Tips for Lawyers To Exorcise the Perfectionism Demon

One of the hardest things about battling perfectionism as a lawyer is that you are surrounded, nay drowning, in other perfectionists. Law is about conforming, after all, and that is the heart of perfectionism: The more perfectly I conform (my thinking, my reasoning, my writing, my desires), the better I am regarded by others in my profession.

cartoon of demon emerging from man's mouth

Begone, you demon of perfectionism! I now have tips for getting rid of you . . .

At least, that’s how the thinking goes. It doesn’t necessarily match reality. When you think of the brilliant lawyers, what makes them brilliant is actually their ability to put together reasoning and arguments that haven’t been made before. That, my friends, is not conformity.

But for those of you who are faking law, who are not lawyers at heart, trying to appear like other lawyers is crucial. Because if they find out you’re not really one of them, you are out on your bum. You just know this. You might have to actually figure out that alternative legal career thing on a less leisurely schedule.

First, Accept Your Authentic Self

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, perfectionism is driven by the fear that we are not enough, and by the belief that if we change ourselves to match everyone else, we will then be accepted by the tribe.

Problem is, of course, that the tribe hasn’t accepted the authentic you, they’ve accepted a tarted up, distorted you. And that schism between the authentic you and the not-really-you breeds unhappiness and misery. (Plus, it allows lots of therapists and coaches to make their livings.)

One of the ways perfectionism sucks you dry is all the mental worry and self-flagellation. “How could I make that mistake?” “I’m going to get reamed during my review, and then I’ll get fired! What am I going to do?” “Why didn’t I catch that? I’m such a moron!” And on, and on, and on. It’s freaking exhausting.

Ignore the Blame-Shifters

Yes, some partners and colleagues are going to fixate on your mistake and beat you up about it. Guess what? They’re just distracting you, and they hope everyone else, so that no one will have time to notice their own mistakes and imperfections. That’s what blame-shifting is all about.

You cannot control that blame-shifting behavior, nor can you change the past. Yet lawyers spend extraordinary amounts of time and energy trying to do both those things. They put untold amounts of effort into a work product that, true, doesn’t have misplaced periods, commas, or wrong dates. But usually, the arguments made are several notches below inspired. Those CYA memos don’t actually help the client solve its problem, even indirectly.

Avoiding blame and trying to change the past when a mistake does happen are futile, hopeless tasks. No wonder so many lawyers are unhappy.

So step out of the game. Stop playing by the perfectionist rulebook. Start playing by the recovering perfectionist rulebook. When you get confronted by a nasty blaming email or sideswiped in a conversation, don’t respond to the blame-and-shame game. I know, so much easier said than done. But remember, YOU have the power to choose your response. You alone. So seize your power.

None of these tips are instant anti-perfectionism pills; they all require some practice and commitment on your part to use them. Please promise me you won’t beat yourself up when you don’t do them perfectly.

Tip #1: Focus on the now, and on solving the problem in front of you

Instead of instantly sinking into the internal blame game and giving power to your accuser, keep your power and integrity and ask some version of one of these questions:

  • What do you think needs to happen to fix this?
  • I can’t change the past, and while I wish things were different, they aren’t. So what can I do right now?
  • What about if we . . . ?
  • Let’s focus on helping the client and fixing the situation now, and figure out how to improve our process/procedures/fuckwittage once the crisis passes.
  • No, I’m not trying to evade responsibility. I just don’t understand how yelling at me is helping solve anything at the moment. Could you explain that, maybe?

A wonderful boss of mine once worked for an editor of a small commercial publication, back before the Internet. That editor kept a wall behind his desk with clippings of typos, double-entendre headlines, and all other manner of publishing sins that had appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other prominent publications.

Whenever his boss the publisher would come in and rip into him about a mistake in their publication, the editor would nod, take a moment to look at the clippings board, and then ask what the publisher wanted him to do to fix it. He would offer options and suggestions. But he didn’t play the shame-and-blame, tear down his self-esteem game. He had outsmarted perfectionism.

