Perfectionism is a really hard beast to defeat, particularly for lawyers. We’re surrounded by a culture of “no mistakes,” despite the fact that lawyers are people, people are not perfect, and people therefore make mistakes all the freaking time.
It’s easy to confuse perfectionism and striving to do your best. The outward appearance often looks the same: a good, or better yet, stellar result. In fact, most perfectionists attack the idea of not trying to be perfect as an idea of settling for failure, of settling for much less than can be achieved.
But that’s not it at all. As Dr. Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” (emphasis mine) It’s the toxic idea that you are your performance.
The opposite of perfectionism is what Brown calls healthy striving. Striving asks the questions “How can I improve?” and “How can I do this better?”
If the question you’re asking is “What will they think?” that’s a red, waving, glowing flag that perfectionism has taken over your wheel and is steering.
There is another way.
Here’s the Big Tip: Be Curious
Curiosity is the magic perfectionism turn-off switch. Rather than telling yourself that you must do x well or the world will end because someone will find out you are a fraud who should be fired on the spot, ask instead “I wonder how I could do that better?” Or when you’re stuck on something, ask “I wonder what would happen if . . . ?”
I won’t sugar-coat it: This is a very difficult mental shift for long-time, hard-core perfectionists (read: most lawyers). You might want to start with smaller things more on the periphery of your life, just to build up your mental and emotional muscles before you try it with the really huge, mission-critical feeling stuff in your life.
Smaller things could include:
Paths and routes. Commuting is one of those things that we have turned into the Perfectionist Olympics in many cities. With our GPS and apps, we strive to make our commutes as short and efficient as possible. As perfect as possible. And we get boilingly frustrated when we can’t make that happen despite technology and our best efforts.
So rather than aiming for perfect efficiency, instead ask “What you can I see if I take a different route to or from work?” Or, if that’s too overwhelming to tackle, what if you stop for 10 minutes on your way to the grocery store to walk through a new-to-you park? Either way, maybe you’ll stumble on a new place to grab breakfast or lunch. Maybe you’ll see a little spot of color or a fountain to savor. Maybe you’ll run into an old acquaintance. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, sometimes the difference between a groove and a rut is how long you’ve been in it. Start a new groove, and get curious about it.
And when stuck in traffic that won’t move, use your time for something other than fuming about how idiotic people are. It may be true, but it doesn’t help to focus on that. Get curious about how you can use this time for something calming or positive.
Food. I’m fairly certain that when Julia Child started making French cooking less intimidating and more accessible to housewives, she did not envision the Perfectionist Food Olympics. Yet with Martha Stewart, The Food Network and their ilk, perfectionists who practice in the food arena have been really enabled in the last couple decades.
If I say use dried parsley, and your response is gaah!!! I’d sooner eat sawdust!, you might be a food perfectionist. Or, you might be one if you cringe at the thought of buying grocery store cookies rather than baking some from scratch to take to the office party. Or if the idea of inviting friends over and sharing a bucket of KFC, rather than painstakingly creating a gourmet meal, makes you twitch.
So get curious about food instead. Ask “What’s the cheapest way I can make a dish that is 90% as good as the one with the $75 ingredients?” or “How many ways can I use the same 5 or 8 ingredients, so my grocery trips are easier and I still cook, rather than grab fast food because I don’t have an hour at night to craft the perfect gourmet meal?” “What’s easy that I can grab on the way home to share with friends whom I want to see, rather than spending time with the innards of my kitchen?”
You get the idea. Rather than get frustrated because you don’t have the time/energy/funds for perfectionist cooking, get curious about what you can do with the time/energy/funds you do have.
Appearance. I may be the only (recovering) lawyer in the world who does this. But when I have a networking event to go to, or even a lunch with a friend I don’t see often, I get weird about my clothes. I MUST FIND THE PERFECT OUTFIT. Now, mind you, I am no one’s idea of a clothes horse. I’m one of those people that Stacey and Clinton would cluck over for not spending even $1,000 annually on clothes and shoes. Did I say $1,000? I meant $500. But when faced with a new situation, my perfectionist default is to try to cover up my body imperfections and my generally lackadaisical attitude about clothes, so I can fake that smooth, professional façade and fit in.
Lately, I’ve started calling myself on this. I take a deep breath, and rather than go out and mindlessly spend $30 on something to make myself feel better, I try to work with what I’ve got.
Or, I try to use that urge to slick up to instead do something creative. For example, I had lunch with a friend just the other day, and the “gotta look rockin” urge switched on. So I took the plain $8 Target t-shirt I already had, and splurged a whole $8 more on some embellishments for it at Jo Ann’s (you know, my creativity crack house).
I had a lot of fun doing it, and it challenged my inner critic because of course, I wanted the embellishment experiment to go perfectly. It didn’t go quite as I envisioned, but you know what? Spending that 15 minutes throwing a flower pin together, as weird and quirky as it turned out, pumped me up all day long. I was giddy at times. Plus, I had a great time with my friend, fancy that.
How can you tame your perfectionist tendencies? Do share!
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 (it’s free!!) to discuss driving out your perfectionism demons. Or schedule a discounted sample coaching session to get more personalized help by emailing email@example.com.