Perfectionism and Paralysis

February 16, 2011

Despite my own legal education, I never cease to be amazed at the number of lawyers who come to us for help in our Stagefright Survival School program. While we work with people from all walks of life, lawyers consistently represent our single biggest occupational group. I attribute this to the perfectionist cognitive style and way of thinking I believe to be common among them.

Perfectionism plays a significant role in many social and socially related phobias. So as not to be misunderstood, I hasten to add that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking to do excellent work. In many ways, that motivation is what moves us forward in all areas of life. What I’m talking about is perfectionism, which can paralyze us so that at times we don’t do very good work or even any work.

This is the kind of perfectionism that puts us in dread of making a mistake, because, after all, the only way to be perfect is not to make a mistake. It is perfectionism beyond any reasonable reach or reason. Because perfectionists fear making a mistake and the embarrassment and humiliation they associate with it, they end up setting off the same physiological cascade that would be activated if they were in actual physical danger, the familiar fight or flight reaction. This, of course, does not contribute in any way to doing good work and, in fact, makes the person distracted, appear nervous and perhaps unable to do any work at all.

This perfectionism-induced “paralysis” can manifest itself in any number of work world situations including writing, giving presentations and test taking. One of the apparent paradoxes it produces is procrastination among people who are otherwise extremely dependable, diligent and hardworking. Because they fear making a mistake, they may experience difficulty in committing to start work on a project that they know may produce a less than perfect outcome.

One of my favorite “war stories” from the mental health world involves the psychiatrist who was working with an agoraphobic woman whose fear related to her thoughts that she would somehow embarrass herself by doing something inappropriate in public. One day she came to her doctor clearly very troubled. The psychiatrist asked her what specifically was so troubling to her at that time. She replied, “You know Doctor, how you said that if I was going to get better I would have to give up my perfectionism and learn to make a mistake?” “Yes,” he said. “Well,” she continued, “I was wondering if you could help me find the very best kind of mistake to make.”

It is worthwhile to take a step back from time to time and ask ourselves if our own pursuit of excellence has reached a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer helping us to produce good work, but is in fact interfering with our achievements, and perhaps even making us ill.