Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 9

TOWARD WELL-BEING
The Enemy of the Good
By Denise Perme
M
any of us suffer an insidious
trait that masquerades
as a virtue, causing
us much pain and, only
occasionally, pleasure. It's called
perfectionism.
Some may view this trait as an ally in a competitive
profession like law. For most of us, however,
it operates like omnipresent mind malware,
eroding self-esteem and wreaking havoc with
our confidence. We often don't realize it is
there. When we do, we underestimate the
threat it poses, at our own peril. Perfectionism
is a dangerous traitor.
Psychologists say that at its most benign, perfectionism
motivates us to strive for excellence.
When we challenge ourselves, work hard, and
focus on growth and achievement, we feel a
sense of accomplishment and pride that makes
us happy and fulfilled. Whether this adaptive
process of human motivation and effort should
be called perfectionism, at any level, is debatable,
however. The word itself means a refusal
to accept anything short of perfection. As the
saying goes, here be dragons.
When we shift our focus, looking for errors to
correct in pursuit of flawlessness, the demons
reveal themselves. We move from effort to excellence
to vigilance against mistakes. What we
choose to focus on is all we will see. " I'm sorry,
I am a perfectionist " becomes our go-to humblebrag
to excuse our reaction to errors -
our own or someone else's. Distress about mistakes,
even small ones, is a feeling I imagine
every lawyer is familiar with.
Jennifer Alvey, a career coach and former lawyer,
has written extensively about the toxic level
of perfectionism she witnessed in the legal
profession. " Lawyers are trained to seize upon
the slightest error and build it into Denali, if it
suits their purposes. Problem is, that way of approaching
legal issues usually turns into a life
approach, " Alvey writes in her blog.
Experts say the drive for perfection can begin
in childhood as a response to feelings of fear or
insecurity. Focusing on being perfect at something
(or everything) is a way many people
learn to quell uncomfortable feelings caused
by low self-esteem or environmental stress. " It's
not easy to exorcise the demons of perfectionism
driven by a dysfunctional upbringing/environment,
which I believe many lawyers have, "
writes Alvey.
Bonnie Prober, a former lawyer who started a
second career in the mental health field, agrees
that many students feel pressure to perform
flawlessly before they even begin law school.
The level of competition in school exacerbates
the feeling of low self-worth many students
come in with. " The grading system instills the
belief that you have to be the best, " Prober
states. " If you're not perfect, then you're not
getting an A. If you don't get an A, you've
failed. " This alarming level of pressure doesn't
end after school, Prober adds. " The culture
of competition continues, " she says. " Getting
pulled onto the best cases only happens if
you're the best associate. "
" Perfectionism is the enemy of the good " is an
oft-quoted aphorism. A drive to be perfect has
a negative effect on performance and wellbeing.
It stifles creativity, innovation, and progress.
Perfectionists tend to avoid challenges,
procrastinate due to fear of failure, and develop
rigid all-or-nothing thinking. Maladaptive perfectionism
can affect all areas of someone's
life, not just their career, and is associated with
mental health conditions such as depression,
bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and anxiety
disorders.
Fortunately, Prober says, there are things you
can do to counter an unhealthy drive for perfection.
Start by stepping outside your comfort
zone. " Learn something new or participate in
something that you can't do perfectly, " she
suggests. Prober says she began French language
classes and took up the saxophone as
a way to teach herself that the sky wouldn't fall
if she made mistakes. " There is no way anyone
could just pick up the saxophone and do it
well, " she says.
Prober offers these additional suggestions for
becoming less focused on perfection:
1. Challenge your thoughts and assumptions.
Catch yourself when you are catastrophizing,
examine the evidence, and do a reality
check about the validity of your fears.
2. Replace negative self-talk with something
positive: " You know you can do it; it doesn't
have to be perfect. There is a reason they
trust you to write this. "
3. Do some " exposure " therapy by allowing
yourself to have small failures. Let something
you are making for dinner burn a little
or send an email that you know has a typo.
4. Find other sources of self-worth outside of
work: regular exercise, sports, an art class,
the choir.
5. Talk to people you trust. It is important to
have a sounding board - people who can
" talk you down. "
6. Engage collaboratively with colleagues so
you aren't carrying the whole weight of the
" perfect " on your shoulders.
Denise Perme is associate director of the D.C. Bar
Lawyer Assistance Program. If you would like free,
confidential help overcoming perfectionism, email
lap@dcbar.org. For more insight and ideas, tune
into Toward Well-Being on Apple Podcasts.
MARCH/APRIL 2024 * WASHINGTON LAWYER 9

Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024

Notice to Members
From Our President
Calendar of Events
Practice Management
Toward Well-Being
Defending Diversity: Rise of DEI-Focused Practices
Will Law Firms Stay the Course on Improving Diversity?
Unlocking the Potential of Diverse Talent
We Belong: Black Students in the IP Talent Pipeline
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Her Legacy Lives on Through Us
Get to Know The Appellate Project
Speaking Up for Lawyers With Invisible Disability
Special Section: 25 Years of the Youth Law Fair
Taking the Stand
Worth Reading
Member Spotlight
On Further Review
Attorney Briefs
Speaking of Ethics
Disciplinary Summaries
The Pro Bono Effect
A Slice of Wry
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Cover1
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 1
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 2
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 3
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 4
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Notice to Members
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Calendar of Events
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Practice Management
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Toward Well-Being
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Defending Diversity: Rise of DEI-Focused Practices
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 11
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 12
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 13
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Will Law Firms Stay the Course on Improving Diversity?
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 15
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 16
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 17
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Unlocking the Potential of Diverse Talent
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 19
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - We Belong: Black Students in the IP Talent Pipeline
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 21
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 22
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 23
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Her Legacy Lives on Through Us
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 25
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Get to Know The Appellate Project
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 27
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Speaking Up for Lawyers With Invisible Disability
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 29
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 30
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 31
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Special Section: 25 Years of the Youth Law Fair
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 33
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Taking the Stand
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 35
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 36
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Worth Reading
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Member Spotlight
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 39
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - On Further Review
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Attorney Briefs
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Speaking of Ethics
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 43
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Disciplinary Summaries
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 45
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - The Pro Bono Effect
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - 47
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - A Slice of Wry
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Cover3
Washington Lawyer - March/April 2024 - Cover4
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