Perfectionism has been and still is a big obstacle in my life. A big eye opener was learning about how perfectionism is caused by and intricately linked with shame, not ego. Much has been written on this most popularly by Brené Brown. For this post, I want to focus on one angle of perfectionism from my own experience and how I think it relates to ADHD-style minds. There are many different causes and layers to perfectionism and its close relative procrastination. I'd wager that the bulk of it has to do with shame caused by other people. Negative messaging in childhood and beyond gives a sense that mistakes aren't acceptable. "If I don't things right I'll be criticized and judged or let people down." I have plenty to write about that aspect in the future. For now though, I want to focus on procrastination that has less to do with other people and is more self-driven.
"Just turn in the homework! It's good enough!"
My mom reminds me of how when I was in grade school she would get so frustrated with me because she would find completed homework of mine rolled up in the trash. She would ask me about it and I would say that it wasn't good enough. She would ask "Even if it's not perfect wouldn't you rather get a B than an F?" My answer has been consistent - No I'll take the F. Throughout school and into university, I had this problem of preferring to turn something in late or not at all when I had something I could have turned in.
For the most part, however, the sense of shame that I had to do better didn't really come from teachers or parents. It would make more sense if I had the stereotypical tiger parents who were critical of anything less than perfection. I wasn't comparing myself to other students or siblings, the problem is that I was comparing myself to myself.
For me having a chaotic mind is part and parcel of ADHD. This might be more true for those of us with impulsivity and hyperactivity. Because my mind is all over the place I know when ideas are flowing and I can think clearly. I also know when things are not clicking. Unfortunately, it feels like the moments of brilliance are rare in comparison to racing thoughts, distractibility, or mental fatigue. It's highly frustrating to work on something when I know I can do better. It would be easier to accept struggling with something if I didn't have clear examples that sometimes I can be great at it. This is where procrastination can come in. When being at my best seems out of my control it is very easy to put something off when I know that I'm not doing something to my own standards. It's a poor plan of waiting around for random surges of clarity and feeling guilty the longer it takes. Procrastination can also be a vicious cycle if it leads to overcompensating. When a project takes longer than it "should" the thought that, "If it's taken me this long to get it done, now it has to be great" starts to creep in which then leads to more perfectionism.
This blog post is perfect, right?
I'm writing this because it has been coming up a lot for me, specifically about writing for this blog. I have so many ideas on mental health, ADHD, and life in general. I've spent so much of my life pondering and trying to understand myself and others. Now is the time that being in my head so much is supposed to pay off! After I get my ideas down on paper I go to read them back and get frustrated because I know I can explain them better or clearer because I have before. So instead of staring at my collection of almost done posts and waiting for moments of perfect clarity to finish them, I wrote this instead! Another part of writing this is to put it out there that my writing won't always be up to my self-critical standards. It's time for B's instead of F's!
This type of perfectionism is tricky to work on because the shame comes from within. It doesn't matter if other people tell you that you did the thing well if you feel that you are letting yourself down. It is very easy to deflect compliments. I am still working through this myself but I do want to wrap up with some positive approaches for anyone that can relate to this.
The first is to challenge the assumption that you should always be at your best. Some radical acceptance that your brain is not as consistent as you'd like it to be and that your results may vary. Next would be to try and notice when you are avoiding something because it doesn't feel like you can do it. Is it that you cannot do it all or is it that you cannot do your best? Practice sticking with things to at least make slow progress even when you're not firing on all cylinders and manage expectations of the result. "For how I'm feeling today I at least got something done even if it's not the best". A different approach is to look at those moments of brilliance a little closer and see if there are ways to recreate them more often. Maybe they happen more on a full night's rest or in a certain environment. You may not be able to channel them at will but with some digging, it's possible to set yourself up to catch lightning in a bottle more often! And finally, a shameless plug: figuring out what works for you is easier with a coach!