Vet Wellness Briefs: The Trap of Perfectionism

veterinarians older male younger female demonstrating perfectionism
Veterinarians can find more satisfaction in their careers by moving away from perfectionism and extending grace to themselves and others. iStock

Many veterinarians hold themselves to very high standards, and many veer into the territory of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s concern for achieving flawless performance that is accompanied by critical self-judgment. This mindset can contribute to the development of impostor syndrome. 

Perfectionists usually have very high standards, rigid expectations, and specific ideas about how to achieve a desired outcome. Although they are usually amazing achievers that are both organized and reliable, they can also be critical of others (or themselves) when their sometimes-unrealistic expectations are not met. As a result of the pressure they feel to meet a high bar in performance, they are prone to anxiety. They often need a high level of control and a strong degree of structure. These high-performing individuals generally have high levels of self-doubt and insecurity, which they might hide with people-pleasing behavior or the converse—bluster, irritability and a short fuse. 

Transitioning Away from Perfectionism

The change from viewing any mistake as failure or incompetence comes through extending grace to yourself for being human. One good technique is to consider what you would say to a friend if they had made a mistake and were castigating themselves. Say those same soothing words to yourself. Practicing self-compassion is the most important step in moving away from perfectionism. 

Accepting Mistakes

Most people fear being judged or even rejected if they make an error, but everyone makes mistakes. If you find yourself harshly judging others (or yourself) for their lack of perfection, consider if their performance is tied to your sense of self-esteem. Is your self-worth dependent on how you or someone else performs? Consider whether you are hypersensitive to criticism or actually have control over other people’s actions. Does a mistake make a person less worthy of acceptance, love or belonging? 

Finding Flexibility

If you find yourself needing exact rules and expectations in order to feel comfortable, or if you need a detailed plan for every action, consider that there are many roads leading to the same destination. If you insist on your co-workers or subordinates following your directives in a rigid way, their job satisfaction and engagement will plummet. Flexibility can be developed by breaking out of your routines, allowing someone else to take the lead while you follow, practicing spontaneity, and opening up to improvisation in the moment. 

Learning from Missteps

Time spent ruminating over a misjudgment is better spent asking “What can we learn from this?” Moving away from perfectionism could begin by accepting small missteps and asking yourself if this will matter next week or even tomorrow. By being willing to accept things as they are, not as you want them to be, you begin to accept reality.

Capturing the Positive Aspects of Perfectionism

The positive aspects of perfectionism include the ambition and drive to produce excellence, and the reliable achievement of results. If a perfectionist is able, through personal growth and self-awareness, to become more flexible, adaptable and tolerant of mistakes, they can become a remarkable leader that can help others (or themselves) meet their highest potential. By learning to tolerate their fear of failure through becoming comfortable with discomfort, they can develop a strong sense of their own competence and provide a living example for others to emulate.

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