As a physician, you’ve likely been told that attention to detail and a commitment to excellence are important qualities to have. And if you’re a physician, undoubtedly, in one area or another, you’re hard on yourself. There’s nothing wrong with striving to do your best (of course), but it’s important to be mindful of where that striving is coming from. Because if it’s an overreliance on perfectionism, it may be from a place of fear, low self-worth, and lack – surefire causes for burnout.
Perfectionism is extremely common among physicians, and this is likely because of how close to perfect you have to be to become a doctor. Since being a teenager, you’ve likely had to get near-perfect grades and test scores and have a flawless CV to make it through the next checkpoint on the journey to becoming a doctor. While this pressure and do-or-die mentality may have worked for earning the white coat, it certainly doesn’t for keeping it, and it can often lead to physician burnout.
Here are some of the ramifications that perfectionism can have for physicians:
Burnout: First and foremost, perfectionism can lead to burnout. When you have the unrealistic expectation that everything you do will go perfectly, you set a standard that is impossible to reach. By setting the bar too high, you may find yourself working longer hours, taking on more than you can handle, or feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Below-grade tasks like charting may actually end up taking longer, because of the unnecessarily high standard physicians may hold their charts to.
Decreased job satisfaction: If you approach a task as an indicator of your worth, with anything less than a perfect result meaning you’re a huge failure, you probably aren’t going to have a huge affinity for that task. In this way, perfectionism can make work miserable.
Imagine being an Olympic swimmer, and the night before a race worrying that the whole world is going to find out you’re not the swimmer they think you are. Or a local mailman, panicking because one dropped the letter into a puddle has now confirmed that he’s a huge failure.
Sometimes equating our struggles to other professions can help us see how hard on ourselves we are being!
Difficulty being present with patients:
Being overly focused on perfection can ironically prevent us from connecting with our patients. We’re so focused on solving the issue at hand that we treat the interaction like a math problem instead of an opportunity to understand and heal another human being. Additionally, being overly focused on perfection can make us overly hard on ourselves when we make mistakes, which can then derail our energy and motivation with future patients.
In addition to the negative consequences of perfectionism in your practice, it can also have negative impacts on your personal relationships and self-esteem. Perfectionism can lead to an unhealthy focus on avoiding mistakes and can make it difficult to accept help or support from others. When we expect ourselves to be perfect, we work hard to keep up this perfect image with our loved ones, making it harder for us to connect with them.
Perfectionism is also the complete antithesis of feeling good enough, despite one’s flaws. When we expect ourselves to be perfect or view perfection as a prerequisite for being lovable, we feel inadequate, which, in addition, to being a profoundly unsatisfying feeling, saps the energy that we have to approach our patients and our loved ones.
So how can you overcome perfectionism and find a healthier balance? Here are a few tips:
Practice self-compassion: It’s important to remember that no one is perfect and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that you’re only human and that it’s normal to have setbacks and failures.
Set realistic goals: Rather than striving for perfection, try setting realistic goals that you can realistically achieve. The best baseball players in the world succeed 30-40% of the time. Failure is baked into their performance reviews. As a physician, you’re no different. Now it would be quite alarming if 60-70% of your patient interactions were malpractice-worthy failures…but if you have some awkward moments or moments when you doubt yourself, understand that these are normal and healthy parts of a career in medicine. Letting go of a need for every interaction and moment to be perfect can help you finish the day feeling good about what you’ve done.
Seek out support: If you’re struggling with perfectionism, it can be helpful to seek out support from a coach (like me!) They can help you identify the underlying causes of your perfectionism and develop actionable strategies for overcoming it.
Embrace failure: It’s important to remember that failure is a natural and inevitable part of life. Rather than seeing failure as a marker of your worth as a person and doctor, try to view it as a part of life and an opportunity to learn and grow.
Don’t compare yourself to others: Comparison can be a major contributor to perfectionism. When we look at all of our transgressions and “failures” in 1080p and all we see in others is their shiny, polished exteriors, it’s easy to feel like a failure.
Comparing yourself to others is a game that is impossible to win. Believe me, I’ve played it! Remove that aspect of competition and solely compare yourself to who you were yesterday and the day before that.
Remember that it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s important to be kind to yourself and others. With time and practice, you can learn to let go of the need for perfection and find greater fulfillment and happiness in your personal and professional life.