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Perfectionist or High Performer? Which Are You?

Mark the commercial litigator was constantly writing down his bills because of his “leave no stone unturned” approach to research and preparation of his files.

Krista was always late with her time entry. She would hold off releasing it until the very last minute for fear of missing some small detail.

Trent has a desk piled high with filing because he is always waiting for the right time to tackle it all in one go.

What do Mark, Krista, and Trent have in common? They are all perfectionists.

I had a good discussion today about perfectionism with Derek LaCroix, QC, Executive Director with the Lawyers Assistance Program of BC. Derek and I will be co-presenting an on-line CLE presentation on the topic Understanding and Overcoming Perfectionism. I wanted to share with Slaw readers some highlights from our discussion.

What is perfectionism? Perfectionism is when you have exceptionally high standards and expectations for yourself. Perfectionists are highly self-critical. Perfectionism is accompanied by certain beliefs or thinking patterns that are incorrect and/or unworkable. Most simply, it is the need to be and do everything to perfection.

The result of perfectionism is that it kills the joy in our pursuits. Perfectionists become so anxious that the satisfaction they take from their work is dulled. Perfectionists are not able to savour their successes. Instead, every successful outcome is experienced as a disaster averted.

Perfectionism ironically contributes to poor performance and results in practice management issues such as chronic procrastination, billing write-downs, missed deadlines or repeated requests for extensions, poor mentorship, and a host of other problems.

The legal profession has a high incidence of perfectionism. It is a profession where people are frequently making judgments and people are looking for the slightest mistake – all this can promote perfectionism. The top legal performers though are not perfectionists but those who pursue excellence, not perfection.

The distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence exists in an individual’s mindset and beliefs. Top performers are able to enjoy hard work and performance. They strive for excellence and understand that mistakes and losses will also be experienced along the way. Beliefs that drive excellent performance are that it is important to do one’s best and to strive not to make errors. When errors or mistakes happen from time to time, top performers take it in stride, solve the problem, and learn from the experience.

An example of the mindset of a top performer can be found in a senior corporate lawyer who I will call Dennis. Dennis is quiet, thoughtful, and conscientious. Dennis is in his sixties and has a large stable of loyal clients who appreciate his understanding of their businesses and the considered and effective advice he has given them over the years. He is also a very good mentor. Last year a transaction for one of his clients closed while he was away from the office. Due to a mistake on an associate’s part a substantive error was made with negative implications for the client. When the associate came to Dennis to tell him about the error Dennis did not explode in anger, he just calmly said, “this is why we have insurance.” Then he worked with the associate to remedy the problem.

For perfectionists mistakes are absolutely unacceptable. Any mistakes or errors have a direct relationship with the person’s value as an individual. Mistakes equal failure. Failure means failure as a professional and as a human being. Were Dennis a perfectionist, he would never have forgiven himself for handing off the work to other lawyers. He would have mentally beaten himself up for what he would perceive as an unforgivable error of judgement.

Here are some of the common thinking patterns of the perfectionist – do you recognize any of them in you?

  • Anything short of excellent is terrible
  • I should be able to do/solve this quickly/easily
  • I am best handling this myself
  • I must find the one right answer
  • Errors, failure, mistakes are unacceptable
  • I have to do it all at once

Perfectionists for the most part suffer in silence. Part of the perfectionist mindset in an aversion to asking for help. Perfectionists live with with various degrees of anxiety, they are unhappy with their work, and over the years the stress can have a significant physical impact.

The good news is there is a way back to joy and satisfaction. It is absolutely possible to shift from perfectionism to the healthy pursuit of excellence. It is possible to tame anxiety and tame the negative thoughts through practice, and trial and error. Here are some of the approaches recommended by counsellors:

  • Basic cognitive recognition and restructuring: This involves becoming aware of your beliefs and though patterns. Once you are aware of these beliefs and thoughts you challenge them. This takes place through inner dialogue. You learn how your experiences can be viewed differently.
  • You start with targeting a specific behavior or challenge. For example John was a perfectionist with a desk covered with a backlog of filing. The obstacle was that John was always waiting for the perfect time to tackle the filing all at once. John decided to adopt the practice habit of dedicating just ten minutes once a day to filing. John knew the mental obstacle would be that desire to do the filing in the best and most efficient way which for him was all at once. When he started on his new ten minutes a day habit, sure enough, he was immediately struck by how inefficient it was to do just ten minutes. But we had discussed this mental obstacle, and so he responded by saying to himself that he is trying this new approach of ten minutes a day. John was able to stick with his new practice habit and in two weeks his desk was clear.
  • Exposure is another way of targeting a behavior. The trick is to intentionally make a little mistake or to do something less than perfect. The goal is to do this repeatedly to expose yourself to the result you fear – errors – in a small and manageable way in order to build up your tolerance for imperfection.

For anyone who suffers in a serious way with perfectionism it is not possible to make the changes without outside help. When a perfectionist reads the self-help books and tries to change, they bring all their perfectionist tendencies to the task, and the failure to change becomes another trigger for self-recrimination. Many perfectionists try to change and then give up because they feel stuck and hopeless.

Change is possible with help. The first step is to speak with a qualified counsellor or a coach. I want to emphasise that getting help with perfectionism is not a big deal. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. What it does mean is that you have a challenge in your life that you are making a determination to deal with and put behind you. It is about taking action to get a happier and healthier professional life and personal life. Put it in the same category as seeing a physiotherapist for a muscle injury. In British Columbia and in other Canadian jurisdictions the Lawyers Assistance Program offers confidential and experienced counsel on this and related subjects for lawyers and their families at no cost.

Many lawyers have made the shift from perfectionist to high performer and the personal benefits they experience are immense: Greater satisfaction at work, a capacity to take on more, and a richer and fuller life. If you believe you may have the makings of a perfectionist, ignore what that perfectionist inner voice of yours might tell you, and take the important first step of seeking help.

My thanks to Derek LaCroix, QC, a recovered perfectionist and Executive Director of the Lawyers Assistance Program of BC for sharing his experience with this topic. Any pearls of wisdom you take from this article may be attributed to him, any errors are my own. (And I am good with that!)

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Comments

  1. Great article.

    I find that perfectionism is something that students making the transition from law school struggle with. They might be used to an environment where time is basically unlimited and an answer is out there to be found. An environment where they’re on a budget or a fixed deadline can be a difficult experience and one that not all students get comfortable with.

  2. Wendy Reynolds

    Allison is the program going to be recorded?

  3. Derek LaCroix, QC and I are going to offer a second and fresh presentation on perfectionism on November 5 at noon Pacific time for CLEBC. It’s a video broadcast so available to lawyers across Canada. The first presentation was favorably received and this time we would like to fine tune the content and provide more tips and suggestions for people to implement. It will then be rebroadcast in March 2014.