Perfectionists Can Have ADHD, Too

ADHD perfectionism

To people who don’t truly understand Adult ADHD, it seems a ridiculous oxymoron: A perfectionist person with ADHD?  

Yet, the phenomenon is surprisingly common. I hear it among my friends who say, for example, that it takes them hours to write an e-mail. They want it to be “just right.”

As I emphasize in my first book, ADHD is essentially a challenge with finding that middle ground between over-doing and under-doing. 

I am happy to share with you this post on the topic from blogger Liz Lewis, who writes the entertaining and thoughtful  A Dose of Healthy Distraction blog.—Gina

By Liz Lewis

For the longest time, I tried to figure out why so many women hide their ADHD.  I’ve written about the reasons I hid my diagnosis (“Hiding My ADHD“).

It’s not just about being ashamed.  It’s about thinking you can “beat it”.  And some of us feel so unable to control our symptoms we start trying to control everything little thing.  This kind of thinking leads to perfectionism.

https://giphy.com/gifs/infomercial-light-edison-yKdrpe6OnaARW

Perfectionists Have Trouble Making Mistakes

More than anything, “perfectionists are rigid”, according to Adrian Furnham, D.Phil,  D.Sc., professor of psychology at University College London. In an opinion piece for the Telegraph, Furnham explains that perfectionists believe that “their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes…it’s all or nothing.”

It’s true: I am remarkably rigid for someone who lacks the ability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time.  My behavior also confirms Dr. Furnham’s statement that for perfectionists, “mistakes are equated to failure.”

As a person with ADHD, I take mistakes hard.  I want—in the worst way—to do everything perfectly so that I won’t be judged for my diagnosis.  The irony? In the past, my mistakes were pointed out to me and criticized fairly harshly; now I do it to myself.

Mistakes = Humiliation + Criticism = Shame  (In the mind of a person with ADHD.)

Traits Common to Perfectionists

I’ve done some reading on the subject of perfectionism, and these commonly associated traits resonated for me:

People-pleasing

I was always eager to please.  As a child, I told adults whatever I thought they wanted to hear.  You’d never find me arguing with teachers, parents, or anyone I considered an authority figure.  Many children with ADHD are just the opposite: They can become oppositional and argumentative.  I didn’t argue, I just tuned everything out.   

Procrastinating

It’s shocking, I know, to imagine this jumped out for someone with ADHD.

Criticizing Others

I used to be more critical of people than I am now.  The older I get, the more I want to understand other people instead of criticizing them.  In general, I don’t like to judge or hurt anyone’s feelings.

Having trouble sharing feelings

Oh geez.  I am so bad at talking about feelings.  I mean epically bad.  My husband could tell you stories about my inability to have difficult conversations.  I love getting to know others, but sharing myself is a weak spot.

I planned my wedding with as few witnesses as possible because I didn’t want to say, “I love you” in front of people.  If that’s not pathological, I don’t know what is.

Perfectionists Can Have ADHD

ADHD, Meet Perfectionism

I have ADHD, and I also tend toward perfectionism.  So where do the two traits intersect?

According to the American Psychological Association, there is a difference between “adaptive” perfectionism and “maladaptive” perfectionism.  In other words, you can be a perfectionist in a healthy way, or you can be a perfectionist in a very unhealthy way. (“The many faces of perfectionism”)

Examples of adaptive perfection exist is professional athletes and surgeons.  I’m not gonna lie. If a surgeon is working on me, I expect perfection.  A professional athlete I am not concerned about unless their training impacts their physical or mental health in a negative way.

Unfortunately, perfectionism for me tends to be more maladaptive.  It would stand to reason that I am not alone in this; I know other women with ADHD who appear to be perfectionists and exhibit some of the traits I discussed above.

How is perfectionism maladaptive?

The APA article explains that when you start to believe that perfection is how you attain social acceptance – that is maladaptive behavior.  Or if you put so much pressure on yourself to develop the perfect body that you go down the path of disordered eating – that is maladaptive.  I will confess I have been guilty of both of these maladaptive perfectionists tendencies in the past.

Again, I do have ADHD.  I still suffer with this urge to force myself into being perfect.  Achieving a perfect body, perfect home, and perfect credit score will make my life infinitely more satisfying.  Right?

