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Perfectionism-Part 2: Maladaptive Perfectionism

There is a national effort underway to raise the consciousness of the legal profession. Individual stories, like Payal Salsburg’s, are being promoted on social media sites like LinkedIn as part of a #fightingstigma campaign. I encourage you to read her short story – one of super success, by anyone’s measure, and of the dangers and pitfalls of equating our identities with our professional successes and failures.

In my last column I focused on the 3 P’s of legal practice: perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. Continuing the perfectionism theme, this column will explore what can happen when our identities get too wrapped up in our professional successes and our failures, and we lose sight of our inherent value and worth. One mechanism as to how this occurs is maladaptive perfectionism. Maladaptive perfectionism combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hyper-self-criticism for failing to meet them. Nothing is ever good enough, and accomplishments, big and small, are dismissed or minimized.

In my recent Imposter Syndrome article, I explained what the inner critic is, how it operates, and the double-edged nature of it.[1] On one hand, it propels us to great academic success that leads us to law school and the profession. On the other hand, left unchecked, it can become a cruel taskmaster leading to a host of problems.

Let’s break out my favorite tool, the continuum. On one end we have healthy behavior that is motivated by an intrinsic desire to do well. On this end of the continuum, we probably have more ambitious goals than others might. We strive for excellence and set high standards for ourselves. We take the maxim, “just do your best,” to heart and maybe to another level. But the key here is that everything is intrinsically motivated, not externally or competitively motivated. We can get all A’s in school, but so can other people. We can strive for our own personal records (“PRs”) in running or triathlons, but not only do we not begrudge our friends their PRs, we help celebrate them. Importantly, we can recognize and celebrate our own successes; we don’t minimize, dismiss or ignore them. Our self-image is not determined by our successes and failures, nor others’. Some research has labeled this healthier end of the continuum and form of perfectionism as “striving” or “adaptive.”

The other end of the continuum is known in research circles as “maladaptive” or “evaluative.” As we slide down the continuum from healthy into unhealthy, our thinking and behavior changes, as does our motivation. On this end of the continuum, we become increasingly motivated by extrinsic values and others’ perceptions of us and our performance. What we think or how we feel about our performance not only no longer matters, it fades completely from the screen. As we become preoccupied by how we are perceived by others, performance anxiety takes hold. We may become hypervigilant and begin overworking in order to meet the performance standards that others expect of us (more accurately, that we imagine they expect of us, when it is really what we expect of ourselves). Sometimes others’ expectations of us are real and stated out in the open. More often, however, they are not. We imagine and assume them without doing a reality check. In the case of maladaptive perfectionism, the “other” for whom we imagine we are performing, is not a person out there – rather it is our own inner critic (that we unconsciously project on to other people).

If we unpack this a little bit further, there are some flawed underlying assumptions forming the basic framework for maladaptive perfectionism. Maladaptive perfectionists are never good enough in their own minds. There is a kind of rigid, black or white thinking about their own performance -– if it isn’t perfect, it’s horrible. On the other end of the equation, successes are minimized or ignored, no matter how stellar a performance (that is usually openly admired by friends and colleagues).

The thinking goes something like this:

If I lose a motion/lose a trial, I am a failure as a person. If someone does a task better than me, then I am a loser, or I failed at the whole task. If I do not hit it out of the park every single time, then…people will not respect me or like me, I will tarnish my reputation, I will lose clients, I will get fired, I will lose my career, fill in the blank with consequence(s) of choice. For a stark discussion about the tragic consequences of maladaptive perfectionism, and the kind of thinking it fosters, see Big Law Killed My Husband.

On the other hand, successes are minimized or dismissed. When complemented on a job well done, responses include statements like, “Anybody could have done it,” or some form of “Well, it wasn’t that great,” followed by a list of what didn’t measure up.

The research on maladaptive perfectionism, all of which is unrelated to the legal profession, shows a high correlation to anxiety and depression. It is easy to see why. And research is now emerging that validates the correlation to alcohol abuse. A new, small study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that these traits are also associated with severe alcohol use disorder. It confirms what we have seen consistently over the years with the lawyers we work with. Specifically, the study found:

“Perfectionism—striving for unrealistic performance standards and being prone to self-criticism—has been shown to generate feelings of failure and thoughts in individuals that they are not attaining standards they believe others expect from them. These traits can lead to social isolation, as well as increased vulnerability to stress and depression.

