ADHD and perfectionism would seem to have nothing in common. While perfectionism involves being detail-oriented to a fault, lack of attention to detail is a classic ADHD symptom.
Still, ADHD and perfectionism often find themselves teaming up to wreak all sorts of chaos in people’s lives. What makes ADHD and perfectionism a disastrous duo is that perfectionism can exacerbate many of the negative effects of ADHD symptoms.
- Taking longer due complete tasks
- Ineffective time management
- Starting projects and not finishing them
All of these can occur as a result of the deficits in attention, motivation, self-regulation and organization that come with ADHD. But perfectionism can make all of these things worse.
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination or to not finishing projects because people become discouraged by their own impossibly high standards. Getting wrapped up in details extends the time required to finish tasks and sabotages people’s ability to allocate the right amount of time for different activities.
So why is perfectionism a frequent companion of ADHD? Saying that perfectionism makes ADHD symptoms worse explains what perfectionism does, but not where it comes from.
I think there are a few reasons why many (but not all!) people with ADHD have perfectionistic tendencies, including:
- Impaired self-regulation: Deficits in “executive functions” are a hallmark of ADHD. When people have trouble planning ahead and monitoring their own behavior, they find it harder to know what the appropriate amount of time and effort to put into something is – so they just keep doing it until it’s “perfect.”
- Perfectionism as a coping mechanism: People with ADHD tend to grow up being told that they should “try harder” and that they need to pay more attention to details. They wonder why they make so many “careless mistakes,” and they resolve that they need to be … more perfect. In an attempt to counteract their symptoms, they become absorbed in trying to get every detail right.
Given that some people develop perfectionistic tendencies in an attempt to cope with ADHD, it’s worth asking whether perfectionism is an effective coping mechanism.
I would argue that in many cases it’s not. When perfectionism comes from a place of thinking you need to try harder to not have ADHD symptoms, it’s not effective because no amount of trying harder will make ADHD go away. It’s just wasted energy.
The same is true when perfectionism is channeled into something that doesn’t yield any real benefits. If perfectionism is coming from a place of needing to be perfect even in tasks where good enough is good enough, I think it’s again just wasted energy.
You might notice that I’m hedging a little by not saying that perfectionism is always an ineffective coping mechanism. This is partly because what coping mechanisms work is different from one person to the next, and it’s partly because “perfectionism” is a somewhat vague term.
For example, someone with ADHD might cope with ADHD time management issues by setting three alarms for every appointment they have and always showing up half an hour early. You could call that a type of perfectionism, or even overkill. But if that person has a job that requires constant punctuality, who am I to say what works for them?
So my final thought on perfectionism is that it isn’t, in all cases, a bad thing, because there might be specific situations where perfectionistic tendencies can have a payoff for people with ADHD. More often than not, though, perfectionism that comes from a place of trying to compensate for ADHD is counterproductive, and it’s always something that should be critically examined – with the help of a psychotherapist if possible!