Maybe, maybe not.  I have ADHD and I am a perfectionist.  And I am still learning and growing and changing.  (And hopefully providing some insightful information for my Tribe.)

What Do You Think?  Can A Perfectionist Also Have ADHD?

Why? Or Why not?

Can you overcome perfectionism?

39 thoughts on “Perfectionists Can Have ADHD, Too”

  1. I thought my ADHD was OCD for years. I would compulsively clean and organize my space, and would maintain it religiously. If someone came in and made a noticeable difference, I would get angry. I was also a people pleaser. People pleasing got me positive feedback so I did it all the time. Would get really depressed if I did something that shattered the illusion that I was competent or “a good dude”.

    1. Great (if painful) example of a common “poor coping response” to unrecognized/poorly managed ADHD, Devon.

      I’ve been torturing myself watching old episodes of “Hoarders” from A&E.

      I’m taking notes ….every time I see a huge ADHD Red Flag waving….and there are LOTS of them.

      If you know what to look for.

      Mostly, the show is just so painful to me. The people being publicly shamed, really, and given nothing but “hoarding therapy.”

      It might help some. But until and unless those OCD-hoarding specialist-psychologists acknowledge the existence of ADHD, many of their clients will relapse or just barely limp along.

      g

  2. Perfectionism is most definitely a part of my ADHD, but also not so much.
    My H component is very slight, so it is fair to say I am ADD. Being the youngest of 4 children, I was definitely driven harder by my father to get good grades, excel, and succeed, but not in a nasty way. He was mostly encouraging (to me). But my early school years are filled with those “he could do much better if he just payed attention” report cards. After the embarrassment of my mom coming every day to watch me do my homework in the school kitchen, and once I taught myself some tricks to cope a bit better with my undiagnosed ADD, I ended up going from Cs and Ds in 5th grade to almost straight As for the rest of my education. I liked school, and doing well was my own goal, but I have to recognize that is was somewhat driven by my dad. That’s the not so much ADD and I see it as the normally adaptive side of perfectionism.
    The maladaptive side of perfectionism is much harder for people to understand, and was hard for me to understand. What often looks like procrastination is actually a form of perfectionism. While I like a clean house and love when my garage is all in order, I often live with a mess. And I can’t count how many times I have said I’m going to clean up this or that, only to have almost nothing done after hours of staring at it. Part of the problem, beyond just ADD, is I want everything in its right place. So, if I have to spend a lot of time sorting things out, or think that’s what I will need to do, I can become emotionally paralyzed by just seeing that I can’t get to that level of “perfect” where everything is put away. Eventually I give up, and for years I very harshly shamed and criticized myself for my inability to get things done. I still do that, to some degree, though I am nicer to myself now a days. But I still get stuck in that internal spin of not being able to start because part of me knows I won’t be able to finish with the level of perfection I want.
    While there are many parts of my ADD that I embrace as truly what make me who I am, that inability to start, and also to finish, tasks/projects is the one piece I would surgically excise.

    1. Well articulated, Paul. I know you speak for many.

      I always remember my friend Holly-the-professional-organizer’s advice: Tackle one bit at a time, as small as one cubic foot, if necessary. 🙂

      g

  3. Hi,
    We work with many middle and high school students with ADHD. A certain percentage of them have “slow processing” speeds when evaluated by neuropsychologists. The “slow processing” is often due to perfectionism and underlying anxiety. Since many of these students have executive functioning deficits, poor organizational skills and perfectionism are a challenge for parents and educators.

    1. Hi Craig,

      A challenge indeed. And no doubt no two children alike, which compounds the challenge.

      Medication certainly helps many people, young and old, with all of those common ADHD-related challenges you describe. Then educators can actually educate. 🙂

      g

  4. Pingback: Селективний Перфекціонізм – N! думок

  5. So I look for other traits that can help me and I find another one that is causing causing trouble.. Just wow!
    Now I don’t really know if it’s truly a part of my personality or was a survival skill to avoid silly mistakes.

    Great blog.

    1. Thanks, Rafa.

      These human brains, tricky critters! Always keeping us guessing! 🙂

      best,
      g

  6. “It depends”! Another phrase that comes so often in my head. Much like other phrases I hear at ADHD gatherings.

