Is perfectionism really helping you?

Wednesday 22 September 2021

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Perfectionism can be defined as a personality trait and/or learnt behaviour characterised by setting unrealistically high standards for oneself or others, accompanied by unduly critical self-evaluations and concerns about other’s evaluations in the process of striving for flawlessness.

It’s possible to be perfectionistic in one or multiple areas of life such as work, fitness, appearance, eating and housework.

When is perfectionism unhelpful? The paradox of perfectionism

Having high standards, aiming for accuracy and striving for success are commendable traits and valued skills in a solicitor. However, while perfectionism might feel protective against errors/mistakes, it can paradoxically undermine performance and negatively impact self-esteem, confidence, mental health and the quality of our relationships.

People with perfectionism often have unrelenting high standards for themselves and those around them, and as a result can be especially critical. They may react with anger or blame when mistakes do occur (no matter how minor), or when tasks are not completed to their standards. Over time, this can erode the quality of their relationships (both professional and personal).

Anxiety and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand. People with perfectionism might judge their self-worth on their ability to meet excessively high standards. However, no matter how hard one tries, mistakes can still occur and it’s impossible to control for everything. Many people with perfectionism also experience difficulties with excessive worry. Perfectionism can result in putting too much emphasis on the detail and losing sight of the bigger picture.

Due to a fear that they will not be able to achieve their high standards, or to avoid failure, it's common for people with perfectionism to engage in avoidant behaviours. Frequently, perfectionism can contribute to time inefficiencies in the completion of tasks. It can be difficult to get started on a task when experiencing worry that the task will not be completed perfectly. When someone perceives a higher challenge than they feel capable of, they sidestep the discomfort through diversion. However, the demands of the task do not go away, and this creates more stress as the work begins to pile up. Procrastination continues in a vicious cycle as the new sum of tasks is even bigger than was previously conceived. Similarly, perfectionism can result in excessive checking, reassurance-seeking, fixation over the possibility of making even small/minor mistakes, and difficulties with decision making. 

People with perfectionism tend to minimise their accomplishments and can feel pervasively discontent with their achievements. There is also a limit to our personal resources. Focusing on achieving perfection in an area of our lives, can result in neglect of other areas. 

Addressing perfectionistic tendencies

Here are some strategies that can be used to address your perfectionistic tendencies:

  • Evaluate perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours in terms of how helpful they are to you
  • Reframe self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic and balanced thoughts
  • Understand what underlies and triggers your perfectionism
  • Set realistic expectations of yourself and of others. Reflect on how you respond when things may not go your way or to your plan
  • Learn to differentiate between those tasks/activities that require 100% perfection and those which do not
  • Focus on the process of completing a task/activity, not only on the end result
  • Set goals that are not only challenging, but which are also realistic and achievable
  • Don’t be fearful of mistakes, this is often when learning occurs

Self-talk to challenge unhelpful perfectionistic thoughts

When you catch yourself engaging in perfectionistic behaviours or thinking, ask yourself:

  • Does perfecting this detail really matter?
  • If the worst did happen, will I be able to bounce back from it and survive?
  • In a week’s time, will perfecting this information still be relevant and important? What about in a year’s time?
  • In the context of the larger task, how important is it to perfect the information?

Want to learn more?

Understanding and managing perfectionismA webcast available on-demand as part of our Staying Well in the Law series

Centre for Clinical InterventionsResources to help people overcome perfectionism

LSJ article: The problem with perfectionismAngela Tufvesson examines the impact of perfectionism on productivity

PeopleSense by Altius logo

Written by Ming Pan, Registered Psychologist at PeopleSense by Altius, with contributions by Kristiina Bedford, Registered Psychologist at PeopleSense by Altius.

PeopleSense is the third-party provider of the Law Society of NSW’s Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS).

SOS is an independent and confidential counselling service for NSW solicitors. NSW solicitors can call SOS on 1800 592 296 for access to:

  • Up to three counselling sessions with an SOS psychologist per financial year, paid for by the Law Society of NSW
  • 24/7 telephone crisis counselling with a psychologist