The Downside of Perfectionist Thinking

 The following blog post was written by Sydney Coelho, Regent J.D. Class of 2022, with edits by Professor Benjamin Madison:

A recent article featured by the British Broadcasting Corporation which claims that statistics show an increase in perfectionist tendencies in millennials compared to older generations. Frankly, it wasn’t surprising to hear, albeit a bit distressing. The phenomenon deserves attention because, as the article points out, perfectionism is linked to several health problems, including anxiety, insomnia, and depression—some of the major wellness issues affecting lawyers and law students. In fact, in 2018, Above the Law published an article all about law students and the battle with perfectionism in which it details the link between perfectionism and other issues like procrastination and low self-esteem.

And which law student doesn’t struggle with low self-esteem? As some of the crème de la crème of high achievers, 1L year is, in its own way, a sort of existential crisis where students are left wondering their worth as they’re ranked against their peers. As one practicing professional put it, “I was top of my class, but so was everyone else, and only one person can rank first.” Law students, like lawyers, can be “Type A” persons. To avoid the damaging effect of continuous perfections-seeking, one needs to develop a healthier perspective and then to follow it.

One important guiding principle is for law students (and later lawyers) to consider with whom they are comparing themselves and by what standard. St. Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 10:12 reminds us, “do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” (NIV). St. Paul’s guidance needs to be unpacked. Comparing oneself to others and trying to be like others who “commend themselves” will lead one to perfectionist behavior. However, the practice of comparing oneself to oneself is not necessarily unhealthy, so long as one is making a comparison of one’s progress in developing values or skills.  One can take satisfaction in seeing one’s progress from a poor writer to a good writer.   Here the key concept is the person is seeking to make “progress”—or, as one book puts it, “progress not perfection."[1]  In other words, the healthier approach is for one to measure one’s progress by more humble standards and to not seek to meet goals that, in one’s mind, deserve “commendation of others.” Seeking to reach goals to be commended is likely to lead to perfectionism.  Seeking humble progress in one’s development of life and working skills is reasonable and, in the end, will likely lead to internal satisfaction. To follow through on the earlier passage, one does well to keep reading and see the following affirmation: “[I]t is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” 2 Corinthians 10:18 (NIV).

It is only when one stops comparing oneself to one’s peers that someone can focus on the positive aspects she brings to her studies and the practice of law. Once the law student internalizes that lesson, she can begin to see her worth. That change of perspective should result in a shift from perfectionist thinking to realistic appraisal and goal-seeking.[2]

Moving from comparing oneself to others (and perceived external ideals) to comparing oneself humbly to oneself and seeking progress. In all likelihood, one will have to break a habit, perhaps one that is ensconced.  However, once one is aware of the tendency toward perfectionist comparison, one can then seek out the root or cause of the behavior, and come up with a strategy to counter the behavior.[3] For some, this may involve talking to a friend or professional.[4] For everyone, the goal should be to reassess how they see themselves. For one’s worthiness is not defined by being the best at everything, or being ranked” better” than everyone, one’s worth exists already and the student will find that everyone has gifts. Accepting one’s worth, and following the mantra of “progress not perfection," a student is far more likely to find her place in the legal field where her gifts will be of most help to others. And in so doing she will find the very satisfaction that eludes perfectionists.



Defining Values

The following blog post was written by Sydney Coelho, Regent J.D. Class of 2022:  

Last month we discussed defining your “Integrity Standard” and promised to deliver a means to determine that. This month, we’ve delivered.

Matthew 7:15 reminds us, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (ESV).


Reflecting on the above verse, we are reminded not only not to judge others, but that a tendency in human nature is to judge others. We are further instructed that judgement, without reflection, is hypocrisy. In other words, logically speaking, if it’s human nature to pass judgment, and if judgment without reflection is hypocrisy, then we ought to must, at the very least, equip ourselves with knowledge to avoid—or at least reduce—our hypocrisy. Why does this matter?


Consider ABA Model Rule 2.1 which, for a reminder, states:


In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation.


If we are to give our counsel our clients, are we not casting judgments? That’s a necessary part of our role as an attorney. When we are aware of and in touch with our own weaknesses, we have more compassion for others and are able to make judgments that are tempered by our awareness that we, too, are works in progress and need to be self-aware and open to observations of trusted advisors.  That is the process of taking “the log out of our own eye.” When we make that a regular part of our life, we can offer clients moral advice that is tempered by our own awareness of the challenges of living by moral standards.