Tip #2: Imagine a Shield

When you are under attack for a mistake, think of an image that protects you from the barrage. Some people use the image of a heavy shield, or sitting inside a glass box. Or of being on a rock, with the raging torrent flowing around below you. I personally like imagining wearing mirrored body armor, or on dramatic days a reflective cape, because it reflects that negativity and hostility back on Mr. or Ms. Nasty. Make Karma your bitch, yanno?

One useful side-effect of this technique is that the more you focus on the image, the less you absorb the poison being spewed at you, because it’s not getting into your head in the first place.

Yes, I know, it sounds horribly New Age-y and all. All I can tell you is that if you practice it, it will work for you. Think of it as an extremely difficult meditation.

Oh, wow, look, my post is already too long by oh-so-many standards. Despite that lack of perfection, I’m posting anyway. And next time, I’ll cover at least 3 more tips that lawyers can use to tame the perfectionist beast.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist who is trying not to go into a perfectionist self-flagellation session of “should have posted this sooner than I did.” She helps unhappy attorneys fight—and win—those same sorts of perfectionist battles. If you would like help wrestling your perfectionism demon to the ground, schedule a discounted sample coaching session by emailing  jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

5 thoughts on “Tips for Lawyers To Exorcise the Perfectionism Demon

  1. Pingback: The Lawyer’s Demon: Perfectionism « Leaving the Law

  2. Pingback: Chasing the Perfect Job, Ruining Your Alternative Legal Career Search « Leaving the Law

  3. I’m a 35+ year lawyer (that’s the age of my legal career, not my age by the way) who stumbled upon your site on an infrequent internet cruise of “lawyers and perfectionism” as I identified that issue for me some years ago. You’ve made a statement that, for lawyers, mistakes are not data but evidence and nothing could be truer in our hyper blame and entitlement culture. I’ve often thought that perfectionism seems to be the minimum standard by which lawyers, especially trial lawyers, must operate within. The “what ifs” slowly grind lawyers away because we are not given the luxury of making even a small error, in fact, to avoid the terrible “what ifs” we must be perfect. Thanks for the site, thanks for the wisdom.

  4. finally stumbled upon someone else brave enough to speak the truth we navigate around every day. not the factual truth, that at least I embrace, the reality truth of what it takes day to day to survive out here!

  5. Glad to hear this conversation going on…. really important… below is a copy paste of my response to a post on another blog: http://www.sbmbestlegalfuture.com/2015/09/lawyers-big-legal-future-imperfection-our-penchant-for-perfectionism-.html

    (copy paste follows)

    Thanks for your important post!

    CQI, Continuous Quality Improvement.

    Works hand in hand with APPRECIATIVE PRACTICE INQUIRY, the Restorative Framework, Neuro-Evolutionary Brain Science and Tomkins’ Affect-Script Psychology:

    “What’s ALREADY WORKING WELL? What can we NOTICE about it? How can we DO MORE of it, and APPLY the lessons learned to DISPLACING what isn’t working so well?”

    (Brains stink at stopping doing anything, AND are fantastic learning machines that actually enjoy being “tricked” into new behaviors via appreciative inquiry.)

    We miss critical opportunities to “change the question, change the conversation, change the culture” when we teach, and reinforce, that mistakes and failures are to be avoided at all costs, and punished when they occur.

    Creativity, human progress, and survival fitness arise from failure more than success. Because failure is punishing enough via its natural consequences. See Darwin Awards for compelling demonstrative evidence.

    More enlightened understandings of the relationships among success, failure, the shame affect, human emotion and behavior, reduces repeating the SAME mistakes. These understandings also contribute to personal mental health, species survival fitness, and reduced Etoh and cocaine consumption.

    Meanwhile, they encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, to celebrate our successes AND failures, and most importantly, as the old song says “pick yourself up, dust yourself off”, and make some really important new mistakes to learn from!

    John Cutro, Staff Restorative Practitioner
    NYS Defenders Association
    jcutro@nysda.org

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