Pitfalls of Perfectionism

Perfectionism plagues the legal profession. The constant drive to make no mistakes, to use the most precise language, to simply be flawless (not in the Beyonce way) is exhausting. I have been thinking about all the ways that perfectionism impacts my life and the best ways to blow past it. Maybe you’ll find one, or all of them, relatable. 

The constant editing! Associates may think they’re doing themselves a favor by regularly returning to a pleading, memorandum, or other document they’ve drafted until it’s just right. Well, this isn’t porridge and you aren’t Goldilocks. There is no such thing as a perfectly written document. My first boss used to say that a document should only hit your desk once meaning that you should draft, edit, and then submit it and forget it. Keep that in mind as you continue to wrangle with word choices and the oxford comma. Save your energy for other projects by finding peace through giving it your best. 

Perfectionism is sneaky. It affects so many arenas of your life but one you may not think about often is your response time. Do you receive emails from clients and respond within one minute? Do you stop your other projects to answer a phone call from a client or opposing attorney? The need to be available at all times and quickly respond, no matter how deep you are in drafting a motion, is also tied to perfectionism. You believe that if you’re unavailable, you’re not meeting your clients or bosses expectations. In the perfectionist’s brain, it boils down to two extremes: rapid response time or no job. Even reading that is cringy but so true for me and many colleagues. So, how do we stop it? Set the damn boundary with your clients/colleagues. Turn your email off if you’re busy working on another project and ask your assistants to hold your calls. If you have to, set an automatic voice or e-mail message that notes when the sender can anticipate a response. As I noted in a prior blog post, we are not robots and the expectations have to be grounded in reality. 

Likely the hardest part of perfectionism – beating yourself up when you don’t meet the unrealistic expectations that you set for yourself. We work hard to be the best, to be perfect, and when we inevitably fail, we take it personal. It feels like you’ve let yourself down and sometimes, it prevents you from sleeping and leads to other self-destructive habits. There is no quick fix to this side effect of perfectionism. There is only the opposite: self compassion. 

It takes a lot of hard work to overcome perfectionism. Deep, reflective work to be aware when you are engaging in perfectionist behaviors, slowing down, and going the other direction. It takes affirmations and most importantly, positive self talk. It requires you to treat yourself with compassion, as you would a friend going through the same experience. To understand that perfect is unattainable and redefine success in your own, realistic terms. One book that I’ve found really helpful on this topic is “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” by Kristen Neff. If you identify as a perfectionist, read it and let me know what you think. 

As a recovering perfectionist, I know the toll it can take on you and your career. If you’re ready to work through it, to create clear boundaries, and to try a different approach to lawyering, let’s talk. I’d love to help you on your journey.