Tips for ADHD Creatives: Part 5 – Optimism and Perfectionism Go Together

People who procrastinate tend to be overly optimistic about how long things will take. Its not that they don’t think about the time, it’s just that they tend to expect things to go well. I’m often late to appointments, because when I think about how long it takes to get to my psychiatrist’s office, I only remember the times when there was no traffic, the lights were all green, and I got there with a couple of minutes to spare after leaving late.

This kinda makes sense, because technically that is the most accurate example of how long it actually takes to drive there, but it still makes me late. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to take that best-case scenario I came up with and tack on extra time for dealing with potential traffic, but that optimism also applies to my memories of how much the traffic could slow me down. I remember that one time I got stuck in traffic and was still only five minutes late, not the multiple times when I missed my appointment entirely due to a complete standstill on I5.

I think that the perfectionism that often comes with ADHD can be linked with this misplaced optimism when planning. When we look ahead, we often envision how everything should go, not how badly it might go. When we think about a project, we think of how it should turn out, and don’t leave ourselves much room for error, or even just for being human beings with human limitations. “Good enough” isn’t a thing that ADHD life primes us to celebrate, even though good enough on a consistent basis can be so much more powerful than occasional perfection.

When I think about doing a good job on a project, I envision perfection, not my personal best work, and certainly not my personal norm. My personal norm involves difficulty with focus, annoying nausea, rushing to finish things that I forgot, being extremely tired because of lack of sleep, and responsibilities to other people. It’s messy.

My personal best generally shows when I get lucky and none of these things wind up impeding me. Those days are my commutes without traffic. They’re the shining image of productivity that I hold up in my mind when forming expectations, optimistically believing I can duplicate that experience whenever I need to, even though many potential complications are actually out of my control. Life happens, and ADHD itself frequently makes the roads to success more trafficky. It causes accidents that can block progress for the rest of the day.

I believe that the excess of negative reinforcement that ADHD kids tend to receive contributes to this underlying belief that only perfect outcomes are worth considering. Our personal best sometimes looks a lot like the bare minimum to neurotypicals, which means we don’t get much praise for even our most extraordinary efforts. The people around us can’t always see that effort, and the results alone may not impress them. They only see that we didn’t do as well as they expected. Instead of praise for doing what we could, we frequently face nitpicking and corrections. This encourages a belief that only complete perfection will ever satisfy our parents, and later-on our partners and friends.

If our very best wasn’t good enough for others, why should it be good enough for us? Sure, we could say “screw them and their negativity” but that’s simply not how people work. We’re not designed to ignore that kind of conditioning, especially when we’re young, but even as adults. We’re likely to either give up, because we can’t do better than our best and our best wasn’t good enough, or to chase perfection till we fall apart. Often, we wind up swapping between those two, because perfectionism is exhausting, but you’re just not allowed to quit being human and become a cat.

Another aspect of this constant negative reinforcement is that we’re basically taught to ignore limitations like lack of sleep, trouble with focus, and other legitimate struggles. When we’re constantly being told that we’re lazy and just not trying hard enough, what we’re learning is that nothing is ever a reason to fail. When being tired, confused, uncomfortable, or unable to find vital materials is never accepted as a roadblock by the people around you, you learn to just not think about what might go wrong. Why should we, if it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop having problems, and they’re not really acknowledged by the people judging us? It’s not a realistic way to engage with the world, but it’s a potential side-effect of perfectionism. We just don’t consider our own limits, because our limits have never been respected or acknowledged. Under those conditions, thinking about worst-case scenarios doesn’t feel like productive prep-work, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack.

A final example of all this in action: I wound up writing most of this post at 2am on Thursday and then finishing it Friday night, because I didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours to wrap it up. That’s how long it usually takes me to edit a post when I have most of my thoughts on the page in advance, I’m very focused, and nothing pulls me away from the computer. It is not how long it actually takes me on average to finish a post, but my brain refuses to accept most of that imperfect data. It’s tainted by all those other factors. Even when I’m literally writing a post about this phenomenon, it still gets me.

Edited to add, because I got a bit carried away and forgot to actually articulate the tip: I guess the point here is really just to consider what might be affecting your expectations, and try to compensate for that with better context and more self-compassion. You’re not wrong for struggling, and the things that stop you are legitimate and worth considering. Both your best and your norm are good enough, and being able to live with those standards will take you much farther than perfection ever will.

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The last part for my desk arrived, and it is now officially finished. This is the knob for that shallow center drawer. I felt like it needed something a little fancier than the rest.

Writing days this past week: 2

I’ve Decided Not to be Afraid Anymore

At least, not of creating things. Heights and ants will probably always freak me out. (Don’t judge me. Ants are so creepy.) I am sick of letting the chorus of negative voices in my head have a say about what I do, though, because I really can’t do anything well enough for them. They are literally never satisfied, and they never will be, because they don’t actually want me to improve. They want me to stop. Doing nothing with my interests and talents is a shitty option, but it’s the only thing that keeps those asshole voices at bay.

This is a process, obviously, because nothing ever happens overnight, especially major changes in self-image and behavior, but I’ve been working on adjusting the way I think about myself. It’s one thing to remind myself that I have a right to mess up, and I do, but it’s another to tell myself that I’m already someone who can handle that. “I think I can” is different in impact from “I’m already there, and need to keep moving.”

It’s okay to be confident. Lots of people know that, and live it, but I haven’t. My experience was that any time I felt confident about any aspect of my life, I got smacked back down by someone, or reminded that I had messed something else up. It hurt, and it made me wary, because learning from the past is part of what makes us the really successful monkeys that we are. But, I don’t want my future to just be more of my past, so I’m telling that adaptable part of me that it needs to adjust its expectations accordingly. It doesn’t work so well with hopes and dreams for the future, but it kinda gets the here and now, and it really lives in the past. So, I’m changing the material it has to work with, slowly, one thought at a time.

I’m someone who can handle making mistakes. That’s true. I’ll probably still remember them sometimes when I’m trying to sleep, and cringe, but I really believe that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I want to do things with my life that are worth embarrassing myself over. I’ve only got the one life to work with, and I’ll be damned if I’m willing to waste it for the sake of people who haven’t got my best interests at heart, trying to reach standards that were only ever designed to be impossible.

“Done” is so much better than “perfect.” “Perfect” is a fantasy, but “done” is right there, waiting for us to get around to it.

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Dogs have it all figured out. Be as goofy as possible. Lie around in the sun. Cuddle with the people you like. Bark at the ones you don’t until they go away.

Writing days this past week: 3