When attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD ADHD) wreaks havoc in adults' lives, many try to regain control by being perfect. They organize and redo projects or have trouble letting go of small details until they are, well, just right. While these tendencies toward perfectionism may help you cope with small tasks -- organizing the cans in the pantry, say -- it often complicates their lives and causes you to be self-critical.
Joyce, 39, mother of two children, has ADHD and depression. Her ADHD drives her from one project to the next. She has to do everything perfectly or she feels she’s failed, causing her additional suffering.
Pam, on the other hand, has accepted the fact that her ADHD allows her to focus only on tasks that her quirky brain finds exciting. She decorates her rooms with colorful boxes to contain the clutter she finds difficult to tolerate, and plays music to help her get through doing the dishes. She has learned to set realistic goals depending on how much time or interest she has in tackling a task. While a touch of perfectionism in adults with ADHD may help them create better “to do” lists and develop a color-coded system for storing their sheets, overdoing it can cause them to suffer needlessly. How can you break an addiction to perfection? Here are some strategies that have helped Joyce and others.
- Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Take an inventory of your strengths. Try to organize your day around tasks that you are good at and that consistently bring results that you can live with rather than obsess over. Joyce learned that if she gave herself permission to be imperfect, she was more accepting of her work. She often began her day by looking in the mirror and saying, “You don’t have to be perfect today!” She made sure she spent some time making jewelry, where her perfectionism was an asset, and she was proud of the finished product.
- Keep your eye on the big picture. Ask yourself, “In the scheme of things, is this really what I want to be focusing on?” Set personal goals that are realistic, given your situation and value system. If you have four children, two of whom have ADHD, don’t consider buying an old farmhouse in the country that needs extensive renovations. Instead, opt for an easy-to-care-for home in a neighborhood with a supportive school system. For Joyce, taking the global view meant working on controlling her tendency to focus on what was out of place instead of her relationships. Now she is able to close the door on her son’s messy bedroom in order to live with him more peacefully.
- Live in the moment. Focusing attention on the task at hand requires a lot from those with ADHD. You won’t be good at it right away, but work on relishing each small step, and cheer for yourself as you would for a toddler learning to walk. Instead of reorganizing the entire kitchen, try to keep the sink clean, shining, and free from dishes. Next, you can move on to organizing the canned-goods shelf.
- Redefine success. Don’t always look at the end result, but ask yourself, “Have I done the very best I can do at this time?” Next month, or next year, you may do better, but accept that this is the best you can do now and give yourself points for trying. Before Joyce had children, she vacuumed her house every day. Each evening, she left the kitchen sparkling clean. Joyce’s children are now her priority, so if she gets the toys into the toy bin and the dishes into the dishwasher at the end of each day, she considers it a job well done.
- Seek professional help. If your perfectionism has become a stumbling block causing unwanted distress and wasted hours, it may be time for you to consider professional help. An ADHD coach can help you set realistic goals and deal with day-to-day tasks. More severe cases — or symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder — are best dealt with by a trained mental health professional.