As one scholar puts it, “[v]alues and behavior go hand in hand.”[1] As we examine and reexamine the values to which we aspire, we see where we are living according to these values and where we are not.  In that process, we see that the advice to clients we offer is a form of judgment.  Under the influence of Matthew 7:15, we thus remember that we need to ensure we are continually evaluating the correlation between our values and our behavior.  When we do so, we will be in a position to offer moral advice to our clients, regardless of whether that involves advising them to remove a “speck” from their eye or make a more involved change of course.


While there are many ways to define values, this blog post from Psychology Today breaks it down in such an easy way. Breaking the article down further, it’s really all about (1) having an inventory of values; (2) thinking of three people who you look up to and why you look up to them; (3) considering the important things in your life you aren’t willing to sacrifice; and (4) reflecting on when you’ve been the most triggered or conflicted.  By considering these means to clarify our values, we equip ourselves to observe the “beam” in our own eyes if our actions are not consistent with an important value.


We also need to practice self-awareness and be willing to look at ourselves objectively. We ask questions such as: What pushes your buttons and why? You may find a lot of times it’s because a values conflict has arisen. For those who are religious, I add to this list the need to consider the foundational teachings of your religion. Consider the religious teachings, not the religion itself. Be honest with yourself. We are all flawed. There are, undeniably, certain things we practice better than others. For this values list, you should be willing to admit your weaknesses and areas in which you struggle, and then focus your attention on what you practice in making progress toward consistent actions that conform with values. What are your default actions and habits? What right conduct do you do without having to think about it? These, arguably, are your base values.


For Christians, broken down, this may look something like:


The Bible tells us loving your neighbor as yourself is important. Such an act would correlate to value of compassion. Arguably, someone who always listens or lends a helping hand may prioritize compassion for others over other values. Perhaps you may give your time, but you consider your family first. Thus, time with family, is actually one of your highest values. You can determine whether you are adhering to this value by observing whether, in the last month or two, how much time have you spent with family each week.  If you have work obligations, or have volunteered outside the home to help others, your trusted advisors can help you talk through whether that time away from value reflects a lack of commitment to your value of spending time with family, or an appropriate compromise of your time.


So, what do you value? To help you get started, below are two tools you might want to consider. The first is a worksheet, offered for free for those who sign in with LinkedIn. The other is a free tool offered by a nonprofit.


Once you have your values, the next step is to find someone who can advise you. Be sure to check back next month when we begin addressing this topic next month.


Self-Care is Still a Form of Service

 The following blog post was written by Sydney Coelho, Regent J.D. Class of 2022: 

Self-Care is Still a Form of Service

Stress. It’s a word everyone is familiar with. We all live with it. In a profession that prides itself on serving others, stress is a given. But when you’re constantly in the mode of serving, sometimes you forget to take time for yourself. The phenomenon of overextending oneself can result from many factors. However, a perceived lack of control over increasing demands is by and large the biggest culprit of workplace stress in general.[1] Law, as a profession, is an innately demanding profession. It’s no wonder lawyers are stressed. It’s not only practicing professional who are stressed however. Statistics show that “96% of law students experience significant stress [in the course of their studies], compared to 70% of med students and 43% of grad students.”[2] Think about that figure: 96%! That’s almost a guarantee that at some point in your legal education you will be overwhelmed. For me, it was 1L year. So, what is this thing called stress? How should we define it, and how should we—for lack of a better word—combat it?

According to The American Institute of Stress, stress has many definitions because it changes from person to person.[3] This is because people tend to define stress based on the “negative feelings and emotions it produces.”[4] The Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) defines it as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”[5] The OED further denotes stress as a “mass noun,” which is “a noun denoting something that cannot be counted.”[6] In other words, stress can best be defined as a subjective emotional state of distress that results in a physical manifestation of discomfort.

How can we reduce the load stress gives us? Scripture reminds us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” for which “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [7],[8] In other words, if we think about it, stress is the physical manifestation of the reaction to God’s trials, and the various steps we take to manage stress are the tools of power, love, and self-control God provided us. Recognizing the immense problem facing law students, CEFLER teamed up with Regent University’s Psychological Services Center to provide law students with some guidance in stress management.  For instance, we learned the following methods that—if practiced regularly—can offset stress:  1) One minute of deep breathing; (2) a body scan that helps to identify where our body is holding stress, 3) Meditating on a short scripture verse, 4) making a regular gratitude list .  . .   Addressing stress, rather than let it “control” us, leads to emotional well-being and overall health.   Interested in learning more? See below for the slides from presentation to find out how you too can manage your stress and mitigate the chances of burnout, in law school and beyond.







