Positive-striving perfectionists use their perfectionism as positive traits to increase their chances of success. Self-critical perfectionists are failure-focused individuals who worry about flaws and feel inadequate despite their achievements. Stressed, anxious, self-critical perfectionists procrastinate before they work, and worry as they work, bullying themselves and seeing mistakes as signs of failure rather than learning experiences.
Humans are imperfect, as is everything we create. This knowledge, though obvious, doesn’t stop me and other self-critical perfectionists from striving to never disappoint or make mistakes, to always and only produce A+ work. This behavior cost us our own wellbeing. I’m thinking of burnout, a common theme of neurodivergent discussions. Burnout is also a common theme of professional discussions, especially on LinkedIn, where people of all neurotypes gather to talk about their professional lives. Perfectionist tendencies contribute to burnout.
Perfectionism feels like addiction. I constantly think about making mistakes and look for them in my work, and assume other people are also thinking about my mistakes, though I often later learn that no one else cared about them, if they even noticed. “You’re losing sight of the goal” a friend recently said after I pointed out a typo in a piece of my writing that had been nominated for an award.
Quitting perfectionism is challenging in part because I’m neurodivergent. My divergent mind spots details with ease, but sometimes the details that interest me most in my own work are my mistakes. I ignore compliments and seek negative feedback, searching for meaning, clues that I could have done better, though the negative feedback I receive is often just as empty as the positive feedback.
Perhaps I’m conditioned from years studying and teaching in creative writing classrooms and communities, which center feedback models. Though I also live in a society that pathologizes my mind, treats me as other, abnormal—though abnormal people have never existed and will never exist because normal people have never existed and will never exist. Yet society continues to spread the lie that one type of mind is “normal” while pathologizing divergent minds, not unlike when society spread the lie that there is one normal style of sexuality “normal” while pathologizing, even criminalizing, queer people.
Self-critical perfectionism largely stems from childhood trauma. I, like many neurodivergents, am traumatized by a society that treats people like me as if there’s something wrong with us. Many neurodivergent people are perfectionists for this reason—the undue pressure placed on us by a society that sees us as disordered simply because we aren’t neurotypical.
Neuronormativity is why many neurodivergents—dyspraxics, dyscalculics, ADHD, dyslexics, Autists, dysgraphics, etc.—spend our entire lives hearing corrective statements. Therapists might say we struggle with socially-prescribed perfectionism, that we’re socially conditioned to impose high standards on themselves. Before we accepted ourselves, before we step into our atypical identities, we commonly believe these corrective statements, internalize them, then try to reshape ourselves into people who will never garner negative attention. Meaning we attempt to turn ourselves into neurotypicals until we learn we can’t and don’t need to.
Finding community with people who think like you is one way to step into your identity. When I heard a neurodivergent writer blame their typos on their hyperlexia, I, who am also hyperlexic, became more accepting of my mistakes. No one benefits from imposing unnecessary restrictions on themselves, especially people from marginalized communities. Society imposes enough restrictions on us. Negative self-talk, which drives self-critical perfectionism, amounts to a set of self-imposed restrictions, which are optional. Here are healthier options:
• Accept your mistakes, viewing them as learning experiences or shortcuts.
• Replace negative self-talk with compassionate self-talk.
• Write a list of your skills and accomplishments.
• Strive for A- work.
Striving for A- work is a concept I learned from the podcast Unf*ck Your Brain, hosted by Kara Lowentheil, who defines A- work as “work is work that isn’t perfect. Work that could be better. Maybe it’s not as organized as it could be, or it leaves something out. Maybe it would be better with another revision, or 10. It’s not a total mess, it’s not a disaster, but it doesn’t seem amazing.” 
Late last year Lowentheil interviewed Mel Robbins, author of The High 5 Habit, another method I use to defeat self-critical perfectionism. The high 5 habit is a simple exercise: high-five your reflection in the mirror each morning. This changes your relationship to yourself, allows you to see yourself as someone you care about, someone who needs your love and support. Robbins’ research shows that 50% of people refuse to look at themselves in the mirror because, she says, “they are either so disgusted with themselves or so judgmental that they will look away, which is a habit of self-rejection.” High-fiving your reflection in the mirror, “you give yourself a dopamine drip. That’s why you feel your mood loosen up a bit.” 
What drives many people from their jobs is often the weather around their work. Those of us who struggle with self-critical perfectionism create negative weather around our work, hence negative self-talk, procrastination, and anxiety. I think, then, that perhaps my challenge is not quitting perfectionism so much as quitting a certain style of perfectionism, one clouded by the bad weather of negative self-talk. Which causes me to catastrophize and experience panic attacks, as this style of thinking is driven by fear. I love my work, and I credit my perfectionism with my high achievements. I also credit perfectionism with my high stress levels. If you’re human, you will never be perfect, but you can still shower yourself with praise.
Special thanks to Shazzy Tharby, RN for providing much of the research used to write this article.
I’m very glad to see this issue addressed. I’ve struggled my whole life with, not only never living up to my own standards, but placing unrealistic standards on myself from the outset.
I’m in my 50’s now and I finally get that mistakes and imperfections are a healthy and completely acceptable part of a job well done. I know that if I feel like I’ve achieved perfection, then something has gone wrong. That’s a flag for me to take a step back and look for the glaring mistake I overlooked in my desire to do well.
Small mistakes should be ignored, moderate mistakes should be evaluated for potential negative effects and dealt with accordingly.
Big mistakes are what you miss when you’re focused down too hard and trying to catch every possible deviation from your plan.
Don’t do that. Let the small stuff slide so you can produce perfectly imperfect work.