Perfectionism is often cited as a cause of lawyer distress—you can check out resources about lawyers and perfectionism on our website.
Do you identify as a perfectionist? Do you think you were always a perfectionist, or did you develop perfectionist tendencies through your education or career?
I am not a personality psychologist—just a humble lawyer who is interested in what makes us tick and what can be done to help us be tickety-boo and not tickety-boom.
This week, I have been thinking about perfectionism, having read an article by a Canadian personality psychology research team who focus on perfectionism and—here is a new term for our lexicon—excellencism. Specifically, they research whether perfectionism leads to better outcomes than striving for excellence. They call this second category “excellence strivers” so I am going to use that term, getting enough grief from my Word editorial function for using “excellencism” that I don’t think “excellencists” will fly!
I am currently a perfectionist in recovery, but I was not a natural perfectionist. I am the second child in my family of origin, and my older sister got all the perfectionistic tendencies. I am only sixteen months younger, and I spent most of my childhood just trying to do whatever she did in whatever way I could and certainly not with a view to being perfect. I was happily imperfect, and she was unhappily perfectionistic.
We talked about this issue recently. My sister told me that her perfectionism caused procrastination—she couldn’t start an essay that was due the next day because she wasn’t sure that she had the perfect opening sentence. I, on the other hand, sat down to do my homework after school or after supper, coming up with a thesis statement and then going for it, not questioning it once I had it written out (in my imperfect handwriting.) She was usually scrawling away at the breakfast table while I read a novel, and I didn’t understand why she put herself under this pressure.
I had no trouble with “good enough.” In elementary school, I liked finishing tests and exams first more than I needed to get 100%. Ideally, I would be one of the first to finish and I would get one of the top scores, but I had no motivation to use time remaining on the clock to go back over my work. This approach saw me through to high school when I saw that the game had been upped and I began to strive for excellent results.
I don’t think I danced with perfectionism in high school, undergrad or even law school. I generally decided when I had studied enough or that a paper was good enough—the right amount of effort for the result I wanted. I knew that lawyers worked long hours, but twenty-two year old me figured that since I was a fast worker, I would just sail through by virtue of my speed.
It didn’t work out that way. Law rewards you for being a perfectionist or for attempting to think like a perfectionist even if that isn’t your natural inclination. I found that I could breeze through work and do an acceptable job. But excellence was out of reach until I doubled down my efforts and my hours. Practising law in some environments is about putting as much time in as possible to chase down every issue and identify a strategy for mitigating risk. It didn’t hurt that we billed by the hour—the system encourages us to continue past the point of excellence, in hot pursuit of perfectionism, whether you were actually adding value or not.
Once I discovered that perfectionism paved the path to success as a corporate lawyer, I embraced drafting public disclosure. The standard for these documents was pretty much perfection, and we got to proofread and fuss as much as we wanted. I got to play grammar freak—one of my favourite roles—and found something close to joy in discovering a mistake that others had missed. If I hadn’t fully embodied perfectionism, I was at least competitive: my product didn’t necessarily have to be perfect as long as it was better than everyone else’s! And as many of my peers were perfectionists, the bar was pretty high.
One of my theories about why lawyers become perfectionists (or allow their perfectionistic tendencies to run rampant) is that having been yelled at, castigated or dumped on for our imperfections once, we resolve that we will ensure that our subsequent work is perfect so that no one can yell at us, castigate us or dump on us again. Instead of waiting for the supervising lawyer to go through our work with a fine-tooth comb, looking for potential errors, we prefer to self-police and then flagellate ourselves instead of allowing someone else to do it for us. Perfectionism is associated with high levels of self-criticism, but which one comes first?
My own experience leads me to believe that at least some of us can overcome perfectionistic tendencies. I adjusted to business dynamics where perfectionism was too slow for what needed to be done, and my biggest shout out for overcoming perfectionism is this blog. When we first decided to communicate weekly with lawyers in the early days of the pandemic, we wanted to include a message. I thought that this would be a short-term thing, I mean after all—how long could the work from home regime really last?
This meant that I needed to write something every week. By Thursday, I needed a topic and by Friday morning, I needed something we could start putting into our newsletter framework. I decided that what mattered most was that we had credible evidence for statements regarding mental health and well-being, and that this was more important than my desire to polish and rewrite. I re-engaged by happy imperfectionism and, except for when we have had a guest writer, the blog somehow appeared even if the opening sentence could have been better. We are coming up on three years since launching the weekly newsletter. It isn’t perfect but it is honest and heart-felt and that is good enough.
So, what does research tell us about perfectionism? To reduce it to its simplest finding, excellencism is a better strategy then perfectionism both in terms of work product and in terms of well-being.
