Friday, November 6, 2009

Beware perfectionism in law school

I know lots of law students who are perfectionists.  In all prior learning experiences, they have been able to cope with this characteristic because the workload was not mammoth and the competition for grades was usually moderate. 

If you think about it, American society pushes bright students to be perfect.  We get into college by getting A grades.  We get into law school by getting A grades.  And, we are expected to get those grades while juggling lots of leadership positions and organization/team memberships.  In fact, we are encouraged also to get jobs on top.

Having to be perfect, however, is very stressful.  Why?  Because it is impossible.  No matter the prior accolades, there is always the lurking worry that one might not be perfect the next time.  One can never relax as a perfectionist.  Perfectionists tend to be unforgiving of their non-perfection: 95 is a failure; a missed response in class is an embarrassment of mammoth proportions; wrinkled jeans are shameful.

Some perfectionists have trouble beginning projects because of possible failure.  If one will not be able to write the perfect paper within the time period or with the instructions given, then why even begin?  And, if one delays, then an explanation for "failure" could be that one could have written the perfect paper if there had been more time.

Some perfectionists have trouble finishing projects.  It is hard for them to read and brief efficiently (because every detail must be understood before moving to the next case), finish their research and move on to writing (because there may be one more case out there somewhere), or finalize a paper (because it needs one more rewrite to be perfect).  If a perfectionist is also a very high-scoring sensing (detail) learner, the perfectionism may be exacerbated by that learning preference.   

The stress of being perfect is often accompanied by physical or emotional difficulties.  Stomach problems, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and depression are just a few examples.  The toll on self can be devastating. 

Perfectionists may also create tension in their work or family environments because of their expectations.  In a sense, the focus is on what is wrong rather than what is right.  A perfectionist may make an irritated remark to a group member who turned in the project with one typo.  A minor error by a professor becomes a major crisis resulting in unforgiving criticism of that person.  The apartment must be spotless at all times, and roommates beware of any transgressions.

Perfectionists can moderate the characteristic.  Here are some suggestions:

  • reorient expectations from being perfect to doing the best one can do each day
  • become aware of what situations trigger perfectionism and decide on strategies to moderate one's behaviors in those situations 
  • set realistic time limits for projects and work within those time limits
  • make realistic daily "to do" lists and keep long-term "to do" items on a monthly list to be transferred when appropriate to the daily list 
  • avoid being consumed by one task (perhaps a memo) to the exclusion of other necessary tasks
  • spread work out over the semester to lower stress and allow longer periods for studying for exams or completing an assignment
  • focus on feedback to improve a grade rather than focusing on the "failure" of meeting one's expectation for a better grade
  • do not place unrealistic expectations or criticism on others because of your own perfectionism
  • practice forgiveness for yourself and others when "perfect" is not achieved. 

For those whose perfectionism is deeply entrenched and cannot be conquered with vigilance, consider working with a counselor at your campus counseling center.  You will not be the only one who has sought help for the problem!  Conquering perfectionism in law school will not only make you a happier law student; it will make you a happier practitioner as well.  (Amy Jarmon)      

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