A few years ago I took a fiber arts workshop. The teacher would show the class a new technique we could use to decorate a piece of cloth and then ask us to experiment with it for ourselves. As we tried each new process, sometimes the result would look good, and sometimes it didn’t. Most of us in the class didn’t care how a piece turned out. It was a way to learn, and we enjoyed experimenting. Unfortunately, the woman I was sitting next to had a hard time. She couldn’t start the projects and often spent 30 to 40 minutes staring at the blank piece of cotton before starting. When she did start to work, she made sure every line was perfect, every shade of color matched, and there could be no dripping or spotting. Her anxiety and frustration was palpable. As much as we all suggested she enjoy the process, she couldn’t. And after the 5 days of the workshop, we all went home with 7 or 8 pieces, and she went home with one.
I am telling this story to showcase an example of perfectionism. While perfectionism in some areas may not be an issue, and can even be advantageous at times, when it is coupled with anxiety, which is often the case for those on the autism spectrum, perfectionism can become a significant issue and a barrier.
In fact, many aspects of perfectionism seem to echo common autistic traits: strong attention to detail, hyperfocus, preference for things to be in order, love of rules, desire for certainty and fact, the ability to see and hear things which are out of place, and even the distress that it causes when any of these things are disrupted.
Perfectionism is generally agreed to be something that is part of one’s hard wiring, which means you can be predisposed to it. It is a complex trait and may or may not be considered a part of executive functioning, depending on the professional perspective of the person who is defining it. Whether it is or is not, the end result of perfectionism when it is paired with anxiety often mimics different executive functioning challenges, particularly the ability to start and finish projects. But I think it’s important to look closely at the underlying reason for the issue as the type of intervention used might be different if the problem is perfectionism versus another root cause.
Here’s an example of perfectionism and how it can be a complicating factor when thinking about executive functioning:
A student has a whole story in their head, but they are so anxious about getting their story down correctly with every word and phrase in polished form that they don’t even start writing. There is less of an understanding that writing or any creative idea is a process, and it is unrealistic to expect to write it perfectly the first time.
To an outside observer, this simply looks like the inability to initiate a task or procrastination, but this is a misunderstanding of why this is happening and does not address the underlying barrier that perfectionism and anxiety are causing. Here are some common ways perfectionism and anxiety can create an executive functioning issue:
- Why Bother Starting? Perfectionism and anxiety can bring on catastrophic thinking to the point where a person feels, “Why bother starting when I’m going to fail?” So often self-criticism can be louder than criticism from anyone else. And for some individuals on the spectrum, years of exclusion and judgement have become internalized. Perfectionism becomes the only perceived safeguard against more judgement, and the result can be that it’s better not to try at all than to fail once again.
- Abandoning a Project Because it Can’t Live Up to the Ideal. Sometimes a person may give up when they realize that the end result can’t possibly match the image in their head or meet their expectations.
- Not Knowing When to Let Go or Stop a Project. The ability to stop when something is good enough but not perfect can be terribly difficult. The person often sees flaws everywhere, loose ends, lines that aren’t straight, or words not as precise as they should be. There can be a nagging thought that things can always be better, and this can bring on feelings of inadequacy.
- Fear of Losing One’s Identity. For some autistic individuals, they may only worry about perfection on projects where they feel they have talent, expertise, or a strong interest. For example, if music is their passion, singing or playing a wrong note might be devastating whereas that same person might not mind writing a less than perfect history paper for which they have no interest and less aptitude.
When it comes to perfectionism, I know it’s hard to change a natural proclivity and internalized thinking, even working with a therapist. But if this has become a barrier for you, I hope you will keep in mind the following:
- Recognizing this trait can be a huge step in figuring out strategies to temper it into something more realistic. Use an outside consultant, friend, or parent to let you know when something is good enough and believe what they tell you.
- Finishing something can bring a sense of relief and accomplishment. Letting go of a task frees you to take on new projects that you can approach with new energy.
- Remind yourself constantly that very few things can be perfect. When you find yourself consumed striving for perfection, take a moment to put it into perspective. Suppose whatever you are working on isn’t perfect? What would the consequences be? In the vast majority of situations, the result would not be catastrophic.
- Don’t let the finished product you imagined hold you prisoner. Try to change your mental picture of the end result to something realistic that you can accomplish.
Remember that we are often our harshest critics. Find a supportive community that can give you honest and encouraging feedback and who appreciates your efforts. To someone else, your “good enough” is actually amazing.