Professor Gaudreau and his co-authors outline many dimensions of perfectionism which they define as having excessively high and often unrealistic standards along with overly critical self-evaluation. They also define “excellencism” as a “tendency to aim and strive toward very high yet attainable standards in an effortful, engaged, and determined yet flexible manner.”
Both perfectionism and excellencism involve setting high standards, but excellence strivers know when they have achieved their goal while perfectionists may recognize having attained excellence but continue to push further.
There are a few key reasons why this matters. First, perfectionism is associated with achievement but also with negative outcomes like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. One study concludes that we should “not be promoting perfectionism as a way to secure desirable outcomes.” Wow—most lawyers focus on the achievement side of the equation and not the personal cost, so the idea of promoting something less than perfection may seem shocking. But as a profession, we pay a high personal cost for this approach.
Here are a few snippets from the Gaudreau paper about the negative side of perfectionism:
- Perfectionism involves continuing past excellence but may not add significant value while increasing psychological risk. One reason for this is that the pursuit of perfection tires perfectionists who are then too exhausted to seek out resources which support sustainable performance and well-being. The researchers state that the “pursuit of high standards can be seen as a good thing but pushing this tendency beyond the point of optimal returns may turn a good thing into a potentially deleterious one.”
- Perfectionism and excellencism are conceptually different but both relate to achievement. However, excellence-strivers are generally driven by a need to achieve success while perfectionists have “a mixed, antagonistic or conflictual style of achievement motivation with elevated desire to achieve success and to avoid failure.”
- Based on previous studies, researchers hypothesize that excellence-strivers “are expected to display a more positive outlook when faced with challenges, difficulties and demands. They should be less judgmental about their flaws and mistakes while exhibiting gentleness, supportiveness and acceptance towards themselves (i.e., self-kindness.) They should also accept that mistakes and imperfection are inherent parts of the human condition (i.e., common humanity) while being award of and accepting one’s negative experiences as a natural aspect of one’s difficulties (i.e., mindfulness.) Overall, self-compassion… should be more prevalent in excellence strivers compared to perfection strivers.”
- Excellence-strivers scored higher than perfectionists for agreeableness and openness, desirable personality traits in workplaces.
- Excellence-striving was a significant, positive predictor for achievement, while perfectionism was a significant positive predictor of fear of failure.
- Excellencism was a significant positive predictor of satisfaction of the need for competence, and perfectionism was a significant positive predictor of frustration of the need for competence.
- Impatience was higher for perfectionists than for excellence-strivers.
- Perfectionism was a significant negative predictor of self-compassion, confirming the researchers’ hypothesis that perfectionists were “more self-judgmental and less kind toward themselves when they experience difficulties.”
- Excellencism (but not perfectionism) is a significant positive predictor of life satisfaction.
- Excellencism (but not perfectionism) was a significant negative predictor of depression.
- Excellence strivers experienced feelings of imposter syndrome less frequently than perfection strivers.
If I were building a workplace that reflects what we learned during COVID-19 and the 2022 National Study on Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Professionals, I would also consider how to inspire excellencism among lawyers while minimizing perfectionistic tendencies. Professor Gaudreau and his team have developed a scale for assessing excellencism and perfectionism called SCOPE (Scale of Perfectionism and Excellencism). Perhaps human resources leadership and organizational psychologists will operationalize this tool for workplace adaptations, recognizing that many in their workplaces may default to perfectionism.
And if I were a perfectionist, I would look for resources and support for overcoming perfectionism. According to Anxiety Canada, the first step in overcoming perfectionism is learning to recognize whether you have perfectionist tendencies. You can start this process by answering four questions:
- Do I have trouble meeting my own standards?
- Do I often feel frustrated, depressed, anxious, or angry while trying to meet my standards?
- Have I been told that my standards are too high?
- Do my standards get in my own way? For example, do they make it difficult for me to meet deadlines, finish a task, trust others, or do anything spontaneously?
If you respond yes to these questions (or most of them), you can consider tools for reining in perfectionism, including:
- Realistic thinking
- Perspective taking
- Looking at the big picture
- Compromising, and
- Desensitizing your fear of imperfection.
Developing these skills alone can be difficult. Fortunately, you don’t have to do this on your own. Assist provides all Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and eligible dependents with 4 professional counselling sessions per person per issue per year. You can meet with one of our counsellors to help you understand your perfectionistic tendencies and how to implement strategies. It is free (to you) and it is confidential.
Perfectionism is common in our profession, and it appears to be a factor in lawyer discontent and distress. But we don’t have to let perfectionism make us miserable; self-compassion and kindness can overcome fear of failure.
Call us. We can help.