[4] Id.


[7] James 1:2 (ESV).

[8] 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV).


Wellness and Sleep Go Hand-in-Hand

The following blog post was written by Sydney Coelho, Regent J.D. Class of 2022: 

In the 2006 indie hit, The Science of Sleep, Stephane Miroux, the protagonist, said, “The brain is the most complex thing in the universe and it’s right behind the nose.”[1] The film, which explored the dreams of a lovestruck man, has virtually nothing to do with the law, but the significant role sleep plays in complex brain functioning does. This includes everything from neurotransmissions, to toxin removal, bodily system functions (e.g. immune system and metabolism), and even memory.[2] While none of this may shock you, what is surprising is that a 2012 study found law to be the second most sleep-deprived profession.[3]  Now that’s a problem.


Biblical teaching tells us that “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Psalm 127:2 ESV. Furthermore, science has shown that lack of sleep actually correlates to the ability to make ethical decisions.[4] In a profession that requires ethical decision making in every facet of our career, the fact that lawyers (and law students) are sleep deprived should raise a red flag. In the very least, it should cause any legal professional to pause and assess. While we as professionals may recognize this issue, very few will deny that saying we need sleep is easier than actually getting in a full eight to nine hours. Anxiety and depression are some of the more common reasons.[5]


As one of CEFLER’s cofounders, Professor Ben Madison, notes:


From being a Christian, meeting with Christians weekly for years to nurture our faith, and form mentoring law students, I really believe Christians have a hard time with the concept of self-care. We seem to think it is somehow self-centered to take care of oneself. I know I’ve learned the hard way not to push my limits. I am far less able to be of use to the Lord and to others when I don’t take care of myself.   Sleep is one of those items I consider non-negotiable. I don’t always sleep as well as I’d like but I follow a routine that makes it more likely to get good sleep.


With this focus in mind, CEFLER is working with outside resources to bring law students resources to help them manage their stress. Up first, CEFLER and the Psychological Services Center will be discussing burnout event this Friday, October 16, 2020.


Until then, are you struggling to get some Zs? This article from The National Jurist says it’s all about how you manage your time.


The Integrity Standard

The following blog post was written by Sydney Coelho, Regent J.D. Class of 2022:

In the mid-17th century, a few years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a series of political letters penned under the pseudonym Junius were published in the Public Advertiser (a.k.a. London Daily Post). In those letters, Junius wrote that “[t]he integrity of men is to be measured by their conduct, not the profession." While this may and should be true for the general public, for those of us who have chosen a profession where we become a pillar of the community, this standard doesn’t seem to apply. As a role model, we are measured by our conduct, but that very same measurement is also a reflection of our profession.

Integrity. This word carries with it a concept that is drilled into us from day one of our legal pursuits, and will continued to be expounded upon throughout our legal careers. ABA Model Rule 8.4: Misconduct, sometimes referred to as the Integrity Rule, at its core reflects the very weight placed upon our shoulders through its list of acts that would be considered professional misconduct. Simply put, those who lack integrity will, by default, perform such acts. These guidelines (or rules as one might say) not only define the integrity of the profession, but also who we become as practicing professionals and as human beings. But what about beyond the rules? Surely, we, as legal professionals, are more than our profession. Junius believed it, and so do I.

Scripture tells us in Proverbs 10:9 that, “[w]hoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.” (ESV). Integrity, in other words, is associated with the righteous; with those of high character and morals. Better yet, as this Forbes article puts it, integrity is the core values of our choices and influences. As a result, similar standards of integrity are what we look for in those around us. This is especially true about leaders and role models.

As legal professionals, whether we like it or not, our standards of integrity will be scrutinized so long as we remain in the profession. Lawyers are leaders. Because of this, and for their own health and well-being, they must not only understand the values of the profession, but also their own core values. Why? Because it is our values that shape how we deal with ethical conflicts. For it is when those values are conflicted or forced into compromising situations that a lawyer will be most tested spiritually.

So what are your core values and how do you determine them? Check out the blog next month to find out more.