Counselor’s Corner: Perfectionism

BJohn Mysz, LCSW – 

“I’m a horrible veterinarian/tech” –

“There’s no reason I should have missed that”

“How could I have forgotten to do that?”

Do any of those phrases sound familiar to you? They likely do considering you’re in veterinary medicine and numerous studies indicate that those in this field tend to score high on perfectionism scales. While being “perfect” is something that is looked at as being advantageous, especially throughout very competitive schooling, it lends itself to some rather disastrous effects. But before I get into that, I’ll discuss what perfectionism is and its different kinds.

Perfectionism, per the American Psychological Association, is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. Here are the three different kinds of perfectionists and what an unhealthy one looks like in vet med.

  • The self-oriented perfectionist
    • This person strives to be the very best and they turn their drive into achieving and reaching goals. They use their perfectionism as a skill and are highly adaptive. However, if the perfectionism is poorly regulated, it can lead to serious negative effects
      • This is when you beat yourself up for a misdiagnosis (even when all of the signs pointed to what you initially thought) or when you berate yourself for missing an IV stick (even though it was an intact Doxie that was given Dexmed).
  • The other-oriented perfectionist
    • This person expects others to be perfect. This can lead to problems interacting with others.
  • It’s when you expect your coworkers or colleagues (think rDVMs or even clients) to not have missed a single symptom or to judge them for misdiagnosis (especially with the benefit of hindsight)
  • The socially prescribed perfectionist
    • This person believes others expect them to be perfect. They feel a strong desire for the approval of others and can be very self-critical.
      • This is a category on its own but can be a result of the other-oriented perfectionist as well, or being in an environment where you hear this type of conversation. This is when you feel significant pressure from coworkers that you “have” to be “perfect” at all times, regardless of the situation.

The result of perfectionism can be pretty devastating for those who struggle with it or believe it’s the only route to take in medicine. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. It also is correlated with high burnout and compassion fatigue as well as moral injury. Those who are perfectionists tend to think in black and white (either it’s great or it’s terrible), catastrophize (think the absolute worst-case scenario is the most likely at any given time), and believe that anything short of amazing is a failure. These types of thinking lead to more feelings of guilt and shame, and self-loathing which are often the catalysts to the aforementioned mental health concerns.

Many perfectionists may read this and argue that they “have” to be perfect or else animals die. However, perfectionism puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on you and your team which often exceeds most people’s tolerance threshold. This means that this trait can become overwhelming and you and your work can actually begin to suffer from it. Also, the standards that you are holding for yourself often don’t match reality, meaning that there is no possible way for you to meet these standards.

While I’m not suggesting to not have high goals, they must be reasonably reachable and ones that you would impose on other good vet med professionals. When you figure out what your standards actually are, you may feel that you would not hold anyone else to those same standards of 100% success rate.

My questions to you are the following:

  • Do you feel your perfectionism has any negative effects?
  • Does it seep into your personal life?
  • Has it caused any mental or physical health issues, relationship struggles, or a hostile/judgmental workplace environment?

Use the resources below to help yourself identify your perfectionistic beliefs and learn how to combat these pervasive, often self-defeating automatic thoughts, and become a healthier, more compassionate care provider.

Resources

Scales

Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale

Psychology Today – Perfectionism Quiz

Education

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Perfectionism

Psychology Today – Perfectionism

Perfectionism and Depression: Vulnerabilities Nurses Need to Understand

Overcoming Perfectionism

Harvard Business Review – Overcoming Perfectionism

Overcoming Perfectionism

Perfectionist “Self Beliefs” Worksheet

Reevaluating Perfectionistic Standards Worksheet

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