck in negative narratives when new ones are needed.

Perfectionism is one way that adults with ADHD try to control outcomes, a fundamental aspect of managing anxiety. Living with ADHD means experiencing moments when you’re aware that you are struggling or have messed up, but you don’t necessarily know why or how to fix it. This develops into a persistent worry, “When is the next time I’m going to receive negative feedback when I wasn’t expecting it?” Perfectionism thus acts as an inefficient coping mechanism for managing anxiety related to disappointment (yours or someone else’s), insecurity, or embarrassment.

Instead, learning how to support yourself when feelings of discomfort arise, how to encourage yourself, and how to apply lessons gleaned from past successes to current situations turns down the noise of perfectionistic, negative self-talk. You shift towards making other choices that nurture self-compassion, self-confidence, and resilience and move away from focusing on the unreasonable standards you might be setting based on “Compare and Despair.” This is your path towards greater contentment and less stress.

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Folllow these tips to start the process of overcoming perfectionism. As someone with ADHD, you may want to try all of these techniques at once. But this is a journey that takes time and practice. Your perfectionism has served a purpose, but now you are ready to decrease its intensity and replace it with mindful, encouraging self-talk. It's tough to reduce this habit—so expect some challenges along the way.

Pick one thing that you’d like to start with and go from there:

  1. Build awareness: Notice when you are pushing yourself to do something perfectly or criticizing yourself for fumbling. Create one or two soothing, supportive phrases you can say to yourself such as, “It’s okay, I’m 'efforting,' and sometimes that doesn’t work out” or “We all make mistakes at some point. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person.” These phrases will help you talk back to the negative voice in your head so you can nurture your positive attributes.
  2. Shift focus: Look at what’s working instead of what’s not. Notice the good things that occur as much or more than the challenging ones. Instead of comparing your insides to other people’s outsides and assuming that everybody is better off than you are, recognize that these thoughts are simply untrue. Start to pay more attention to the things you do well. Write them down on a Post-It and put it on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror for daily affirmations. Examples include: “I like when I…,” “I think I do a good (or good enough) job at…,” or “I’ve never been perfect, and I’ve made it this far.” You can also create a voice memo or keep a journal of three things that went well, or three things that you liked about your day. It might be making an excellent cup of coffee, doing well on an exam, speaking up at a meeting, or showing up for a friend in need. Learning to enjoy small achievements is a challenge for any perfectionist.
  3. Accept mistakes: Learning is an essential part of living and it means stumbling, picking yourself up, and trying again. Sometimes you need to pivot; sometimes you just need to tweak what you are doing and try again. Be kinder to yourself when you’ve messed up or things haven’t turned out as you had hoped. Lower the pressure you put on yourself. Begin to practice mindfulness by using an app or taking a class. Notice the progress you’re making with self-compassion and remember not to say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a 10-year-old with a skinned knee.
  4. Develop techniques for accepting feedback: Nearly every day, somebody will give you feedback about your actions, your words, or your emotions. It’s a fundamental part of life. Instead of getting down on yourself when that feedback is negative or dismissing anything positive, try to accept what you hear with neutrality and grace. Acknowledge what the person is saying so they feel heard and pause before responding. Take the time you need to reflect on their feedback: Is there some truth to what they’ve said? Can you learn something and make a change? Are you denying a compliment? Circle back to them when you are ready.
  5. Set reasonable goals that reflect your capabilities: Use your own compass of meaning to assess how you are doing rather than apply unachievable standards of success set by others. Whether your parents want you to enroll in a major of their choice, whether your boss wants you to work 25 hours per week when you can handle 20, or whether you push yourself to join in cleaning the apartment when your research paper is due tomorrow and you don’t have the time, start to consider what you can actually handle versus what you think you should. When you set clear limits with others based on what you need or think is right, you’re much more likely to attain the success you desire.
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Remember that nobody is perfect. We all have our flaws and foibles—some are just more hidden than others. If you think someone is perfect, then you’re making a huge, false assumption. Underneath their seemingly perfect exterior is a person just like you with strengths and challenges, trying to be the best they can be. This holiday season, follow these steps and give yourself the gift of turning down the noise of self-criticism and feeling "good enough" every day.

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