Perfectionism & Lawyers
As a lawyer turned counsellor, I understand how perfectionistic thinking can happen. I remember quite clearly the obsessing I would do over the writing of an email – no mistakes, no typos. In the current circumstances, with many of us working outside of our normal routines, some of us working even longer hours than normal and most of us working away from the support of the office, it is easy for perfectionism to lead to stress and anxiety that could be damaging to your mental or physical health.
Now some of you might be thinking, perfectionism sounds fine to me, these are the sorts of qualities that got me to where I am today, why wouldn’t I check and re-check work? After all, it means that the work produced is often excellent, as it is underpinned with high levels of conscientiousness and motivation. However, these traits can be accompanied by inflexible thinking and excessively high and unrealistic standards. If this type of thinking continues unchecked this can leave an individual thinking that nothing but the best at all times means abject failure, which can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and obsessive thinking.
Perfectionistic thinking is very different from that of a high achiever. A high achiever is dedicated to doing well, they are not so afraid of failing nor what people think of them-they are motivated by personal gratification from success. There is a subtle difference: perfectionists are more motivated by the avoidance of failure rather than the achievement of success.
There is research to suggest that this kind of thinking can damage your health. Are you pushing yourself too hard?
4 signs you might be trying too hard
#1 You are very critical of yourself and others
You might even sound oppressive and controlling to yourself or someone else. You might feel that being the best at all times is the only option. You set unrealistic standards for yourself. This is about hiding and the fear of failure because you’re basing your self-worth on your achievements and what you do. Not who you are as a person. You might feel inadequate and berate yourself for small mistakes, overlooking or not celebrating your successes sufficiently.
#2 You look for approval from others
Perfectionists often want to be approved of and accepted by someone else. Deep down it could be about trying to reach an unattainable and idealised version of yourself as opposed to something that feels more authentic. This could be about wanting to be liked. Consequently, you may find yourself fitting around someone else’s needs, and looking to someone else for validation, instead of self-validating and getting your needs met.
#3 You procrastinate
Perfectionism does not help when it comes to going forward and taking risks, allowing for personal growth. This means it becomes hard to prioritise what is important. Instead perfectionists get stuck on small details, obsessing over every setback. It means it may take a long time to do things because you feel that a sense of failure is to be avoided at all costs.
#4 Nothing is ever good enough
Perfectionists can have extremely high standards, and therefore it is very hard to feel that what they do is good enough. They strive to avoid these uncomfortable feelings creating a split between what feels good – when something is achieved and what feels bad – often themselves when things are perceived to be going wrong. You may strive more or you may opt all together if you can’t seem to ever quite reach what you want in this all or nothing approach.
Managing perfectionism in lockdown
#1 Step back and become more self-aware
Take a break, try some mindfulness (e.g. meditation), start journaling, or speak to someone you can trust. Perfectionist thinking can become paranoid and overly negative. Additionally, the effects of tiredness and anxiety make it hard to know what to do with these powerful thoughts and feelings when they are in the driving seat. Breaking this vicious circle is the first step. Resist the temptation to work longer and longer hours as you no longer have to travel and set boundaries between work and home.
#2 Challenge your thinking
Become more resilient and allow uncomfortable feelings to surface. These feelings allow us to feel human, connected with our vulnerabilities and others’. If perfectionism is about avoidance, ask yourself what is it you are really avoiding? And start with smaller forms of imperfection – could you live with your desk being in a mess? And build up your resilience from there. Unplanned working from home, as many of us have experienced over the lockdown, is an imperfect situation, so acknowledge the discomfort it brings and try to accept that there will be interruptions and unexpected practical hiccups to deal with.
There is no one magical solution. It requires persistence. It might feel uncertain and new. As a perfectionist, you may not get this “right” the first time round!
#3 Set healthier boundaries
Think about how your perfectionism is affecting you. Rather than worrying about how someone else might think of you, think about how you are causing yourself this stress and anxiety by pushing yourself. Ask yourself, what you can do realistically, and what you can’t do – and draw that line. No one can do it all – no one is superhuman – and you may have had to pick up extra responsibilities at home during the lockdown period, so let colleagues and clients know what you can commit to and stick by it.
#4 Be “good enough”
A perfectionist’s standards can be too high, so lower the bar and be kind to yourself. Practise a bit of self-love and self-care. Ask yourself does it have to be like this? Or could you lower your standards? And in doing so still get a “good enough” result, without it needing to be perfect to your own detriment.
Challenge your thinking, could you practise a form of selective perfectionism, and mould the “all or nothing” approach into more of a selective approach.
Speak to someone that you feel you can trust, get support and start building up a network, especially if you work for yourself or if you are missing the input you normally get from colleagues in the office.
#5 Perseverance/Repeat 1-4
Change is hard work, only through commitment can you start to reap the rewards. This is a process, not a switch you can make overnight.
Enlist the help of a professional
It can be difficult to shift these ways of thinking. Speaking to a counsellor can provide understanding about the root causes. Perfectionism can date back to early patterns of relating that can be carried into adulthood. A counsellor can help with understanding the causes and support you as you develop a greater sense of self-awareness and self-acceptance.
This article represents the views of the author only and is not advice. It is for information only and should not be taken as a substitute for seeking help from a mental health professional. Specialist help should be sought in relation to your specific circumstances.
Emilia Yau is an experienced BACP psychodynamic counsellor, ex-City lawyer, and consultant lawyer with Obelisk. She is inspired to help her clients make changes so they feel more empowered and can live more fully. She practises out of two peaceful therapy rooms based at London Bridge and in Tunbridge Wells. When not at work you can find her walking her dog, doing something outdoors or even practising a spot of mindfulness.