‘Severe alcohol use disorder was related to unrealistic personal standards and increased sensitivity to other people’s expectations, even after accounting for the role of depressive symptoms and anxiety,’ according to a news release announcing the study’s findings. ‘This is consistent with what is known about self-related and interpersonal factors in severe alcohol use disorder, such as reduced self-esteem, a tendency to self-blame, and a divergence between people’s ideal and actual selves.’”[2]

There is a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum about alcohol use and depression. Many, if not most, serious alcohol abusers eventually become depressed because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Some people are depressed to begin with and start to self-medicate with alcohol for the immediate relief it brings. It then becomes a vicious cycle. But for people who have maladaptive perfectionistic traits, that skewed perfectionistic thinking seems to precede either the depression or the alcohol abuse.  

Most perfectionists learn or perceive early in life that other people value them because of what they can do – not for who they are. As an adult, this skewed valuation translates into being increasingly disconnected from our authentic selves and the ability to feel good about our intrinsic value and worth. Our self-worth is based on other people’s approval and/or external standard(s). So, our accomplishments and achievements become one of the only ways we feel affirmed and appreciated. We are only as good as our last test score, our ranking in our law school class, our last case, the net income on our last W2, and so on. If the accomplishment/achievement isn’t up to our perfect standards, no amount of praise from others is sufficient. We instantly and sometimes adamantly dismiss or negate the accomplishment. While this may be perceived as humility, it is actually self-critical and deprecating in nature. 

Even when we are not predisposed to this type of thinking based on our familial upbringing, law school – everything about law school – establishes and then reinforces this type of thinking.

All of the mental health research focused on law students indicates that we enter law school at the same (or better) rates of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation as the general population. Studies also show that law school changes all of that. A mere three years of law school conditioning later, we are graduating at the staggering rates we see in the profession, rates that are 3 to 4 times the rate of the general population, and 2 to 3 times greater than other professions, like medicine. What is happening here?

As I have said before, law school sets up the big comparison marathon. With its forced curve, every activity a competition, and winner-take-all framework, law school serves as an introduction and indoctrination to what we will encounter in the profession, particularly in the world of litigation.

In one study, researchers found that over the course of the three years, we lose identification with the intrinsic values that got us to law school in the first place as we become overly identified with the extrinsic values imposed upon us by the system. This is exactly what happens on the maladaptive perfectionism continuum. Over the course of that process, we “lose the sense of perceived autonomy.” In lay terms: we feel like we don’t have a choice.

Let’s illustrate using a running metaphor. We are competitive runners in high school and college and do very well. We love it. We go to law school. Administrators, professors and career services directors (maybe even family members standing in the wings) welcome us and point us to the nearest treadmill. We know how to run on a treadmill! Heck, we’ve been doing it for years! So, we jump on. We start to run. This is fun! Someone comes walking by and begins to turn up the speed. Well, we can run faster. So, we do. And it feels good to get into the rhythm of running fast and hard. Maybe we will set a new PR! Another person walks by and starts to gradually increase the incline on our treadmills. We are running shoulder to shoulder with our classmates. None of them seem phased. In fact, some of them are still chatting with each other. Clearly, they are not winded. So, although we are starting to get winded, we don’t want to appear so. We ask ourselves, “What kind of competitive runner do I think I am when I can get winded so easily, but all of my peers are not?” We want to fit in and appear relaxed. So, we make small talk with our neighbor as we push on. We are not going to be the first one to get spit off the back. We’re going to prove that we can keep up. The faculty and staff remind us repeatedly, “Only successful students will get the good jobs, so be careful not to get spit off the back of your treadmill,” as they again turn up the speed. Grim determination begins to take hold. Now we don’t want to just keep up – we become determined to be the last wo/man standing. All the joy of running for running’s sake has gone. But we do not seem to notice. All we notice is that conversation has stopped down the line of runners. Ha! So, they are getting winded, too! But wait, now some of them are running in suits. I’ll end the analogy there. You get the gist.

For most of us, it never occurs to us that we can turn down the speed, reduce the incline, and start running again for the pure joy of it. We feel like we don’t have a choice. Without intending for it to happen, it morphed into a performance comparison. Did you notice the internal shift in attention from internal/intrinsic motivation to external/extrinsic performance comparison?

What these disparate law school studies are showing us, when taken together, is that law school sets us up to unconsciously begin adopting maladaptive perfectionistic traits and in so doing, it is dramatically, dare I say catastrophically, impacting our mental health, happiness and life satisfaction.

The irony here is that we are trained to suppress vulnerability because we equate it with weakness in our profession. So, we armor up; we cover ourselves in a kind psychic and emotional Teflon. The problem is, it blocks everything, good and bad. So, accomplishment can become one of the only ways we feel affirmed. It creates a viscious, self-reinforcing cycle. The more we are praised for our performance, we increasingly disconnect from our authentic internal experience and the ability to feel good about ourselves for our intrinsic value and worth, unrelated to accomplishment. Everything becomes measured by externals and comparisons. It can become very difficult to stop because our society, and particularly our profession, are so rewarding of it.

