Autism and Perfectionism - Learning to Embrace Imperfection
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
Perfectionism is a common trait among people on the autism spectrum, one that can be a double-edged sword. In this blog post, we'll explore the relationship between autism and perfectionism, the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism, and how to embrace imperfection so you can leverage the positive aspects of perfectionism without suffering from its downsides.
First, let's define perfectionism. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by setting excessively high standards for oneself and others in a relentless pursuit of flawlessness. Perfectionists may become very self-critical and upset when they feel they have fallen short in some way.
When perfectionism is properly harnessed, however, it can result in amazing levels of skill. For example, someone who has spent years working to be the best at something, such as a virtuoso musician or Formula 1 race car driver, will inevitably have times where they are disappointed in their own performance.
When the inevitable poor performance happens, they tell themself some iteration of, “My best fell short of what I was expecting, but I will figure out what happened and do better next time.” Despite initial disappointment, they are able to shift toward problem-solving.
In contrast, a perfectionist will beat themself up, perhaps call themself names, and generally be unkind to themself in an attempt to negatively reinforce better performance next time. This kind of negativity can eventually lead to negative consequences.
While perfectionism is not unique to autistic people nor even a defining trait of autism, individuals on the autism spectrum may be more likely to exhibit perfectionistic traits.
Why is Perfectionism Common in Autistic People?
Perfectionism is a common trait among people with autism. There are several possible reasons for this.
First, people with autism often have a strong need for order and control. They may feel that they need to do things perfectly in order to avoid chaos and uncertainty, which leads to anxiety.
A second reason for this may be the tendency toward black-and-white thinking that is often associated with autism. Many individuals on the spectrum see things in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, and they may have difficulty tolerating ambiguity or uncertainty. This can lead to a desire for rigid rules and routines, and an intolerance for mistakes or deviations from the norm.
Another reason may be the social challenges that often come with autism. Individuals on the spectrum may feel pressure to conform to social norms and expectations. This many lead to feeling like they need to be perfect in order to fit in or be accepted. This can be especially true in school or workplace settings, where the pressure to perform can be high.
Perfectionism may also be tied to the autistic person’s identity. In areas where they have talent, expertise, or an interest where they have invested much into acquiring knowledge, making a mistake or not performing to the standard they’ve set for themself in this area may feel devastating, like a loss of identity.
What is the Upside of Perfectionism?
Perfectionism can be a positive trait in some ways. It can motivate people to achieve their goals and to produce high-quality work. The attention to detail and drive for excellence that often accompany this trait can lead to great achievements and successes. Perfectionism can also lead to:
Increased focus and attention to detail: People with autism are often very detail-oriented, and this can be a valuable asset in many situations. For example, people with autism may be well-suited for jobs that require accuracy and precision. They may even outperform their neurotypical peers in these situations.
High standards of work: People with autism often set high standards for themselves and their work. This can lead to high-quality work that meets or exceeds expectations.
Diligence and perseverance: People with autism are often very diligent and persistent in their work. This can be a valuable asset in achieving long-term goals, and these people often make very loyal long-term employees who won’t quit when the going gets tough.
What is the Downside of Perfectionism?
While the drive for excellence and attention to detail that often accompany perfectionism can be positive traits, they can also lead to negative outcomes. The pressure to be perfect can be overwhelming and lead to:
Stress and anxiety: People who are perfectionists often put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform perfectly. This can lead to stress and anxiety, which can interfere with their ability to function effectively.
Procrastination: People who are perfectionists may avoid starting tasks because they are afraid of not being able to do them perfectly. They may avoid starting tasks to preempt failure or self-blame when their attempt doesn’t measure up to their own standards. They may also feel like their tasks are not finished until the output achieves a state of perfection. Both the tendency to not start and not finish tasks can lead to procrastination, which can further interfere with their ability to achieve their goals.
Social isolation: People who are perfectionists may be afraid of making mistakes, which can lead them to avoid social situations. This can lead to social isolation, which can have a negative impact on mental and emotional health.
Burnout: Perfectionists may be reluctant to ask for help, as they may feel like they need to do everything themselves in order to be perfect. They may also try to perform like neurotypical people, even when they are lacking the bandwidth and push themselves beyond their capabilities, leading to burnout.
How to Manage Perfection (So it Doesn’t Manage You)
If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist, you may wonder what you can do to really harness this trait and turn it to your advantage. Ultimately, learning to embrace imperfection will help bring balance to this tricky personality trait. Here are some tips that will help:
Don’t let the imagined perfect product prevent you from starting: Sometimes perfectionists get stuck in the planning or ideation phase, constantly striving for the perfect outcome before taking action. This can lead to paralysis and prevent you from even starting a project or pursuing a goal. Instead of fixating on the end result, focus on progress and taking small steps forward. Embrace the concept of "good enough." Remember that imperfect action is better than no action at all.
Try to embrace mistakes and failures as learning opportunities: Instead of viewing mistakes or failures as evidence of inadequacy or incompetence, try to view them as opportunities to learn and grow. Ask yourself what you can do differently next time and use the experience as a chance to improve.
Practice self-compassion: Instead of being self-critical and harsh, practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, and remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and has flaws. If someone you cared about made a similar mistake, what would you say to them? When you make a mistake, try to talk to yourself as you would talk to this same person.
Set realistic goals and expectations: Instead of setting impossibly high standards for yourself, set realistic goals and expectations. Break tasks down into smaller, manageable steps, and celebrate your progress along the way. Remember that progress is much more important than perfection.
Focus on the process, not just the outcome: Instead of focusing solely on the end result, focus on the process of getting there. Try to enjoy the journey and the learning that comes with it, rather than just the destination.
Practice mindfulness: In addition to helping you enjoy the journey, mindfulness can help you stay in the present moment and reduce anxiety and stress. Try practicing mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or meditation, to help you stay grounded and centered.
Find joy in imperfection: Try to find joy in imperfection. Remember that imperfection is what makes us human, and that our flaws and quirks are what make us unique and interesting. Embrace your imperfections and celebrate what makes you different.
Set realistic goals: People who are perfectionists often set unrealistic goals for themselves. This can lead to disappointment and frustration. It is important to set realistic goals that you can actually achieve.
Accept imperfection: It is important to accept that you will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and it is okay to make mistakes. Instead of focusing on being perfect, focus on doing your best.
Be kind to yourself. People who are perfectionists are often very hard on themselves. It is important to be kind to yourself and to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
Seek professional help: If you are struggling to manage your perfectionism, it may be a good idea to seek professional help. A therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy can help you understand your perfectionism and develop strategies for managing it.
In conclusion, perfectionism is a common trait among individuals on the autism spectrum, and it can be both positive and negative. Perfectionism can lead to high-quality work, attention to detail, and diligence. However, it can also lead to stress, anxiety, procrastination, social isolation, and burnout. Understanding the reasons behind perfectionism and learning to embrace imperfection can help individuals with autism to harness the positive aspects of perfectionism while managing its negative consequences. It is important to strike a balance between striving for excellence and being kind to oneself in the pursuit of that excellence.