Emotions & Shame

“My Fear of Failure Becomes Paralyzing Perfectionism”

“My perfectionist tendencies mean that I overthink and find it tough to start tasks. Sometimes I feel paralyzed with stress. Then it takes me too long to get stuff done. Inevitably this leads to more stress.” 

Getty Images/PM-Images
Getty Images/PM-Images

It’s healthy to strive for excellence, but setting impossibly high expectations to achieve perfection isn’t. And people with ADHD, thanks to a lifetime of personal and professional disappointments, are prone to perfectionist tendencies that end up perpetuating an unhealthy cycle.

They engage in all-or-nothing thinking: Nothing is good enough, or they are so overwhelmed with doing something perfectly that they do nothing. It’s a vicious cycle only worsens feelings of shame, failure, worthlessness, and anxiety.

Perfectionism manifests differently in each person. Here, ADDitude readers share their most prominent traits of perfectionism.

Which perfectionist tendencies cause you the most trouble? Share your stores in the Comments section below.

How Perfectionist Tendencies Manifest in ADHD Brains

“My successes are never due to me, but to a situation. I was promoted because I was in the right place at the right time and not because I worked hard. Failures, however, are all my fault. For example, if I failed a test, it was because I’m not good enough — not because the test was hard, and I did my best.” — Anonymous

[Free Resource: 9 Truths About ADHD and Intense Emotions]

“I hate that any time I receive anything remotely sounding like criticism, it’s like a nuclear bomb goes off in my sternum. I feel dejected and demoralized even though I know what was said was not meant to be harsh or demeaning. I know I overreact, yet I can’t stop the emotions.” — Anonymous

“I want my writing to be insightful and well-crafted even in an email. So, I can easily spend an hour writing one email when I should have answered 20 or more messages.” — Anonymous

“I have very low self-esteem. But if you see me in person, you’d think I have all the confidence in the world. I walk as if I am untouchable and do not want to be approached.” — Anonymous

“My perfectionism is such a bummer. It impacts my relationships because no one can ever do things how I like them. Even when I do things, I am so exhausted by my own standards that most of the time I fail in my own eyes.” — Anonymous

[Self-Test: Do I Have ADHD?]

“I always find little imperfections in my painting that someone else would never notice. Painting is supposed to be an outlet for me, but I get so anxious about selecting the ‘right’ colors or doing the ‘right’ technique that sometimes it just doesn’t get done.” — Anonymous

It feels like a double-edged sword. I need to please everyone, and the sense of purpose can be a dopamine hit. But then it can become mentally taxing when things fall apart.” — Anonymous

My perfectionist tendencies mean that I overthink and find it tough to start tasks. Sometimes I feel paralyzed with stress. Then it takes me too long to get stuff done. Inevitably this leads to more stress.” — Anonymous

I don’t set reasonable boundaries to stop working. This results in neglecting my health and well-being. I stay up too late, eat a poor diet, hardly exercise, and negatively self-talk. Since I don’t get nearly enough sleep, I sleep in until the last minute, which makes me late. Then I have to make up excuses. All of this is a never-ending cycle.” — Anonymous

“I was extremely self-disciplined and held myself to high standards throughout most of my education. This meant bullying myself into studying, doing chores, and participating in social situations. My self-talk has improved, but I’m still working on remembering that it’s okay to do ‘great’ instead of ‘100% perfect’ all the time.” — Anonymous

“I find myself wanting and needing to do more, yet I never feel like I accomplished enough during the day. My to-do list never ends because I can’t say ‘no’ enough.” — Anonymous

“I get stuck in a loop of what I should have finished instead and how I should have done it vs. what I actually finished. After years of not ‘finishing’ anything from homework to chores to simple work tasks wear me down, I’m desperate to finish anything — but it’s just never finished enough or good enough.” — Anonymous

“It took me seven years to take all of my architecture license exams because I was afraid of failing. Most people finish taking the exams in two years.” — Anonymous

Perfectionist Tendencies and Fear of Failure: Next Steps

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