The American Psychological Association (2023) defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation” .
Joachim Stoeber (2018), a researcher on perfectionism, says that it involves a drive for flawlessness and extremely high standards, and notes it can affect motivation to do or achieve things – in many areas of life.
In this post, I’ll talk about how perfectionism can affect us (particularly as late neurodivergent adults) and what can happen if it is not addressed. As I research effective coaching for neurodivergent adults, there’s a bit of a coaching lens on this piece, but the information should still be useful to anyone wanting to reflect on where their perfectionism has come from, and how it could be holding them back.
Perfectionism in my own life
In my own life, perfectionism does not show up as much as it used to but it still presents a challenge to me. Before I received my ADHD and autism diagnoses, I was highly perfectionistic to the point that if I could not be 100% sure I would do something very well, I would not do it at all. Or, I’d expend huge amounts of time and brain bandwidth that I didn’t have spare on getting things right, making myself unwell in the process.
Moreover, my perfectionism was also linked with sensitivity to rejection, to avoiding interpersonal conflict, and to wanting to be liked and like-able. As such, I would try to do things perfectly and go over and above what’s healthy in pursuit of pleasing other people.
When I did some post-diagnosis therapy and coaching work, I realised that my perfectionism and people-pleasing tendencies were heightened when I was anxious. As my anxiety levels are currently well-managed, I experience much less perfectionism now. However, it is still there, especially if I get very tired or feel unwell, and it’s harder to be aware of and work through why I’m feeling what I am feeling.
Learning where your perfectionism comes from
In my coaching work, it is really common that later-diagnosed people tell me that they have perfectionistic tendencies. Moreover, since high perfectionism can affect motivation (and, therefore, lead to procrastination), we find that one of the first steps that can be taken before coaching or at the start of coaching is to first understand and work around the perfectionistic drive.
One of the first things it can be useful to understand about yourself is how you have come to be perfectionistic in the first place.
It’s so important to do this if you’re about to embark on coaching. Coaching is, ultimately, a process that’s focused on the future and growth. If you want your life to be different as a result of coaching, this depends on you setting your own goals and making self-chosen changes. If you cannot easily take action because you’re anxious about doing it wrong or upsetting people in the process, then motivation is affected, and tangible progress in coaching can be impacted (very understandably, and said with compassion).
We are all, to an extent, a product of our life experiences. We are particularly shaped by our early experiences and interpersonal relationships, and, unsurprisingly, perfectionistic tendencies are no exception.
Although I have not found the initial evidence behind his claim, William Dodson MD says that, by the age of 10, ADHD children have received thousands more negative messages about themselves and their ways of naturally being than their neurotypical peers do.
Even if the figures are not completely backed-up, many lived experience accounts confirm this trend – including my own. I received school reports that said things like “Becci is underachieving and letting herself down” or “Becci has so much potential if only she were less of a chatterbox and applied herself”.
I was also admonished for behaviours or tendencies that I would now associate with a natural part of being autistic or ADHD e.g. fidgeting, asking lots of questions, being often bored, and not displaying tact in social situations.
You can imagine, then, that developing a tendency towards trying to do and be the right thing for the adults around me was a logical psychological self-protection mechanism for me to develop. If I could just “do things right”, then people would not be cross with me. I could try to avoid conflict and punishment. I might even have a greater chance of being liked or accepted.
For me, perfectionism clearly arose as a way of me trying to keep myself safe, and have a better experience in the world. However, as I got my diagnoses and learned more about perfectionism in my coaching psychology studies, I could see that while the strategy may have served me when I was younger, it was no longer serving me as an adult approaching 40.
How you can start to work through perfectionism
So what can you do about perfectionism, and how much of that work is safe and appropriate to do within coaching?
Based on my own experiences, I found that discussing perfectionism with a neurodivergent therapist was really helpful. If you have trauma and/or difficult relationships and childhood situations that could be at the root of your perfectionism, processing what happened in a self-compassionate way can help you feel safer to try out things, learning to “fail safely”.
Speaking of failure…If we have become perfectionistic because of life experiences such as the ones I shared, we can end up feeling so terrible about ourselves that we become scared to fail. This can be because “yet more failures” just result in another assault on the way we see ourselves, confirming that we are the failures we thought we were, and that things can never be different. Another thing that you can discuss with a neurodivergent therapist is your attitude towards failure, why you fear it, and if and how you could begin to safely shape your own new view of failure, perhaps as an opportunity to grow as a necessary part of how humans learn.
