“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is good advice for ADHDers, many of whom try to be perfectionists. People are always telling us what we did wrong and what we missed — “You need to pay more attention in class” or “What the heck is wrong with you? I just told you what to do” — so we strive to do things perfectly, hoping to be praised or patted on the back. Trying your best is always a good idea, but when you spend too much time trying to achieve perfection on things that don’t require it — because we yearn for that pat on the back — it backfires. We miss a deadline and are criticized, or we don’t have time to do things we said we would do.
Perfection Has Its Place
A good first step in dealing with perfectionism is to recognize when we set our standards so high that we can’t meet them. The result is disappointment, anxiety, stress, a negative attitude, and loss of motivation. If you have trouble meeting your own standards, and feel frustrated and angry, it’s time to set more reasonable ones and be selective when you want to be perfect. If you are applying for your dream job, you want to “perfect” your cover letter and resume. If you are sending out a memo to remind people to clean up after themselves in the break room, a misplaced comma isn’t a deal breaker.
I sometimes get bogged down in the details of a task and worry about doing a good enough job, when the most important thing is getting it done. When I catch myself obsessing over unimportant details, I stop and ask myself the following questions: “Does it really matter?” “What is the worst that could happen?” “If the worst does happen, will I still be OK?” “Will this matter next week or next year?” This calms me down, and I am able to work without my inner critic shouting in my ear. My clients have found other ways of dealing with perfectionism.
Marjorie was stressed and disappointed at work nearly every day. She complained about getting started or finishing projects that she should have been excited about doing. She was particularly stressed about a performance review that was coming up, and feared that she would be put on a performance improvement plan (PIP). When I asked her how the review went, she said there were a lot of things she could have done better. She said she wasn’t put on a PIP yet, but she was sure she would be because of her poor performance.
To make sure she focused on the parts of her job that needed improvement, I had her bring in a copy of the review. In many areas, she scored 5 out of 5. Her lowest score was 3, and there were only a few of those. It was clear that being average was not good enough for Marjorie, and that she needed a perfect score to be pleased with herself.
I asked her if she thought her standards were too high, getting in the way of enjoying what she is good at. I suggested that she was expecting too much from herself. She agreed that her anxiety made her work less enjoyable and put a damper on her motivation. I explained that perfectionism causes us to distrust others, because we think they can’t do as good a job as we can do, and prevents us from trying something new (because we are afraid of making mistakes).