Are you a perfectionist?
Wait. Before you answer that, I should tell you it’s a bit of a trick question.
We’re all perfectionists to some extent. Think of it like a spectrum. Some of us are wound up tightly into a compulsive Type-A lifestyle, while for others perfectionism only rears up during tough times. But we all have perfectionistic tendencies in some aspects of our lives.
Not to say that there’s a good or bad amount of perfectionism. Just varying intensities of its expression.
You heard me. There’s no good amount of perfectionism. NONE.
And that’s because perfectionism is about garnering approval and acceptance from others. It’s about doing things to avoid the pain of judgment or shame. With a driving force of, “If I act perfect, look perfect, do everything perfectly, only then I will be happy.”
But the bitch about perfectionism is that it actually obstructs happiness and success.
Research has shown that perfectionism leads to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis.
Hmmmmm, which population of professionals experiences a particularly high rate of all of the above…
Lawyers and Perfectionism
It’s no coincidence that many attorneys and law students suffer from such afflictions. The legal sector is filled with high-achieving, perfectionistic individuals.
And while you might be thinking that perfectionism is what has helped you survive law school and your legal career, you might want to think again.
Remember getting called on in class the first time (or 10)? Weren’t you terrified? News flash: we all were.
Ultimately, you were afraid of sounding stupid or giving the wrong answer. You know, scared of being imperfect in front of your peers and professor.
Or how about job applications and interviews. How many positions have you not applied for because you didn’t think they’d hire you? You don’t even bother because you’d rather not feel the pain of being rejected.
Legal research is another problem area for perfectionism. When do you know you’ve searched enough? Are you not finding a conclusive answer because you’re not a good enough researcher? (Couldn’t possibly be that the law is a mess of ambiguity and nuance.) For fear of being shamed by your boss for missing the perfect nugget of research, you spend waaaay too much time searching for what probably doesn’t exist.
For some of us, perfectionism keeps us stuck in a profession we’d rather leave behind. I can’t drop out of law school -- just think of how disappointed my parents will be. Quit being a lawyer? Everyone will think I’m a failure who couldn’t hack it.
And those are just a few scenarios that popped into my mind.
Not that I’ve ever had these thoughts or anything...
OH WAIT. I’ve experienced all of these perfectionism setbacks.
I like to think that I’m lower on the perfectionism continuum today than I was even just a couple years ago. But the perfectionism to which we’re all predisposed never truly goes away.
So What’s a Perfectionist to Do?
The healthier opposite of perfectionism is self-improvement, whereby you strive to be your best self because it’s what you want.
Not because you’re worried about what other people think of you.
Using the legal research scenario from above, you might want to continue researching a particular issue because you’re looking to improve your skills.
So rather than thinking, “My boss is going to think I’m an idiot if I don’t find a definitive answer,” a self-improvement perspective would be, “Although I’ve probably exhausted the authoritative law on this issue, I’m going to look into some additional jurisdictions and law review articles to beef up my research skills and bolster my expertise in this practice area.”
Yeah. It’s a pretty drastic difference.
But thanks to self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, we’ve got some methods for minimizing our perfectionistic tendencies.
I always think of self-kindness as treating myself the way I’d treat a dear friend.
So using the legal research example again, instead of criticizing yourself for not being a good enough researcher think of what you would tell your BFF if she came to you with the same problem.
Would you tell her she’s an incompetent attorney who probably shouldn’t have gone to law school in the first place and doesn’t deserve her monthly paycheck? (If you would, I’m gonna have to call you out for being the world’s shittiest bestie.)
Of course not.
You’d tell her that you know she’s done her best because that’s how she rolls. She’s not one to phone it in on a tough assignment, so she should trust her efforts and whatever answer she did (or didn’t) find. So time to wrap up that research memo and head home to relax with a nice glass of wine.
Think you can say that to yourself?
I know you can.
Basically, this component of self-compassion is all about remembering that you’re not alone in what you’re going through.
Everyone has feelings of inadequacy.
And just because you have those feelings doesn’t mean they’re true.
Going back to the tortured same legal research example from above, one way you could gain some perspective is by reaching out to a fellow JD.
I mean, can you think of a single law student or lawyer who hasn’t dealt with a frustratingly ambiguous research issue? And subsequently turned the frustration into an exercise in self-flagellation?
Anyone who says s/he hasn’t encountered this is (a) lying, (b) not a real law student or lawyer or (c) has been working for Westlaw or Lexis way too long.
Being mindful in the context of perfectionism is about recognizing the self-judgment. Acknowledging -- rather than ignoring -- the feelings of inadequacy. But also not “over-identifying” with the feelings.
If you start feeling like crap during my (now woefully over-referenced) legal research scenario, it’s important that you don’t pretend everything is awesome.
Feel your damn feelings.
Frustrated that there’s no case law in your jurisdiction. Pissed that your boss tagged you for this assignment. Disappointed that you cancelled a lunch date to work on the research memo.
But it’s equally important that you don’t get sucked into the vortex of negativity that swirls beneath your perfectionism.
Beating yourself up about not finding a solid answer isn’t going to help you feel better -- don’t turn the frustration, anger and disappointment inward on yourself.
The point of acknowledging your feelings is so that you can exercise some self-compassion. Not so that you can turn one research assignment into a dissertation on how you wasted time and money going to law school just to suffer at a job that you’ll probably get fired from…
Knock that shit off. Because I know you wouldn’t say something like that to an acquaintance let alone a BFF.
(Unless of course you're the aforementioned worst bestie on the planet. In which case, go home; you're drunk.)
We all claim to know that perfect doesn’t exist. Yet many in the legal profession pride themselves on achieving as close to perfection as possible. All while making themselves (and those around them) miserable.
The answer isn’t to try harder to be perfect or to give up entirely.
Freedom from the pain of perfectionism is found in self-compassion.
When you find yourself in a perfect storm of self-criticism, remember that it’s okay to feel that way, and the best remedy is to treat yourself as you would treat your best friend.
Above all else, remember that you’re not alone.
You’re “perfectly” imperfect.
This post first appeared on Ms. JD as part of my year-long column as a Writer in Residence, "The JD's Life Coach". Ms. JD is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the success of women in law school and the legal profession.