As a lawyer ambitious for a successful career and family life, the chances are that you are no stranger to perfectionism. Ambition, high achieving and perfectionist traits often go hand in hand. And what’s wrong with that? What’s so bad about continually striving to be the best if it gets the desired results?
Well dedication, effort and excellence are always to be applauded of course. The problem with perfectionism is that it is dedication, effort and excellence taken to an unhealthy extreme. And not only does perfectionism go hand in hand with high achieving – it also consorts with impostor syndrome. If you are plagued by self-doubt and a lack of confidence, perfectionism is a handy defence mechanism. If you try to ensure absolutely everything you do is perfect, you won’t get found out. They’ll never know. Right?
But as the age-old saying goes, moderation is best in all things. Perfectionism is actually the enemy of balance. It is dedication and effort pushed to an unsustainable level and as such It can have negative and counter-productive effects. If you, (like me), have practised perfectionism for most of your life, then, here’s why you need to stop:
1. It’s inefficient.
When you need everything to be perfect, tasks take much longer than they should. If you are always striving for perfection, you can’t ever let anything go. It’s hard to complete work if you worry that it could always be improved. As a result you get less done than you should – and others perceive you to be slow.
2. It’s impossible.
Perfection is not a standard that can ever really be attained – especially for a perfectionist! In my experience as a self-confessed perfectionist, I’ve never looked back on piece of work or project and thought, hurray, that was perfect! Never. Even when I received the highest praise for something – I would have two reactions: 1) relief – phew, they haven’t found me out! and 2) disbelief. I was incapable of taking the praise at face value – my perfectionist brain would always go digging for something I could have done better. The perfectionist, by definition, never has the satisfaction of achieving perfection and can never experience a sense of accomplishment or pride in their work.
3. It causes stress and anxiety.
The paradox of perfectionism is that perfectionists know they aren’t (and can’t ever be) perfect! And yet they continue to strive for perfection, and to present themselves to the outside world as perfect. This creates dissonance – a complete mismatch between who they really believe themselves to be and who they are trying to show themselves to be. It’s a conflict of authenticity that keeps perfectionists in a permanent state of tension, which is both exhausting and stressful.
4. It encourages a fixed mindset.
For the perfectionist, the only standard is perfection and therefore anything short of that means failure and disappointment. This reinforces a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, anything short of perfection (and, of course, that’s everything!) isn’t failure, but an opportunity to learn. Dr. Carol Dweck pioneered research on the fixed vs. growth mindset and the impact this has on long term success. With the perfectionist’s fixed mindset, there’s no room for growth, for progress, or for learning. Setbacks, feedback and unexpected challenges are all processed in a way that fuels insecurity and self doubt. Perfectionists are therefore self-critical, fragile under criticism and vulnerable to overwhelm. Lacking resilience in this way obviously adversely affects performance and long-term success.
It’s hard let go of perfectionism when it’s a pattern of behaviour you have practised your whole life (and one which might seem to have brought you success in the past.) But if you want a sustainable and happy work/life balance, it’s absolutely essential. The challenges of progressing in your career whilst raising a family are such that compromise and prioritising are necessary. When you have so much to do, you cannot do everything perfectly without risking your health and sanity. Embrace imperfection (see my blog on this here) and make an effort to curb your perfectionist tendencies. If you’d like more advice on how to go about doing this, tune into this week’s podcast.
In the meantime, remember – to be human is to be imperfect!