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.