    There are very few questions that people ask, where I will not be thinking, “It depends…”
    The problem often seems to be that, to others, there is only one possible choice between two possible outcomes. That has never been the case for me.

    If an action is an emergency and quick action is needed, the choice is what can you do now based on what you’ve learned, what you can see, what you have control over, and what priorities are in place and what goals do you hope to achieve. There are various ways to go through this. Processes and standards, are, and have been, formulated, whether in work or in the field, or in an emergency room. But life isn’t always an emergency. Choices aren’t always made based on best possible outcomes. Outcomes for who? Choices for who or what. What choices will result later? It goes on and on. I don’t get obsessed, but I do look for consistencies. Too often I see the inconsistent. The discrepancies between what is said to happen, and what actually does. The Human factors.

    Perfection. It does not exist. It’s a goal.

    For me, a goal of perfection is a necessary evil. If I don’t work towards that goal with total purpose, I make more mistakes, in the eyes of others, and occasionally to me People are great at catching my mistakes, even when I am doing quite well, with the things I am supposed to be doing.

    Yesterday, verbally, I lost my train of thought, as to my location in relation to where I was headed, (always just momentarily, and embarrassing, but rarely if ever substantial. Some people call them senior moments, but I look at them as, a thought that was recycled. It is part of a filing system that is ready to be accessed. Much like the stereotyped impatient, impulse control lacking ADHD person, the individual cards in this filing system can be impatient to get used, and may be verbalized without any real action, or real thought, taking place. Thinking out loud is a better way to view it. It occurs much more often when under stress or when wanting to be “overly” helpful.

    Part of it is my ADHD past and present. Overwhelm, makes it worse. trying too hard makes it worse, not trying or focusing enough makes it worse. Knowing these things may help, but knowing them also prepares me for knowing new mistakes will be coming. Past experience is hard to break. Those monsters who say “when you least expect it” understand ADHD much too well. Not a perfect scenario for a creating a confidence building perfectionist. But I can still try. And I am not alone, even when I feel totally alone.

    In Current ADHD Science, How does “It Depends” mesh with the black and white versus grey area views within those with ADHD and those without? The Extreme Human works for me, though I seem to have both clear cut areas, and grey areas. But, are there classifications or categories that are, more often, clear cut and others that are more often grey, for people who have ADHD. I’m guessing moral, value, rational, or critical thinking will be terms that come up. (Critical thinking is a term that, when used by some seems, to me, to say “my thinking is more critical than yours”, even as I do understand what it is supposed to mean).

    This may just be a thought question, rather than one with real answers… I hope your laughing, even though, I’m really asking.

    1. HI Paul,

      You never mess with the small stuff, do you? <3

      I’ve just completed three days of listening to very sophisticated presentations of very sophisticated ADHD-related science.

      The last comment made at the last panel was: “I think we should all remember that there is so much we don’t know and what we think we know might be disproven tomorrow. Meanwhile, we should not be overly convinced about our own research — and that of others.”

      Each human brain….a snowflake.

      No clearcut answers to each individual human snowflake.

      g

    2. ” trying too hard makes it worse, not trying or focusing enough makes it worse.”

      That’s the roller coaster. And yet it’s a bit worse. The other part is that it seems the track is always moving. Every time I go around the track it’s different.

  7. Hi, My wife laughed at me for being a perfectionist about something and at first it hurt. Surprisingly a lot. All these emotions just bubbled up. I had never thought about being ADD. As a kid I was told I was dyslexic, and my daughter is as well. ADD was never mentioned. I had all the usual problems in school. “If only he would apply himself.” I got a PhD because it just seemed like a good challenge, and just maybe I could prove all those people wrong. The problem was hanging onto a job. Maybe part of perfectionism is not being able to work with others. Or maybe it’s just a way to deal with all the other failures. It seems my emotions run everything and reason is always fighting to get a seat at the table. So I’m a really good cook, I roast my own coffee beans, when we remodel the bathroom I want an incredible design or I don’t want it at all. Anyway, after having felt so bad about my wife’s comment I started looking around and I came upon some descriptions of ADD. Wow. Some of it is incredibly spot on. I take forever to get anything done. There’s a pull on my motivation that I can’t control. I forget a lot. The mundane can create so much tension. But then I might be called organized because I do write everything down. I have to. I absolutely have to or I wouldn’t be able to get anything done. I also know if it’s important I should allocate about 5 times as much time as I think it will take because I know I won’t be able to finish it in one pass. The more I get stressed the more my mind starts racing so I have to make more time to do anything. I’ve also learned how to adapt to some things. Self medication of sorts. I exercise, not because I want to but I need to. I’ll get wound up and grumpy if I don’t. Aerobic exercise does wonders. Coffee is good too. Meditation and the right kind of music helps. Working on things I love to do keeps the emotions happy.

