If you’re like most of the lawyers I know, you’ve been part perfectionist a good chunk of your life. Although it may have been one of the traits that made you successful, perfectionism, while glamorized in pop culture, can drive a lot of unhealthy behavior in your practice.
Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence; it’s not about healthy achievement, nor is it about self-improvement. Perfectionism often interferes with achievement and has been shown to correlate with depression, anxiety, and addiction – all issues that lawyers suffer from at higher rates than the general population.1
I am a recovering perfectionist. As far back as I can remember, perfectionism has been my personal achievement standard. At school, I didn’t want to settle for grades less than A’s; in sports, it was important to not only win, but to also play so well that I would be chosen all-conference or most valuable on my team. I achieved because I craved my parent’s and teachers’ praise and didn’t want to let them down. What I understand now is that my perfectionism was a shield – a way to avoid looking vulnerable. In reality, the school and work pressure really got to me – but I didn’t want anyone to see that.
Two events helped me realize that perfectionism was negatively impacting my health and relationships. The first was that I burned out seven years into my law practice. The hustle to be perfect caught up with me, and I ended up changing careers to do the work I do now.
The second was my work with Army drill sergeants. I taught resilience skills to soldiers after getting my master’s degree, and the soldiers helped me understand that perfectionism was holding me back. It wasn’t anything they said outwardly, but over time, I noticed that I wasn’t connecting with them in the way that I wanted to because I didn’t want to reveal any of my flaws. My conversations with them were more intellectual rather than heartfelt, and that bothered me. Over the course of the training, I was simply blown away by their willingness to talk about their struggles, and it inspired me to do the same.
- Fear of failure
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Finding fault with self and others
- Excessive need for control
- Lack of trust in others
Perfectionism and Burnout
Not surprisingly, studies reveal a link between some types of perfectionism and burnout;2 however, not all varieties of perfectionism are equal. Perfectionistic strivings, the aspect of perfectionism that is associated with setting high personal-performance standards and striving for excellence, is much less likely to drive burnout than perfectionistic concerns.3 Perfectionistic concerns involve being overly concerned about making a mistake, having a fear of negative social evaluation, and having a strong negative reaction to imperfection.4
Perfectionistic patterns drain your mental and physical energy and can be associated with workaholism.5 Perfectionists also tend to think in a very rigid way, and this rigid style of thinking (and the strong emotions that follow) amplifies the body’s stress response. Ultimately, perfectionism can negatively affect your work, your relationships, your home life, and your recreation (do your perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself?)
To evaluate how perfectionism is interfering with your law practice and life goals, it’s important to understand the different characteristics or traits of perfectionism. Which of these areas are issues for you?6
Fear of Failure. While nobody really likes to fail, perfectionists take fear of failure to a different level. Instead of finding what lessons could be lurking in the failure, a perfectionist sees failure as a statement of his or her worth or ability. To combat this fear, a perfectionist might overcompensate by reading something over and over again, obsessing about lists and organization, or being unable to make a decision. This could lead to procrastination, missed deadlines, and ultimately malpractice issues.
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Portions of this article previously appeared on Forbes.com.
All-or-Nothing Thinking. This is a common thinking trap and it involves your tendency to see a situation as either black or white, right or wrong. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and you eat one cookie, you might think, “I’ve blown my diet completely!”
Defensiveness. Perfectionists often get very defensive when they are criticized because a critique threatens to expose their flaws, much in the same way failure does. Similarly, perfectionists take criticism as a statement of their worth or ability. Research shows that this aspect of a lawyer’s personality tends to be a driver of lawyers’ below-average resilience scores.7
Finding Fault with Self and Others. Perfectionists are often on the lookout for imperfections in themselves and others. Perfectionists tend to be largely overcritical of any misstatement, misspelling, or flaw and see it as vitally important to correct people when they make a mistake. Lawyers are trained to think critically and spot flaws, so this can be a particularly pesky aspect of perfectionism for them to manage.
Inflexibility. In this context, inflexibility refers to having too rigid a standard for yourself and other people. There is a difference between, on one hand, setting high standards for yourself and being willing to learn from your mistakes, and, on the other, being inflexible. When I suggest to perfectionists that they may want to come up with their own version of “good enough,” most react as though I’ve just asked them to climb Mt. Everest tomorrow. Inflexible thinking often includes words like “must,” “should,” and “have to.”
Excessive Need for Control. Perfectionists often try to control the behavior or thoughts of the people in their lives as a way of preventing them from making mistakes or encountering harm. Close family members have been guilty of doing this to me, and it has negatively affected our relationships over the years.
How has perfectionism affected your life? Post a comment below or email us.
Lack of Trust in Others. Has someone ever told you, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself?” Many lawyers I work with hold onto this core belief, and as a result, find it very difficult to delegate and when they do, become micromanagers.
Perfectionistic behaviors can be hard to identify because they are similar to the type of behaviors that most people use to maintain their standards; however, they vary in frequency and intensity. If you want to get a better understanding of your own perfectionistic tendencies and how they are impacting your life, contact me and I’ll send you a free worksheet to get you started. I’d also love to hear from you – how has perfectionism affected your life?
1 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly 128-29 (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012).
2 Omer Aydemir & Ilkin Icelli, Burnout: Risk Factorsin Burnout for Experts 119-43 (Sabine Bahrer-Kohler ed., 2013).
3 Andrew P. Hill & Thomas Curran, Multidimensional Perfectionism & Burnout: A Meta-Analysis, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. (2015).
5 Toon W. Taris, Ilona van Beek & Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Why Do Perfectionists Have a Higher Burnout Risk Than Others? The Mediational Effect of Workaholism, 12(1) Romanian J. Applied Psychol. 1-7 (2010).
6 This list comes from the following resources: Martin M. Antony & Richard P. Swinson, When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism 48-59 (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc., 2009); Tal Ben-Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect 9-18 (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009).
7 Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, 7 LAWPRO Mag. 2-5 (2008).