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Destructive Perfectionism Vs Constructive Progress

Evolving Beauty

High Achieving Perfectionists

Think of a world-class gymnast who from a young age is coached and directed to strive for perfection in every routine, to reach the pinnacle of their career aiming for flawless execution with impeccable self-control. Once there often facing immense internalised pressure to meet unrealistic human standards of excellence.

Striving for perfection can be a journey paved with both ambition and anxiety. High expectations and standards within law become internalised during law school, and anxious ruminations of failure, the harsh inner critic a constant companion – The critic.  Judging yourself constantly, comparing yourself to others, perceiving everything you achieve as not good enough, can lead to self-doubt and intense emotional distress. Obsessive about what others may think of you.  High need to control the narratives in your personal and professional relationships.  Which makes it hard to let anyone know that you may be struggling.  The workplace culture will impact on this core belief.  Noticing how colleagues treat each other, managing client’s high expectations. 



 A young lawyer described it in this way:


In my law school it's quite common for people to say they got a distinction proudly whilst saying they got a credit like it is a failure. This really impacts the mental health of students generally trying their best- after all law students are graded with other high performing students in the state. I think it would be cool to have some social media reels appreciating students who receive credit averages and even passes. After all, most students do receive this grade and only a handful receive distinctions and high distinctions. It would be good to help refute any toxic grade discussions students may hear from their fellow peers.


When acknowledged for your successes do you may feel undeserving? This can be debilitating in the development of your professional identity.  Where do you assign responsibility for success and failure? Do you and your colleagues celebrate your efforts and outcomes?  Even if you scored a credit instead of a high distinction.  This self-doubt can lead to developing imposter syndrome and it is a common experience among young lawyers and can haunt experienced practitioners too.

The psychophysiological stress response known as fight, flight or freeze is innate in humans.  For example, when a fear response is activated, one may instantly react aggressively rather than respond in a thoughtful reasonable manner.   Incivility is high within the legal profession and could indicate that this flight, fight, flee response is being activated during most encounters.


Workplace culture impacts on the development of professional identity and maintaining professional identity impacts the way we relate to others. 


Learning to manage this automatic psychophysiological stress response is possible through regular mindfulness and CBT practices, growing in your self-awareness to be able to pick up the physical sensations early, to reflect on difficult conversations or events will grow this awareness. These insights are invaluable for emotional regulation.  Keeping calm in the face of high pressure and high conflict is a skill to be learned through experience.  When you are calmer in your physiology your prefrontal cortex is activated, which gives you time to respond in a more socially acceptable manner.  


There is a wellbeing groundswell arising globally where particular focus includes improving respectful communication, inclusion and diversity, educating leaders about the psychosocial risks involved with the complex matters, workload and high-pressure effects on mental health and wellbeing. Angie Zandstra, Acting CEO of The College of Law Australia advocates the importance of leaders ‘showing up’ for their staff. This type of leadership cultivates environments where team members feel valued, they feel seen, and an environment where people feel safe to be themselves fosters camaraderie and productivity.


Navigating your way through Perfectionist tendencies

Realise the truth of being a learner and trying something new as a young lawyer don’t measure your capabilities and decision making as superior or equal to those who have been working in the law for many years.

Statements that will help you are:  My interpersonal skills and capabilities are growing with every encounter.  I haven’t got it yet.  I have worked hard; I can say thank you to praise from others for a job well done.  Practice saying thank you after a compliment is given, rather than a whole lot of excuses, justifications.  Simply nod and smile and reply thank you!  When you are at home, contemplate the improvements you are making and accept the truth of what they have said to you. Learn to develop a kind supportive inner voice, one who cares about your wellbeing as well as the complexity of your role and interactions.

Foster a mindset of continuous improvement, focusing on growth, encourage work colleagues and mentors to value progress over perfection.

  1. embracing mistakes as learning opportunities to do this takes courage and emotional regulation practices.  Reflective practices, to pause and breath and digest what has transpired.

  2. Be kind to yourself practicing self-compassion. The science behind Compassion indicates it is a protector to our wellbeing during stressful times.  Compassion provides a positive hormone oxytocin and dopamine hit. The more you connect with this social emotion the better you will feel and more able to relate to others.


  1. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

View mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures. Understand that making errors is a natural part of the learning process. This takes courage to lean into your vulnerable feelings about not getting it flawless and perfect first time. You might feel some embarrassment, vulnerable.  Continue on with each opportunity adding to your progression.  Reframe all outcomes as learning opportunities leading toward becoming more skillful with practice. 

  1. Set Realistic Goals

Break tasks into smaller, achievable steps and set realistic deadlines. Focus on progress rather than perfection.  Tell yourself “This is a work in progress, I haven’t got it Yet”.

  1. Practice Self-Compassion

Be kind to yourself and recognise that perfectionism is harmful and anxiety provoking. Treat yourself with encouragement, strength, and kindness, surround yourself with supportive friends.  Work in a culture where progress is valued over perfection.

4.      Social support network

Important to have a sense of belonging to a community, opportunities to connect with colleagues.  Get involved with your local law society of NSW young lawyers.  Also have friends outside of law, develop and give time to your primary relationships.  Caring for others, pro bono work all contributes to wellbeing.


Activity:  Water colour art process:

Change your view about perfect: notice the aesthetic beauty to be found in imperfection. Instead of a perfect circle, smudge the edges, colour outside of the lines.  This is a good practice to increase your self-awareness of your inner critic and commentary.  Stop using the word perfect, and perfection.  For example, you could use other words such as evolving beauty

Simonette Vaja - writing for the Law Society of NSW Wellbeing of Legal practitioners


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