If you feel that your perfectionism is impacting you so greatly that you avoid even small actions or smaller goals – even (or especially) ones that you truly would like to do – then my professional advice is to spend some time with a neurodivergent therapist before working with a coach if you can, as this can put you into a better place to make the most of your time with your coach.
If you experience high levels of anxiety and recognise what I said about perfectionism being heightened when anxious, taking steps to manage or get support with your anxiety can also be useful. This might involve medication or talking therapy or some combination of the two. This is, of course, down to personal choice, but I recommend getting some professional support in reducing your anxiety.
In the literature on perfectionism, it is also noted that perfectionistic people are at greater risk of substance-use difficulties. Let’s look at the use of alcohol here.
The role of substance-use challenges: alcohol
Alcohol can impact sleep and can promote feelings of anxiety. As such, unhelpful alcohol use can not only lead you to be in a place where you might be likely to feel more perfectionistic, but it can also render you less able to notice when you’re being perfectionistic, and less able to take action to work with those feelings in the moment. Therefore, it is beneficial to seek professional support for any substance-use challenges you are facing.
It is important to note that, unless you are working with a substance-use coach (they do exist), most coaches (including me) are not specialised to safely handle coaching goals specifically around substance-use. We can appropriately help you to plan for and goal-set around how you get the help you want with substance-use, but we should not be engaging in the deep therapeutic work about how the substance-use developed, or specialised strategies for reducing or eliminating it. Therefore, you may consider engaging a specialist therapist or substance-use coach before working with a coach on more practical and future-focused matters.
Working on perfectionism in coaching
It may be that, depending on your circumstances and budget, you are restricted as to what support you can access to help you with perfectionism. For example, the Access to Work programme may offer you funding for a coach to help you with practical work-related goals.
This means you may have the chance to get coaching and, rightly, want to make use of it, but you are not able to quickly access some of the specialist support outlined above which could help you to extract greater benefit from the coaching.
This is where working with a positive psychology coach can be helpful. While positive psychology coaches are not therapists, we are trained to work with the whole person, and can safely make space for working with some of the emotions and beliefs linked to perfectionism, using particular psychological tools and exercises to help.
Perfectionism can both affect how you see yourself, and can create how you see yourself. My experience is that if you are able to develop a more balanced and accepting view of yourself, you are more likely to feel comfortable to try out doing things, even if they might not go well. This is because if you should “fail” in trying something out, someone with a balanced view of the self is less likely to see that failure as a significant immutable and concrete reflection on their worth as a person.
If you are a later-discovered neurodivergent person who has received negative messaging linked to their neurodivergence, learning about who you are and your strengths, values, preferences and authentic, autonomous goals can be healing, and builds self-acceptance. This makes you more likely to detach your self-worth from external feedback and achievements. Positive psychology coaches are specialists in these topics, and as such topics are usually interesting and positive in nature, they are appropriate for working (somewhat indirectly) on perfectionism through coaching.
For this reason, it’s really common that the first portion of a coaching programme with me addresses the questions of who you are now, and what you choose for yourself going forward, based on who you are. And while this work may not seem very work-focused or goal-focused, I hope that this piece has convinced you of this: if you have goals for yourself, say, around executive functioning challenges at work. I can teach you many potentially helpful strategies and tools. However, if you cannot use them because you are too anxious to try in case you “fail”, then all of that learning we could do could be for naught. Therefore, workplace or goal-focused coaching for neurodivergent people often has to take a detour initially to support the later stages of the coaching journey to work well for you.
How to proceed when selecting a coach
If you are considering any form of coaching with any coach, then I would advise you to have a consultation with the prospective coach and mention perfectionism in that consultation.
Ask them if and how they can work with perfectionism, and discuss with them anything in this blog which would help you both to make a decision about what is appropriate and psychologically safe for you to work on at this time. If you would like a consultation with me to discuss these issues and what an appropriate self-development path looks like for you at this time, get in touch.
In this post, I talked about my own experiences of perfectionism, and what has helped me. I also mentioned what work you may choose to embark on with therapists and other professionals, and said that some of this work may be necessary before or at the start of coaching, in order to help you extract maximum value from it. Finally, I explained why positive psychology could be a beneficial approach, and what you can ask any coach who you are about to consult with when it comes to working with perfectionism.
To read more about perfectionism generally (albeit without a specific neurodivergence lens), this post might be useful.