Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Perfectionism and New Year’s Resolutions

Filed under:
Anxiety Perfectionism
Written by:
Nadia Hart
Counselling Psychology Practicum Student

Perfectionism and New Year’s Resolutions 
Written by: Nadia Hart, Counselling Psychology Practicum Student
Revised by: Melanie Reader, Manager, Psychological Services & Programs

“Happy New Year!” everyone screamed, as soon as the clock struck 12:00a.m. The family hugged and kissed each other warmly. Parker was already wearing their pajamas for a quick escape to bed. It wasn’t a school night, but midnight is still pretty late to stay up. A few minutes later, Parker lay in bed snug as a bug, while at the same time dreading what was to come the next day.

“What’s your New Year’s Resolution?” Parker’s buddy asked innocently on the phone the next day. 
“Hm. I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m going to make one this year” Parker answered. 
“No resolution? Come on Parker, it’s tradition. There must be something you want to do better this year. I’m going to try and score 90% or higher on all my math tests for the rest of this school year. How about you?” the buddy persisted. 
“Ok, I’ll do the same.” Parker responded reluctantly. 
“Fantastic! We can track each other’s progress and compare test scores. It’ll be great!” Buddy said enthusiastically.

However, Parker was not enthusiastic at all. Parker Perfectionist was already starting to feel the pressure. Parker started worrying about what would happen if they couldn’t achieve their goal; Buddy might not want to be their friend anymore, they might fail the math class, and never earn a high school diploma. Parker decided to play some video games, so they wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

Perfectionism is a mindset or a set of beliefs that can turn into rules for living. Perfectionism comes from pressure to meet expectations and is often motivated by fears of failure. That sense of failure is often defined by rigid, all-or-nothing thinking. Parker Perfectionist might think “If I score less than 90% on my math test, then I failed”. Perfectionism wants us to think that a single failure defines who we are, rather than thinking of that failure as a disappointing but one-time occurrence. Perfectionism makes us criticize ourselves and worry constantly about failure.

So what can Parker do to manage their Perfectionist? First of all, Parker needs to set a more realistic goal. Yes, achieving 90% or above on all their math tests would be amazing. However, who among us could realistically achieve that? And does Parker need to achieve that? Where did that 90% benchmark come from anyway? And why is 90% so important? Parker looked at the score on their most recent math test. It was 68%. A more realistic and helpful goal for Parker would be to focus on developing a growth mindset. This new focus works towards progress, instead of perfection. Parker’s Perfectionist wants them to see less than 90% as a failure, whereas a growth mindset would see it as a temporary setback and an opportunity to learn from errors.

One evening after dinner, Parker sat down to review their math lesson from that day. This was a smaller step Parker committed to doing, along with working on their growth mindset. Parker looked at the numbers on the page. 180 degrees in trigonometry made Parker think about turning 18 years old, and what a failure they will be after high school if they can’t score 90% on this test. Hold on! Pause! Parker’s Perfectionist was taking over!

So how can Parker combat the Perfectionist? The first step is just recognizing when the Perfectionist is having an influence. When the Perfectionist demands perfection, it can create a lot of anxiety for its host. It is expected that people have big feelings around things they care deeply about, like achieving desirable grades. However, youth with ADHD or Learning Disabilities may experience increased levels of worry because of the way their minds are organized and their past experiences in school. Parker can acknowledge these feelings, permit these feelings, then gently push their focus back to the task at hand for whatever time remains in the 15 minutes. 

Sometimes the Perfectionist whispers unwanted and unhelpful messages to Parker, like “You’re gonna fail” or “You can’t do this”. Parker can try replacing those whispers with more encouraging messages, like “I can get through this” or “I will complete this 15 minute task”.

Before Parker knew it, the 15 minutes were done. They had done it! They had committed to 15 minutes of math review after every school day, and they had achieved it today. Even though they didn’t get as much review done as they wanted, Parker still celebrates finishing this small step towards achieving their goal. 

Progress will not always be forward. For youth with ADHD, the ability to complete tasks effectively changes from day to day. For example, procrastination can be an ongoing struggle. Some perfectionists will procrastinate to delay the possibility of failure, which can add to the struggle.   It can also be extra challenging for a person to persist when they are grappling with a task because of a Learning Disability; the perfectionist will ask “why even start?” However, progress can be made with small steps forward. The more Parker does his 15 minute review, the easier it will generally get. It is important to notice and reward these small steps in the desired direction. By noticing more accomplishments, we become more flexible in our thinking and may start to develop some more helpful thinking habits.

Perfectionists can sometimes get stuck in a loop where a person believes their performance determines their self-worth, and their self-worth is determined by their performance. A shift is required to help perfectionists see their efforts through a growth mindset; to replace their negative messaging with encouraging self-talk; and to notice and celebrate small steps forward. By recognizing when the Perfectionist is present and how it is hijacking our thoughts, the Perfectionist can begin to have less of an influence. 

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