Autism & Perfectionism

Perfectionism is defined as the need to be or appear perfect, or even to believe that perfection is possible. Although it is often seen as a positive trait that increases your chances of success, it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviours that make it harder to achieve goals. It may also cause stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Perfectionism can look like:

Setting very high expectations for yourself that are often unrealistic: you may expect 100% in an exam and whilst it’s always good to ‘aim high’ this is not always realistic.

Having a fear of failure and procrastinating due to this fear – you may have an assignment due and be so worried about failing that you don’t want to even start… I know I’m guilty of this!

Constantly checking for flaws and being overly critical of mistakes – you may spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting a 2 line email

Avoiding situations in which you may fail – you may avoid playing a game or trying a new activity in case you fail

Constantly needing to succeed and seek reassurance – you may find it hard to be happy for other people’s successes

Ever since I was a child, I have set unrelenting, impossibly high expectations for myself. My mistakes would regularly be met with tears and they still sometimes do, though I am learning. I can remember playing mini golf whilst on holiday with my family in Bermuda when I was 14… to everyone else it was a bit of fun but not to me. I flew into hysterics because I found it too hard and wasn’t doing well, consequently I was sent for a time out! During secondary school, I was that annoying student whose day would be ruined if I got anything below 80% on a test (and at times, I was even dissatisfied with an A*). I was, and still am a perfectionist.

The link to autism

Black & white thinking – a lot of us often feel our work is either perfect or dreadful with no in-between. This links back to the exam example which I previously mentioned – 100% is perfect and anything less isn’t good enough. Autistic people may struggle to see that although 98% isn’t perfect it is still a very good score.

Attention to detail – autistic people are very detail orientated so we’re naturally going to notice flaws. Our repetitive thinking pattern then means we think about this flaw over and over; the more we think, the more we desire perfection.

Social difficulties – many of us struggle with social situations and forming relationships. We may feel that others will only love us if we do everything right – we know that if we do something well we will be praised. We also find it hard to read social cues so we may not know what people think when we make a mistake – they could be judging us or disappointed – this uncertainty just adds to our anxiety.

Communication difficulties – a lot of autistic people find it hard to communicate. I can remember being in school at age 11, stuck on a comprehension question, everyone else around me working with no issues. I didn’t want to ask for help because not only would I stand out, I also didn’t know how. When asking for help is so hard failing seems even more scary.

Overcoming perfectionism

Keep visual positive reminders & remind yourself of them regularly: nobody is perfect, my mistakes don’t define me, I am good enough, making mistakes is human, it’s ok if someone doesn’t like me, no one is liked by everyone.

Set yourself deadlines if you spend too long on a task – for example if you are writing an email only give yourself 10 minutes to check instead of rereading over and over for an hour.

Keep a thought diary – write down some of your thoughts surrounding perfectionism – you could write down what time they were and what you were doing. This helps you become aware of negative thoughts so you can reflect on how helpful/accurate they are. You can also spot certain triggers – for example you may find your thoughts always occur in the evening or after a chemistry lesson.

Get some perspective – talk to someone you trust about your goals to see if you have realistic expectations. I often speak to my parents but it can be anyone from a friend to a teacher or colleague.

Look at the bigger picture – ask yourself these 4 questions: Does it really matter? What’s the worst that could happen? If the worst does happen, can I survive it? Will this still matter tomorrow? Next month? Next year?

Practice being imperfect – allow yourself to make mistakes so you can then get used to ‘failing’. Here are some ideas to try out: show up to an appointment 10 mins late, leave a visible area in the house messy, leave a typo in an email, wear odd socks, try a new restaurant without checking reviews, allow uncomfortable silences to occur. You will find that the consequences are not at all like you imagined!

Set priorities – decide which tasks are most important to you and focus on these first.

Be patient & reward yourself for small things – remind yourself that these thoughts won’t magically go away overnight… you are not a failure. I set myself little 5 minute tasks to do each day so that I always get that feeling of success. Rewards also help massively – I often schedule rewards into my calendar so I can look forward to them. For example, if I know I have an assignment to work on then I will schedule in time afterwards to watch Criminal Minds (my special interest).

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