Reining in Perfectionism

Commitment to excellence. Acute attention to detail. Impeccably high standards. Such attributes are commonly cited among the qualities that make a first-rate lawyer. They are also routinely equated with perfectionism. It is no surprise, then, that many lawyers embrace their perfectionism as a virtue for which they will be recognized and rewarded if they can just maintain their unblemished veneer. But perfectionism is not synonymous with excellence. In fact, the pursuit of it may ultimately result in more harm than good—personally as well as professionally.

At the personal level, perfectionism—which psychologists define as a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness, setting unduly high-performance standards, and being overly critical of one’s behavior—is correlated with chronic dissatisfaction, higher rates of psychological disorders, and even early mortality. It has also been linked with interpersonal problems, including relationship discord and discontent.

These effects inevitably bleed into the professional sphere, where perfectionism is associated with workaholism and burnout. Efficiency and progress are impeded, as the dread of failure promotes procrastination, excessive nitpicking, and undue risk aversion. At the extreme, malpractice may ensue, as perfectionists’ “all or nothing” attitude drives them to try to cover up mistakes.

Instead of fostering excellence, unmitigated perfectionism may actually prevent lawyers from reaching their full potential. By contrast, taking an “optimalist” approach—i.e., identifying and accepting “good enough”—is far more likely to yield success and satisfaction.

The good news for all perfectionists reading this article (and for the perfectionist writing it) is that while perfectionism is often ingrained, it is not immutable. And the following evidence-based strategies can help you escape its clutches:

1. Practice Self-Compassion

If perfectionism is typified by self-criticism and contingent self-worth, self-compassion falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. It entails 1) “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy,” 2) “recognizing that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of the shared human experience,” and 3) maintaining a mindful awareness of one’s emotions instead of avoiding or over-identifying with painful thoughts and feelings. As leading expert Dr. Kristin Neff puts it, practicing self-compassion involves actively comforting ourselves in the face of failure, responding “just as we would to a dear friend in need.”

Self-compassion has been linked to enhanced life satisfaction, social connectedness, and coping strategies, as well as reduced anxiety, rumination, and depression. Unsurprisingly, it is also inversely related to perfectionism.

However, an encouraging body of research shows that self-compassion can be raised—quickly—and that doing so helps mitigate much of the distress and dysfunction that accompany perfectionism. And, significantly, such gains do not come at the price of quality or productivity. In fact, research shows that, far from fostering complacency, self-compassion actually stimulates self-improvement motivation, and in turn, enhances effort and performance. It appears that by allowing us to forgive our failures, self-compassion engenders the resilience necessary to rebound from hardship and the confidence we need to stretch and grow.

To start building self-compassion, swap your inner critic for your inner coach by replacing negative self-talk with words of encouragement the next time you encounter difficulty. Neff recommends monitoring and recording critical thoughts as they arise, and then reframing them in a more compassionate, supportive way. If you’re struggling to find a positive spin, start by imagining what you would say to a close friend in your shoes, and then direct that kindness inward. Incorporating terms of endearment or physical gestures of warmth (e.g., placing your hand on your heart or cupping your face in your hands) may bolster the effect by activating your attachment and caregiving circuit. Finally, supplementing this practice with a loving-kindness meditation (which focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness, and warmth toward the self and others) may help kick-start self-compassion by boosting empathy and curbing self-critical inclinations.

For additional self-compassion exercises and meditations, check out Dr. Neff’s website, Self-compassion.org.

2. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Like self-criticism, “fixed mindset,” or the belief that strengths are set in stone, is a hallmark of perfectionist thinking. Viewing themselves as “finished products” rather than “works in progress,” perfectionists regard every success or failure as a measure of their self-worth. This prompts them to avoid challenges and respond defensively to even constructive feedback, thereby hamstringing their ability to evolve.

In contrast, recognizing that abilities can be cultivated through effort, people with “growth mindset” are more likely to embrace setbacks as learning opportunities and keep pushing the envelope—even if that means stepping outside of their comfort zones. This allows them to “fail forward” and overcome their weaknesses while perfectionists stand paralyzed by fear of failure.

Fortunately, research shows that a fixed mindset is not, in a literal sense, fixed. Instead, studies indicate that simply educating people about the human capacity for improvement can produce a shift from fixed to a growth mindset, with the result being increased motivation and achievement. Appropriate reinforcement—i.e., extending praise for effort expended instead of traits possessed or outcomes reached (“You worked so hard!” not “You are so smart!” or “You won the case!”)—is similarly effective in triggering a more growth-minded approach. Finally, self-compassion itself has been shown to stimulate growth-oriented thinking, which means that the strategies discussed above may help curb this perfectionist proclivity, as well.

So the next time you encounter a setback, embrace the power of “yet”: Gently remind yourself that falling short today does not mean that—with a bit of effort—you cannot succeed tomorrow. And when that nagging “can’t” comes to mind, follow it with a resounding, compassionate “yet.” Then, ask yourself what you can glean from the experience, commend yourself for all of your hard work, and seize this opportunity to learn and grow.

3. Conclusion

The drive for excellence and lofty standards can lead to triumph in the legal profession. But striving unforgivingly for flawlessness is more likely to beget strife and struggle than success. By embracing self-compassion and a growth mindset, on the other hand, you can escape the perils of perfectionism and set yourself on the path to achieving “big-picture perfection.”

About the Author

Jordana Alter Confino is a lawyer and the assistant director of academic counseling at Columbia Law School. She is certified in applied positive psychology and advises aspiring lawyers on matters including time-management, work-life balance, and peak performance.

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