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Why Perfectionism Is Not Perfect

Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP (Feline), MA, LPC, Veterinary Information Network/VIN Foundation/Vets4Vets, Davis, California

September 2017

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Why Perfectionism Is Not Perfect

 

Part 8 of our Wellness Revolution series

Perfectionism is one characteristic that unites many veterinary team members regardless of background, gender, education, or training. On the surface, perfectionism may seem a desirable ideal because veterinary teams care for patients and interact with clients, but it is actually detrimental to the entire team's mental health. When practice leadership considers perfectionism a virtue, all team members often suffer considerable stress. And, contrary to popular opinion, perfectionism does not result in improved patient care—it actually undermines it.

Perfectionism, which is sometimes referred to as unrelenting standards, is a maladaptive schema, an unhelpful way of thinking and interacting with others and the world at large.1 An early maladaptive schema has been defined as a broad pervasive theme or pattern regarding oneself and ones relationship with others, developed during childhood and elaborated throughout ones lifetime, and dysfunctional to a significant degree.1 Schemas are extremely stable and enduring patterns comprised of memories, bodily sensations, emotions, and cognitions, that, once activated, cause one to feel intense emotions.2 Mental health professionals believe perfectionism and other such schemas do not spring up de novo. They are formed as we develop a sense of who we are from our dealings with caregivers (eg, parents, extended families, teachers) and usually are in place by early childhood.

The Development

Perfectionism develops from one of 2 broad ways of thinking about ourselves:

  • We have been made to feel defective in some way and so spend our lives constantly trying to disprove our unworthiness to others.
  • We have been validated for being good and so seek to prove our goodness and hear the accolades.

Perfectionists often have other traits that are counter to personal happiness and a well-functioning veterinary team (eg, punitiveness, negativity and/or pessimism, emotional inhibition). Those firmly in perfectionism's grasp often punish others they believe fall short of the mark, are constantly fault-seeking, and lack openness in interpersonal interactions. They also can be trapped in the nirvana fallacy, so they fail to even begin a task, fearing they will not do it perfectly. The nirvana fallacy is the name given to the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem.3 The perfect solution fallacy is closely related.

A perfectionist is not only constantly fearful of and extremely susceptible to external criticism but also can fall victim to a particularly vicious internal critic that shames the perfectionist into thinking he or she will never be good enough, work hard enough, or know enough. Life is spent continually trying to keep these thoughts at bay.

The Pros & Cons

Perfectionism does have some significant benefits (eg, academic and professional success), which makes accepting less than perfect particularly difficult. The high school or college perfectionist who considered a 92% on a test a failure often becomes the veterinary team member who can tolerate nothing less than a positive outcome for every patient and positive interactions with every client.

Perfectionists often think catastrophically, and suggesting they become even a little less than perfect is unfathomable. If I'm not a perfectionist, my patients will die is a common refrain because being good enough is simply not an option. They live in a black-and-white world in which there are only successes and failures and no middle ground. To make matters worse, successes are often trivialized because the benchmark for perfectionism is set so high.

Many of us have worked with perfectionists. They include the following:

  • The practice leaders who believe the client is always right, no matter the rudeness level or sense of self-entitlement shown to the team
  • The veterinarians who think their protocol is the only way to treat a patient and undermine another associate rather than engage collegially and discuss their thoughts and supporting information
  • The veterinary nurses who criticize the new hire for perceived failures

Perfectionists often project a self-assuredness despite the significant self-doubt and fear just below their tough exterior.

Moving Beyond Perfectionism

If we see perfectionism in ourselves, how can we move toward a healthier way of being?

  • First, we need to remind ourselves each day we can only do what time and resources allow. Many times we blame the client for not bringing the patient in soon enough after clinical signs developed, or we question their reluctance or inability to fund diagnostics and treatments. However, we seldom know our client's back story, so we concoct their stories ourselves.
  • We also need to remind ourselves that, just like our clients, we, too, can be limited because of knowledge gaps, the services our practices and teams offer patients and clients, and our fatigue level. Then, too, we work with patients, who are biological systems that, while usually very lovable, have not read the textbooks and so cannot respond about even the most well-chosen treatments. Veterinary medicine is predicated on a variety of factors often beyond our control.
  • To let go of perfectionism, we need to develop self-compassion and learn to treat ourselves with the care and concern we would give a close friend. Letting go does not mean we should adopt a mindset with which working half-heartedly, caring for our patients haphazardly, and having a ready list of excuses for not giving our best is acceptable. Think about the last time you made a mistake in your personal or professional life. Now, think about how a good friend would listen to your story and how he or she would respond. We would hope a good friend would listen attentively, be supportive, and be appropriately challenging to help put the issue into perspective.

Self-compassion is often criticized—not surprisingly, largely by perfectionists—who think developing a self-compassionate stance means we will lack the motivation to do our best and our patients will suffer. However, recent research has shown that people who develop self-compassion are more willing to pursue workplace challenges because they are not afraid and are willing to take well-considered risks.4

Perfectionists are hypervigilant and always stressed, rigid, and looking for ways things can go wrong. With that mindset, clinical errors are more likely to occur, whereas with self-compassion, we are mentally flexible and mindful, aware of the situation moment-to-moment, and able to respond appropriately. As a result, errors are reduced.4

Conclusion

Perfectionism probably allowed us to achieve the grades and degrees necessary to be part of a veterinary team. However, for most people, perfectionism is no longer an ally but actually a liability that can prevent us from enjoying our professional and personal lives. Let us choose self-compassion over perfectionism, treat ourselves as our own best friend, and see the difference that makes.

References and Author Information

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