The High Price of Perfectionism

Does this sound familiar? A response to a client you’ve been working on is due today. It’s getting late. You are tired, stressed out, and frustrated. You are feeling the pressure of the approaching deadline. You’ve already poured hours and hours of work into your response and reviewed it more times than you can count. And each time you’ve found something that you wanted to change, improve, or make just a little better. To make it perfect.

Finally, you send it out. But instead of feeling relief, you continue to feel worried and stressed out: “What will the client think? Did I cover everything? What if I missed something?” You are completely drained and exhausted, but can’t seem to stop the thoughts from swirling in your head.

If this scenario repeats itself too often in your life (whether professional or personal), chances are you suffer from perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a propensity for being displeased with anything that is not flawless or does not meet extremely high standards. This is often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations, concerns regarding others’ evaluations, and feelings of worry.

In the profession that prides itself on accuracy and precision, where one mistake can impact a lawyer’s professional reputation or the life or business of a client, the stakes are high. And as a lawyer, you realize that a drive for perfection can create a high-quality product.

But the question is: at what cost?

While a drive toward perfection can motivate you to succeed and allow you to create breakthrough solutions, eventually the law of diminishing returns (and energy) kicks in, after which, the amount of energy devoted to a particular task or goal does not produce corresponding benefits. That is to say, at some point, putting in that extra half hour or hour’s worth of additional review, for example, does not pay off, because any improvement to the work product at that point is marginal and disproportionate to the time involved.

What makes perfectionism so dangerous is that while on its surface it’s about striving for success, the real focus is on avoiding failure, which brings negativity and fear front and center. Moreover, the cumulative impact of striving for perfection over time increases your chances of developing mental health disorders, like anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or eating disorders.

“But wait, my perfectionist tendencies are what helped me become successful in the first place! If I get rid of it, how will I be as successful?!”

If, like many other lawyers, you see your drive for perfection as a tool for high achievement or a badge of honor, let’s examine a few key differences between high achievers and perfectionists:

  • All-Or-Nothing Thinking: Perfectionists, like high achievers, tend to set high goals and work hard toward them. However, a high achiever can be satisfied with doing a great job and achieving excellence (or something close), even if their very high goals aren’t completely met. Perfectionists will accept nothing less than, well, perfection. “Almost perfect” is seen as failure.
  • Critical Eye: Perfectionists are far more critical of themselves and of others than are high achievers. While high achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, perfectionists tend to spot tiny mistakes and imperfections in their work and in themselves, as well as in others and their work.
  • “Push” vs “Pull”: High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them.
  • Depressed by Unmet Goals: While high achievers are able to bounce back fairly easily from disappointment, perfectionists tend to beat themselves up much more, and wallow in negative feelings when their high expectations go unmet. Which in turn leads to…
  • Fear of Failure: Perfectionists are also much more afraid to fail than high achievers. Because they place so much stock in results and become so disappointed by anything less than perfection, failure becomes a very scary prospect. And since anything less than perfection is seen as “failure”, this can (and often does) lead to…
  • Procrastination: It seems paradoxical that perfectionists would be prone to procrastination, as that trait can be detrimental to productivity, but perfectionism and procrastination do tend to go hand in hand. This is because, fearing failure as they do, perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something imperfectly that they become immobilized and fail to do anything at all! This is sometimes referred to as “analysis paralysis.” This leads to more feelings of failure, and a vicious cycle is perpetuated. Remember the expression “Done is better than perfect!”
  • Defensiveness: Because a less-than-perfect performance is so painful and scary to perfectionists, they tend to take constructive criticism defensively, while high achievers can see criticism as valuable information to help their future performance.

If you recognize some of these perfectionist traits in yourself, don’t despair.

One of the main culprits of perfectionism is the “inner critic.” It’s that critical voice in our heads telling us our work isn’t good enough, we are not trying hard enough or accomplishing enough, or we are just not good enough. Changing this voice is the first step in overcoming the negative effects of perfectionism.

The key thing to remember about the inner critic: it’s just part of you, it’s not all of you. To begin reducing its influence on you, start by asking: What messages from your inner critic do you hear most often? In what types of circumstances?

When we are more compassionate with our inner critic and with ourselves, we’re better able to take action from a less fear-based and more centered place. Use the following principle to challenge your inner critic: “The more self-aware I am, the less influence the inner critic has on me.”

Ready to tackle your inner critic head-on? Many of our lawyer clients have used the following process and found it helpful:

Answer:

    • What is it? Where did it come from?
    • How has it worked for you in the past?
    • How does it negatively impact you?

Name It: Visualize it by creating an image/avatar and give it a name, if you’d like.

Notice: Be vigilant and notice when its messages pop up in your mind and do not believe everything it says!

Ask It: “What do I need to know/do to move forward safely?”

Here’s to your well-being!

About the Authors

Yuliya I. LaRoe (left; ylaroe@2020lead.com) and Marla S. Grant (right; mgrant@2020lead.com) are attorneys, certified coaches, and co-founders of 20/20 Leadership Group, a legal talent development and consulting firm.

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