    All this realization has been in the last two weeks. I’d like to make an appointment to see if I have ADD but my fear is the docs will just say no and it will cost me a $1000 out of pocket. There seems to be a problem with diagnosing adult ADD. I look at the questions/symptoms and my answers are often “it depends.” If I have just ridden my bike 30 miles then my mind is cool and level. If I’ve just spent a week doing nothing and then I have no patience for relaxing or playing cards.

    But back to perfection. Perfection is just a form of hyper focus. It’s an emotion. Perfection yields a high dopamine payout. Until I can’t make it more perfect. Then it’s boring. And then it’s frustrating until I find something else. It’s like exercise. At first it’s easy to get the high, the brain drugs that soothe everything. So I keep exercising. The problem is I then get in shape and I have to push harder. Eventually I hit a wall. I hurt myself. I can’t figure out how to be more perfect. I crash. I lick my wounds. I try something else. Soon, I’ll find myself going down another rabbit hole.

    So yes, I believe ADHD and perfectionism makes sense. If it doesn’t, please tell me what it is that I’m dealing with.

    1. Hey Matt,

      My brain right now is full to overflowing with a ton of research and clinical information related to ADHD. It’s the last day of the APSARD meeting, the professional organization for ADHD researchers and clinicians.

      As I read your comment, the usual alarms are going off — but louder this time, the neurobiological explanations being very fresh on my mind.

      You are obviously smart. And self-aware. I think you really owe it to yourself to check out ADHD

      But please don’t waste $1000 on a clinician who doesn’t understand ADHD. Mental-health professionals represent a crazy patchwork quilt of bias and specialty that too often precludes evidence-based knowledge.

      Instead, read my first book. It will tell you everything you need to know about symptoms and comorbidities, what to look for in the evaluation process, ADHD-related myths and misconceptions, how CBT for ADHD presents the best therapeutic model, and how to bet the best results from medication.

      Amazon has discounted the book today to $17. It’s a steal!

      And, if you don’t like it, return it.

      http://amzn.to/2mygqkn

      But please don’t delay and don’t think you can “get it all worked out” in your head (perfectionist style) before making the first step.

      Good luck and please keep me posted!

      g

    2. I already ordered the book. I read all that was in the preview and, well, that was kind of a warm blanket on a snowy day.

      Thank you for making this website.

  8. Hey, thinking of pursuing a diagnosis for ADD – thanks for these posts. Diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder, but something is clicking for me with this. I hope this fills in the puzzle so I can actually break free from some of the cycles I think may have to do with ADD, or something similar. Being a perfectionist with how I express myself and not showing neediness or imperfection does not help with achieving the kind of connections one needs to get the actual supports in place.

    1. Hi Liz,

      I’m happy that my blog has you reconsidering your diagnosis.

      In the old days, we always knew to gather several medical opinions on an important diagnosis. Today, it can be difficult to get ONE psychiatric evaluation, much less several.

      The trouble is that some mental-health professionals simply do not have the in-depth understanding of how these diagnoses that might superficially “look alike” are actually very different.

      Too often, ADHD is misdiagnosed as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because the person avoids eye contact, has difficulty socializing, thinks in black/white or concrete terms and has trouble with gray area. But those behaviors (and more) can possibly be better explained by ADHD.

      More importantly, if the person actually has ADHD, these behaviors are much more likely to respond to medication treatment, compared to ASD.

      Yet, even with a correct ASD diagnosis, the ADHD component is often missed. That is, MANY people with ASD also have ADHD. ADHD treatment could help them, too, with some of their challenges.

      Good luck! Keep learning! Self-advocate!

      g

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