perfectionism /noun/ A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.1
Perfectionism has been identified by psychologists as a personality style characterized by an individual’s concern with striving for flawlessness.2 It is also a term routinely heard coming from the mouths of lawyers. Many of you reading this article and, in full disclosure, the one writing it are self-identified perfectionists and have been labeled so by ourselves or our colleagues, family members, and friends. In fact, some of us may even have an investment in the identity of being a perfectionist and its traits that may be considered virtuous — impeccably high standards, extreme attention to detail, and a steadfast commitment to excellence.3 In a society that seems to applaud constant proclamations of being busy and dismisses the notion that, at times, rest can be productive, it’s not surprising that a recent study shows a 33% increase in socially prescribed perfectionism in the last 30 years.4 Despite this strong need for increasingly unrealistic expectations related to education and professional accomplishments, perfectionism is not analogous to success, and research shows that the quest for it may do more harm than good.5
While perfectionists have been shown to have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists, they have also been known to be overly self-critical and embrace all-or-nothing thinking — believing their performance is either perfect or a complete failure.6 Perfectionists have been found to have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety compared to their non-perfectionistic counterparts.7 Interestingly, these same traits are found at statistically and significantly higher levels among lawyers than in the general population.8
Research shows that perfectionists struggle with procrastination.9 The fear of failure can lead to an inability to complete a task or even begin it. Many refer to this as decision paralysis10 — taking no action at all for fear that the approach isn’t the absolute best. Miniscule tasks that should take no time at all are pushed lower and lower on the to-do list. Some may mistake this for difficulties with attention and concentration, or even laziness. Many perfectionists may have problems with their relationships.11 The difficulties making and acknowledging mistakes and vulnerabilities coupled with high expectations placed on their partners can make coexisting with a perfectionist a challenge.
In addition to increased anxiety and depression and other mental and emotional struggles, perfectionists can develop more physical health issues than non-perfectionists.12 They have been shown to experience increased headaches, fatigue, and insomnia, and chronic stress has been linked to heart disease and even a shortened life span.13
Those willing to turn a blind eye to emotional and physical health concerns — believing they can manage mental health issues or care for their physical well-being down the road — and confident that their perfectionistic tendencies will lead them to professional success will be surprised to hear that that belief is unfounded.14 Research suggests that performance and perfectionism are not related.15 In other words, perfectionists’ performances are no better or no worse than that of non-perfectionists.16
As difficult as it is to believe, perfectionism is likely not constructive in the workplace,17 and may actually prevent lawyers from achieving their full potential and meeting their goals. An optimal approach where one puts forth the maximum effort and accepts it as the best that he or she can do inevitably yields to increased success.18 To those of us always searching for the perfect way to approach each and every situation — as if perfection exists — this research should actually come as a relief.
With an unyielding quest for exactness and precision in our lives, how does one take this information and manage perfectionistic tendencies before they get the best of us?
Remove all-or-nothing thinking. This type of thinking is unrealistic and problematic.19 It splits one’s views into extremes or dichotomies, leaving little to no gray area in between. It can lead to an inability to see alternatives and result in negative thinking patterns. Remove unconditional words like “never,” “nothing,” or “always” from your vocabulary and remind yourself that things are not always absolute.
Embrace self-compassion and learn to respect yourself. Perfectionism has been defined in this article as being overly self-critical, and the opposite of that is self-love. Self-compassion has been linked to greater life satisfaction, improved coping skills, and a decrease in anxiety.20 Not surprisingly, it is also inversely related to perfectionism.21 Replace your negative self-talk with positive self-talk and hold yourself in higher regard. Forgive your failures, stop the constant self-blame, and prioritize your mental health.
Learn from your successes. Instead of focusing on failures, look at what’s gone well. Because nothing in life happens flawlessly, chances are your greatest achievements included some bumps along the way. Focusing on successes allows us to see that it is possible to achieve goals and be fruitful in our endeavors without every little thing going exactly to plan. What may seem like a catastrophe at the time could end up being the best-case scenario for the future.
As always, if perfectionism is harder to rein in than one might think, contact the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program to find out about the many resources available to you.