Written by CLF member Dawson J. McKay.
I work as a Prosecutor for the Provincial Crown in British Columbia (I am speaking for myself in this article, not for the Provincial Government or for the Crown). There is little doubt in my mind that the decisions I make day to day have a tremendous impact on the multitude of accused persons, victims, and witnesses named in and attached to my files. The stakes are high. Excellence is necessary. Like most lawyers, Prosecutors cannot produce second-rate work simply because the demands of the job are heavy. The quality of my written and oral submissions is high. The temptation to latch on to the perfectionist mindset is always present. The nagging thought that what I have said in Court was not entirely right or that there is “one more case” out there that could make my case that much stronger never fully goes away. Despite these tendencies, I have to be realistic. I have to maintain excellence and, at the same time, remind myself that I have and will make mistakes. Excellence does not require perfection. Knowing that I cannot be perfect has actually made me a bolder, better lawyer with a lot more experience under my belt.
I want to be an excellent lawyer but I will never be a perfect one.
For many of us, we perceive that our struggle to achieve perfection is what’s driving us to excellence while in reality it is holding us back. It is my aim in this article to provide useful insights to lawyers who may fall victim to perfectionism. Blanket advice rarely applies to everyone and we are all different so this article will not apply to everyone. If you are not a perfectionist, I suggest that you read this article as a diagnostic check to ensure that you do not fall victim to any of perfectionism’s wiles. If you get to the end and can honestly say to yourself that you do not relate, congratulations! But for those of us who have faced down this dragon, I am hoping that this article will be both illuminating and helpful.
“Perfectionism” Demands the Impossible – Perfection
Perfectionism is essentially a way of thinking that demands “perfection” before something is truly complete. A task to which we set our hands must be done right or not done at all. Mistakes are unacceptable. Errors are unacceptable. To err is human…but that’s for other humans. Imperfection is to be purged from our work. While this tendency is far from consistent across all areas of life, the common thread is that, one way or another, we must do whatever we do perfectly.
Sometimes perfectionists use words besides “perfection” because we know that no one can actually be “perfect.” We can choose terms like excellence, high-quality, doing something well, getting it right, etc. and, on the face of it, we look like we have avoided perfectionism entirely. In practice, we use other words as placeholders to describe our own impossibly high standards. Unless our work is truly “high-quality work product,” meaning up to our internal standards, we cannot be satisfied. No matter the words, perfection is what we have in mind. I suggest to the reader examining one’s internal dialogue to see if this is so for him or her.
“Perfectionism” Hurts Our Mental Health
Perfectionism hurts us. I have seen perfectionism paralyze me, shame me, steal my joy, and make me controlling. Being aware of its ability to do these things is half the battle.
Perfectionism paralyzes us. We may know what direction we should go but for some reason we cannot take that first step. Often, we have an image in our minds of how things ought to be and coupled with that image is our perception of our ability to make that image a reality. Because the image is always one of the highest order, a perfect scenario of some sort, and because we are inherently imperfect, fallible beings, we see the eventual shortcomings that will emerge from trying to achieve perfection and we stop. We stall out before we even start. The fear of taking one step in a positive direction for fear that that one step will be a misstep is characteristic of a perfectionist mind. Never make a mistake, even if it means doing nothing. Paralyzed.
Perfectionism shames us. If we are able to overcome the above-mentioned paralysis and take a few steps towards achieving a goal, we usually find that we end up making some mistakes along the way. For perfectionists, these mistakes are unacceptable. They are wrong. We should not have them in our lives. We feel shame because we did not do something up to our standards. For some, this shame will pass in a moment. For others, it can be crippling. Shame teaches us that we are failures or that we can never do anything right. That is not the voice of God. God never speaks to us like that, through Scripture or through His Holy Spirit. But shame does.
Perfectionism makes us mediocre. This may be surprising to us. We expect that our drive for perfection will produce top-quality work. After all, we’re devoting so much time and energy to the task, it seems only natural that the result will closely mirror the sometimes-agonizing effort we pour into it. But perfectionism is more likely to keep us off track because of our tendency to make things “just right.” We may waste time on secondary tasks that could be done by others because we believe that “if you want something done right, we should do it ourselves.” We may redo a co-worker’s or subordinate’s work. We may hold off on venturing into new, unfamiliar areas because we are so caught up in perfecting whatever task we have at hand that we don’t even have the mental space to consider branching out. We may tend to stick to what we’re good at, never realizing how we impoverish ourselves with this limiting behaviour. Perfectionism promises great things but then sells us short – it’s a bait and switch.
Perfectionism steals our joy. When we accomplish something truly awesome, we should let ourselves feel truly awesome. But perfectionism robs us of that feeling in one of two ways. The first way is simple. Perfectionism tells us that, although we may have achieved something truly awesome, it was not perfect. There were minor problems with it that we wish we could go back and fix. Even though it seemed like everyone was thrilled with our work, there was that one throw-away comment about a very small area where we could improve. Perfectionism has us fixate unnaturally on tiny perceived imperfections and, with our attention on those imperfections, real or imagined, we take our focus off of the accomplishment itself and the joy disappears. The second way that perfectionism robs us of joy is more insidious. If we overcome the temptation to fixate on the tiny perceived imperfections, we may fall for the other trick of moving on too quickly to whatever is next on our agendas. We do not allow ourselves to revel in the victory. We deem it more acceptable to move on to another project rather than to give ourselves a proper pat on the back and maybe even a day off. The joy dissipates quickly.
