Perfectionists love to say that they’re not trying to be perfect, they’re just trying to do ________ right. Semantics, people.
Perfectionism is about trying to stave off blame and shame. And as we all know, lawyers have superpowers when it comes to inflicting shame and shifting blame, and they use them for evil in a nanosecond.
The reason this shaming behavior works so well in the legal profession is that almost all lawyers grew up living to other people’s standards, not their own. They bought in early to earning approval and acceptance through achievement and performance.
As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, those are things like:
- Appearance, and
The foundation of this belief system is that “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” That’s why BigLaw attorneys, for example, can’t cope with the idea of moving to a small firm that isn’t a prestigious, high-profile boutique. Brand-name law firm equals accomplishment, while run-of-mill law firm doesn’t. That’s also why the idea of pursuing an alternative legal career is simply terrifying: It’s stepping off the accomplishment path.
Perfectionism is one of the reasons so many of my clients have no idea what they actually like, or what they’re actually meant to do. They have been pleasing other people for so long, and ignoring their own desires for equally long, that the pathway to feeling their true heart and desires has suffered from uncleared rockfalls and other debris. Blasting through that rubble takes time and effort, but it’s really worth it.
Raging and Blaming
The alternative is to dwell in what Brown calls our rage-and-blame culture. It’s an exhausting way to live, and more than the actual number of hours lawyers work (which are criminal), the rage-and-blame culture of law firms and many other legal environments is why lawyers are so drained all the time, even when they’re away from the office for a magical few days.
Plus, as Brown notes, that exhaustion prevents us from having the energy to form meaningful connections in our lives. I said for years before I left Washington, D.C. that no one there had time to be your friend, and it’s still quite true. People, including lawyers, pour all their time and effort into their jobs, hoping to get that coveted stamp of “I’m perfect now that I’ve worked so hard and so long.” That stamp is always just out of reach, and they lose the gifts and solace that connection could bring them.
Lest you think that your perfectionism only affects you, you might want to ponder Brown’s assertion: “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplaces with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families.”
Next time, I’ll talk about some strategies for derailing perfectionism at work, in your career search, and in other areas of life.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist who published this blog post even though she feels it’s far from perfect. She helps unhappy attorneys step away from their perfectionism so they can discover a joyful, connected career and life. Join her on the phone July 6 at 1:30 ET for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club to discuss driving out your perfectionism demons. Or schedule a sample coaching session to get more personalized help by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.