Ironically this cycle leaves us excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others.

Another irony has to do with the vulnerability mentioned. While perfectionism makes us vulnerable (more like a hypersensitivity and defensiveness) to what others think of us (or what we perceive they think), it takes allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough (in a non-defended way) to admit to ourselves and trusted others how we feel. Only in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in this healthy way, we can begin to absorb, feel, and genuinely take in the love, honor, and recognition others are giving us, and in turn, give it to ourselves.

If you find you identify with the maladaptive perfectionism description, what can you do about it? If we want to make real progress in this area and have happier lives, we must make intentional, diligent efforts to change, but always start small. For example, if you are super organized, down to your kitchen pantry, refrigerator or closet, try changing it around. Disorganize it. Mess it up on purpose. Then leave it. Not for a week…forever. Now, notice what arises for you, even upon reading that.

The first step is non-judgmental self-awareness. Approach yourself with a sense of curiosity. Become aware of your behavior and tendencies. Be attentive to your thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors around perfectionism. I sometimes call it, “catching myself in the act.” Be willing to do a deep dive into your underlying motivations; don’t settle for the superficial, “I just want to be successful,” kind of stuff we always tell ourselves. It may take working with a therapist to help get you there.

The addendum to the first step is recognizing before you begin that you probably have an over-active inner critic, so just know, it is going to start berating you for your new self-awareness! Try not to buy into whatever it is saying. Be patient with yourself. We did not get here overnight. There are well-worn neural pathways, ingrained habits of thought and behavior, that need changing. Hence the need for intentional, diligent work in this area. And you will probably encounter some resistance inside yourself – fears that you will lose your excellent work product or lose your edge. You won’t.[3]

There is a difference in being a high achiever and a maladaptive perfectionist. It is perfectly OK to be a high achiever, always wanting to do your best. Both are seeking success, but high achievers are internally motivated to do their best while perfectionists are motivated by a host of fears. Brené Brown has been quoted on this topic: “Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”

Research shows people with perfectionistic tendencies aren’t more effective because of those tendencies; in fact, research shows the opposite. So, try making a list of all the ways perfectionism is hurting you and those around you. An inventory like this can help motivate us to shed these tendencies. But it is important not to use this inventory as yet another way of berating ourselves.

Perfectionists hyper-focus on the negative parts of our work and ourselves, so for every negative thought, replace it with three positive ones or things you appreciate about yourself. Again, you may need help on this from a trusted source if you can’t do it on your own.

Work on self-acceptance and self-compassion. We are our own worst enemies. We pressure ourselves the most, so it is important to replace self-criticism with self-nurturance and to replace perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic expectations. Mindfulness tools and strategies can help.[4] Remember, setting more realistic expectations doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the end result of excellent work product; we just go about getting there differently.

When you find you are berating yourself, ask yourself what evidence supports this as true (that you have to be perfect, that you are a failure, that the project wasn’t good enough, should have been done better, etc.). Is there actual evidence or are these thoughts based on unverified assumptions? Are you overinflating the truth? (i.e., Is there some modicum of truth at the root, but you are extending it past its logical boundaries?) Then flip the analysis. Ask yourself what evidence supports this as false. Being realistic and factual will help challenge those negative thoughts and perspectives. The key here is to look at what facts you have – not feelings. Feelings aren’t facts, but at times they really can feel like it.

Challenge irrational or illogical thoughts by analyzing and evaluating them. In this context, it is to clarifymeaning, elicit emotion, explore consequences, gradually create insight, and explore alternative actions.

Learn to accept compliments both outwardly and inwardly. When someone compliments you or your work, say, “Thank you, I appreciate that. How kind of you to say so,” and smile! There is a neurological link between smiling and feeling good. Then repeat the compliment to yourself. Cathy recommends at least 100 times. Really. Why all the repetition? Even if you don’t believe it right away, enough repetition will help turn negative self-talk into positive, realistic self-talk and thus healthier behavior.

Some recovery slogans can help you along the way in this journey:

“Act as if.” “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

Let’s conclude this column with another quote from Brené Brown.

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough. Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”

If you find you need some additional support in navigating this rocky terrain, we are only a phone call or email away.

[1] See and and for discussions about the inner critic and imposter syndrome.


[3] Another great NY Times article discussing this research.

[4] Our July Mindful Moment podcast episode and article with Laura Mahr is all about self-compassion.

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