In my own life, perfectionism contributed to me being controlling. I am not entirely clear why but I would frequently take responsibility for how a situation worked out. For example, if I went into Court and my client received a positive result then I would feel like I did that. I achieved the result. If the result was not favourable, I would feel like I did that too. I did something wrong. If things were good, I was good. If things were bad, I was bad. Naturally, I would do my very best to engineer situations so that they would be good! In order for me to be good, the situation had to be good. This tendency entirely missed the point of a lawyer’s duty to his client, particularly to be candid about their expectations in a courtroom setting, not to mention the point of knowing as a Christian that one is not God and cannot control the universe as if one were.
And even when we manage our clients’ expectations, triple check the pleadings, file everything on time, etc. we can be ruthless with the post-mortems on our files. We hunt diligently until we find the flaw, which we often perceive is something that we failed to do or failed to do correctly. If we had done something differently, that could have made the difference. We won’t make that mistake again.
While that kind of retrospection is healthy in small doses – it’s called learning – it is poison for the perfectionist. What the normal person takes in teaspoons, the perfectionist takes in bottles. We go beyond learning into obsession. We can turn a win into a loss by fixating on imperfections, real or perceived. The need to have everything perfect can literally turn an objective success into a subjective failure.
“Perfectionism” Lost Its Power Over Me
It may be hard for some readers to see me admit that I made mistakes. My suspicion is that those readers who have trouble with me accepting my mistakes may have trouble accepting their own. It may be very difficult for some readers to address the reality of their own mistakes head-on. Admitting a mistake means admitting weakness and no one wants to be weak. Weakness is an imperfection. We don’t like to admit mistakes, weakness, or imperfection. Nevertheless, we make mistakes, and are weak and imperfect, regardless of our ability to accept these facts. When we accept them, we give ourselves permission to be human, to be less than perfect. In a very real sense, we find freedom by accepting the truth.
Dear reader, you are not alone.
In my life, my perfectionism steered me far afield. It caused burn out. I crashed pretty hard last year. I was involved in a particularly difficult work situation where I felt day after day that I could not win. I defined “winning” in a particular fashion and, because so much of what needed to happen to achieve that “winning” was out of my control, I never “won.” And I was continually disappointed. And I mean continually, like every day. All of the work I had been doing was adding up to approximately zero, or so it felt, and I let negativity crash in upon me. I burnt out. It happens.
It was then that I started to explore the dangers of perfectionism. Life foisted this task upon me and I’m glad that it did. I realized that much of what I believed was based upon a lie that I had to be perfect. No mistakes allowed. Results were “on me.” I had to do my best at everything and even my best was rarely, if ever, good enough. As it turned out, this allowed me to feel the pinch of every perceived failure and never to feel the joy of accomplishment because every accomplishment was never good enough.
I reached out to a counselling service and was able to slowly learn through that counselling some of the beliefs hindering me. One was obviously perfectionism. Not letting myself be happy until things were perfect meant that I would never let myself be happy because nothing would ever be perfect. The perfectionism iceberg began to melt and after many months it had diminished to a size where I could see what damage it had done to my mental health. I had missed out on so much joy and happiness. It had stolen from me some of the best things I could have had in my life. My unrealistic drive to be the best was making me so much worse than who God had already made me to be. I still struggle with this from time to time but I would not describe myself as a perfectionist anymore, and would certainly not take any false pride in the label. My head is a lot clearer and my heart is a lot freer.
After letting go of the unnatural desire to be perfect, something weird happened – I relaxed. I felt much better about myself and my situation. An air of reality started to develop around the idea that I may not actually be all-powerful and may not be responsible for everything that happens to me or to my loved ones. I forgave myself. And after I did, I realized that I didn’t even do anything wrong. Even though I felt bad, and even guilty, it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes things just happen, people are just people, and I cannot fully comprehend the mind of God in the matter. He’s God, I’m not.
We Have a Hope and a Future
We can be excellent. The difference between excellence and perfection is that the former is achievable and the latter is a myth. The way we perceive of these two concepts will have a significant impact on how we approach our life and practice. We must do our best – honestly, our very best – and then leave it at that. Embracing the truth that I’m imperfect and can’t control every outcome shrank my areas of responsibility. I can only control what I can control. Holding on to that fact makes life more manageable. I do what I can do and then trust that God will do the things I cannot.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, putting perfectionism on the shelf actually makes us more productive and opens the door for excellence in our lives. We are freed from a false paradigm and empowered to explore a whole new world of possibilities. If you turn away from perfectionism, you do not need to sacrifice excellence. In fact, you may find that excellence comes more naturally to you than ever before.
Dawson McKay is a lawyer from Kelowna, British Columbia who now practices in Port Hardy, presently working for the Provincial Crown. After attending the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University as a mature student, Dawson graduated and returned to Kelowna to do his articles at a private firm. He is a family man and has a loving wife and four children, two girls and two boys. Dawson enjoys hiking, open-water swimming, snow-shoeing, and travelling.