The imperfections of perfectionism

The pursuit of perfection, knowing when to stop and how to loosen perfectionism’s powerful grip


Have you ever considered, perhaps when preparing for judicial appointment, interview for a new set of chambers or pupillage interview, that in an effort to turn a challenge into a strength, you planned to say your greatest weakness was perfectionism? It is, after all, an attribute to which many aspire. Turn a negative to a positive, and all that. When tweaking and re-tweaking a skeleton argument, case summary or the like, do you attribute your high standards to being a perfectionist?

And yet, since perfectionism involves the ceaseless pursuit of unattainable goals, a constant strive for flawlessness, how attractive a trait really is it? Ask yourself honestly whether your own version of ‘perfect’ is ever truly attainable?

I recall an example of my own desire to have something perfect from nearly 25 years ago, at Bar school – my advocacy assessment – a plea in mitigation which I practised, re-practised and practised some more. I had it word-perfect, the facial expressions I’d got down to a tee (having practised countless times in the mirror). I could recite it without notes, in the dark, with my eyes shut, certain that at the end of it all I’d be getting the T-shirt too. But, in an effort to get everything just right, I had failed entirely to take into account the possibility of anything unexpected. I certainly hadn’t foreseen the video operator opening and then eating very loudly a bag of Walkers Salt n Shake crisps whilst I struggled through my ‘May it please, Your Honour’ script.

All’s well that ends well; after a complaint to the examining board, my performance was re-marked and awarded the highest possible grade. However, it was a good and lifelong lesson about how sometimes it’s perfectly all right, pardoning the pun, to say: ‘Done is better than perfect.’ This was a classic case of how the desire for perfection was unrealistic and became more about control and inflexibility. The initial end result had clearly not served me well.

Other unhelpful consequences of perfectionism include the tendency to self-flagellate when targets aren’t met and to view progress or results negatively. Consequently, confidence and mood can be affected adversely.

Awareness is key

Fear not if you recognise some – even all – of the ten traits in yourself (see box). They certainly aren’t uncommon, particularly amongst high achieving professionals. Having some awareness around the tendency towards perfectionism is an essential first step on the road to tackling and overcoming its potentially adverse and damaging consequences.

These include:

  • the hindering of progress;
  • working under self-induced and unnecessary pressure;
  • a sense of inner turmoil, constant strife and disappointment;
  • exhaustion;
  • sleeplessness;
  • low self esteem; and
  • in extreme cases, depression and other mental health issues.

So what are the solutions?

How to loosen perfectionism's powerful grip

Mindset

For me, the first starting point has to be mindset. Once it is recognised that ‘Practice makes progress’ not ‘Practice makes perfect’, it will become easier to recognise and give credit for achievements and progress made along the way, however small, rather than purely focusing on the bigger goals. By celebrating strengths and successes, as opposed to commiserating perceived failures, thinking remains positive and confidence is boosted.

Goals

As far as goals are concerned, adjust them. First, check that those bigger goals are realistic and achievable as opposed to burdensome and unattainable. Secondly, let your motivation to achieve them be pleasure as opposed to because of ‘need’. Desire the results instead of fearing failure.

Next, break down the bigger goals into bite-sized chunks so that they are more manageable to tackle and so that measurability is built into the plan. That way, progress can be more easily celebrated along the way, and low self-esteem avoided.

Habits

Ask whether perfectionist habits picked up along the way serve or hinder objectives. How would outcomes improve with a different response or an adjusted approach? Challenge yourself to overcome those unhelpful habits by testing opinion against reality. For example, delegate a task having asked ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Go into a day without a list and measure the actual not perceived effects on productivity and outcomes.

Language

Look at the use of language. Can a kinder, more generous tone be adopted towards yourself and others? Think how outcomes would improve with more supportive and encouraging, rather than negative and critical, words. Similarly, learn to handle feedback and criticism of others through practice, and a disassociation from taking it personally.

Practice makes progress

Breaking and changing habits can take time. But working from the premise ‘Practice makes progress’, it’s got to be worth that, at the very least. 

Nikki Alderson @NikkiAlderson2 is a former criminal barrister, now corporate and executive coach supporting chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent: www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com. Her new book Raising the Bar is published in October 2019.


Recognising the signs

Through one-to-one coaching sessions with lawyer clients, I’ve come to spot ten tell-tale signs. Do you recognise any of them in yourself?

  1. Setting demanding and unrealistic standards for oneself and others, for example unachievable goals.
  2. Exhibiting high levels of self-criticism and criticism towards others when exacting standards remain unmet: nothing less than perfect will do.
  3. Extreme thinking which is overly results-driven, and with a tendency to dwell on the losses, the things that didn’t go well, as opposed to the positive learnings and achievements along the way.
  4. Delegation is a challenge – no one else can do things to the same high standards. The desire to control is strong.
  5. Using pressurised language such as ‘I should do X…’, ‘I need to do Y…’ revealing the motivation towards goals is the fear of failure rather than the desire to achieve them.
  6. Over work, and the over-use of lists to measure progress, which are cross-checked, refined, re-written, ticked off in perpetuity.
  7. Procrastination due to time-wasting on counter-productive activities and, in extreme cases, avoiding situations altogether due to the potential risk of perceived failure.
  8. Not being a ‘finisher’, leaving tasks incomplete because there is a lack of awareness around when to stop, or even, when finished, tasks are never judged truly perfect.
  9. Defensiveness when challenged.
  10. Self-worth and self-confidence being inextricably linked to achievements.
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Nikki Alderson

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister. She is now a corporate and executive coach supporting chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives (www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com).