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I qualified as a solicitor in Ireland in 1956. I held my first job, outside Dublin where I lived, for about two months, after which my boss told me he didn’t need me any more. This left me feeling very unsure of myself.
In my second job, at a firm in Dublin, I had a difficult boss who constantly criticised me, and never praised me or offered words of encouragement. I was afraid of being fired again and decided – or assumed - my work had to be perfect. I avoided being fired. Looking back, I realise he couldn’t afford to lose me, but that was probably when the aspiration to be an infallible solicitor got a grip.
I eventually found another job where I was praised for good work, and encouraged, but after a few years there I had a wife and shortly afterwards children for whom I was the sole support. I became terrified that I’d screw up and get fired, leaving my family without support. I worked insanely long hours, brought work home every evening and routinely worked through the weekend. Even so, I would normally wake up at 3 am sweating at the prospect of having to go into work the next day, screwing up over a problem that would hit me then – or a mistake I had already made that I wasn’t aware of that would be uncovered. Either way, I would be fired. The reality is I did make mistakes. Of course I did! We all do. But most of my work was fine and I was turning over such a huge volume of work that there was bound to be the odd error. Moreover, one of the attractive things about being a solicitor is that very often the mistakes we inevitably make can be cured before they cause real problems.
In 1969 a close relative died, very young, after a long illness. I went into a depression, which I’m fairly sure was not my first episode (nor was it the last), but was the first time it was diagnosed and treated. I think that put things in perspective for me. I realised life was for living, and I was wasting mine. I developed a healthier attitude to work, worked fewer hours, and gained confidence in my ability. It dawned on me that I was good at my job and I would always be able to find work and support my family. As I became more relaxed in the work I became a better lawyer, I think because I was no longer obsessed on myself and my inadequacy, and was better able to focus on my clients.
I had in the meantime been taken into the partnership, where, though I say it, I was a success. I continued to overwork, but this was mainly because I was in demand, and less out of my belief in my own inadequacy.
In 1986 I left law to become a mediator, and that work developed to include training and mentoring other mediators. This helped me to understand better what lawyers and mediators are there to do. You do the best you can at that moment to help solve your client’s problem if you are a lawyer, and to help them to solve their own if you are a mediator. You accept that you will make mistakes, and aim to identify them, learn from them, and be better at your work as a result. That doesn’t exclude being embarrassed by your blunders, but does exclude allowing them to disable you. Aiming to be “good enough” is not good enough, but perfection is unattainable. We need to distinguish between realistically striving to be better, which is both our duty and good for us, and striving to be perfect, which is unrealistic and destructive.
My advice to anyone experiencing perfectionism and imposter syndrome is, as a first step, to find someone who will really listen to you, and unburden – repeat: unburden - yourself.
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