It’s no easy task writing a piece on how lawyers should avoid perfectionism. It’s like writing about how a basketball player shouldn’t make such a fuss about physical fitness. Perfection, to lawyer types, is generally seen as a goal to which one should aspire, not an unhealthy habit that one should curtail. But the truth is perfectionism is a futile, unreachable trap that, if practised in unhealthy ways, can result in an erosion of one’s well-being.
A few years ago, while on a wellness panel during the Osgoode Hall Law School orientation at the beginning of first year, I was struck by a comment by one of my co-presenters, as well as by the reactions of the fledgling law students’ in the audience that day. The young woman sitting next to me, a leader of the third-year class, spoke of her strategy coming into law school. In essence, she imparted that she knew from the outset of law school that she would not be the best student in the building and decided to be guided by the mantra that “Cs get you degrees.”
Upon hearing this, there was a palpable collective gasp among the audience members. Did she just suggest deliberate averageness? In law school? Heresy, I say! Well, on the strength of that philosophy, that young woman went on to a spectacularly successful law school career and is now a successful lawyer. And, along the way, she didn’t torture herself and even had a social life and a little fun, too. In essence, she approached law school humanely and mindfully.
In a 2015 study of perfectionism in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, the authors identified two types of perfectionism — perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. The former is about having high standards and working hard to reach those heights of performance. This type of perfectionism was not observed to have been linked to burnout, likely because it fosters in an individual a sense of personal accomplishment and adherence to personal values of excellence. Self-efficacy is always good for self-esteem.
The second type of perfectionism — that of perfectionistic concerns — is where the potential burnout issues arise. These involve worry and anxiety including the fear of making mistakes, fear of letting people down and the fear of failure generally. In addition, as is often the case with lawyers, there exists a persistent worry about what people with think of them. As the authors stated, “It is the harsh self-evaluative processes central to perfectionistic concerns that are understood to fuel the perfectionism-burnout relationship.”
In my personal experience in my previous life as a lawyer, I recall living this dynamic. Often, when beginning to think about preparing for a motion in civil or family court, I would aspire to cover every base and miss nothing in service of obtaining a positive result for my client. It’s an admirable high standard. However, in pursuit of this lofty goal, I found myself never feeling that I could ever do enough. There was always another case to read, another review of the facts to do or another draft of my oral submissions to hone. I found it impossible to find a “good enough” zone.
As a result of this futile ethos, I often found myself procrastinating throughout the entire process. Perfectionism and procrastination frequently go together like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump was heard to say. With my exceedingly high standard in mind, I started thinking about the file enthusiastically, which eventually led to feeling that my lofty standard was unattainable and that I would, therefore, fail. In response, I decided to simply put the file aside and look at it later. Later became much later. And throughout that time of delay, the pressure would build and my internal catastrophizing thought pattern about how badly things would go ballooned. It was only when I finally cracked open the file and started working on it that I realized everything would be OK. It was too late for it to be perfect, so that pressure was off. I just had to do my best, and that was usually more than enough to effect a desirable outcome for the client. It’s too bad that perfectionism led me to torture myself mercilessly along the way.
In response to perfectionism and its inherent impossibility, some procrastinate while others beat a proverbial horse to death, never knowing when to stop, even for food or sleep. One doesn’t have to guess why such a relentless practice might lead to eventual burnout. We’re not machines, we’re humans. We need vacations and friends and fun and sex and sleep and food. Perfectionism demands that these needs be sacrificed at its altar. The fear of mistakes is construed as potential failure.
Allan Mallinger, in his book Too Perfect, points out that “the most serious effects of perfectionism can be seen in personal relationships.” Such problems spring from fears of having other people see one’s flaws, the need to be right about everything and a constantly critical attitude looking for flaws in others.
Perfectionists are notoriously hard on themselves. That type of internally corrosive negative self-talk is stressful and unhealthy, potentially fostering depression, anxiety, addiction and/or burnout.
The antidote is what that young Osgoode Hall student espoused, which is the philosophy of “good enough.” It sounds like one is settling for something less than excellence when, really, it’s about calibrating one’s effort and expectations to what is humane and possible. It’s not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, as has been said. If you strive for excellence while allowing for your own unavoidable human imperfection, you’re not a heretic. In fact, you may be surprised how excellent the outcome may be not only for the client but for your mental health and resilience. And, along the way, you may learn something new as well.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.