Are you a perfectionist? I don’t know how many times I have been told that we, physicians and healers, tend to be perfectionists. It is actually demanded of us to be perfect. But, the demand of perfectionism in our doctors comes at a very real cost. For this reason, I always took being a perfectionist outside of work to be a bad thing; like in the world of balanced, normal people, I am obsessive/compulsive or always unhappy because nothing is good enough, and I am, most certainly, not good enough – EVER. In the name of work-life balance, I would try to be a perfectionist when it came to patients and balance that with being “just ok” and not speaking up, or make demands about things in my personal life. Nobody likes a bossy wife or a bossy Mom! What is the result? I was a BAD ASS at work (meaning working hard, but with purpose, in the zone, and confident in my abilities) while being “meh” at home: If it wasn’t the perfect marriage, or being perfect in the bedroom, or having the perfect home, or having the perfect parenting relationship to the kids, or the perfect friendship – then I had a persistent and sinking feeling that felt a lot like failure and shame. Even worse, I would blame myself for the failure. This is very confusing to me. Isn’t it better to not be a perfectionist, even though being a doctor requires it? I am so confused! So, I did some searching on the topic.
According to Hill and Curran (2016), the definition of perfectionism usually includes exceedingly high standards and a preoccupation with self-critical evaluation. Perfectionism, as a topic, is highly important because it has been linked to “burnout” (as a reminder, this is not my favorite word for the phenomenon of compassion fatigue and personal trauma due to a myriad of causes in the life of a healer, but the term, “burnout”, is what is predominately used in medical literature). Psychologists differentiate between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. In other words, there are two kinds of perfectionism. No wonder I was confused!
Perfectionistic strivings can be thought of as adaptive perfectionism that includes active coping mechanisms and strategies; can include positive emotional experiences, and ultimately, can result in greater performance (Hill & Curran, 2016). (This seems like a good thing.) Perfectionistic strivings appear to not be causative or related to burnout. In other words, this is adaptive perfectionism that we all want to be! Individuals with perfectionistic striving dimensions to their personal make-up set high, but realistic goals, process failure well, and do not judge themselves harshly when they fail to hit the mark.
In contrast, Perfectionistic concerns is about a “rigid self-evaluative style” (p. 271). This includes all-or-nothing thinking, making negative generalizations when negative events happen, avoidant coping behavior, tendency to ruminate about failures, questioning self-worth, needing self-validation, and a false perception of high external expectations and criticism, to name a few. This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Because of the threat to self-worth, avoidance becomes a maladaptive strategy that actually keeps the negative emotional experiences in place.
What is important is that perfectionistic concerns play a large part in the accrual of stress and burnout. This is the perfectionism that is literally deadly, if it remains unchecked. Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to many health conditions, including anxiety and depression (precursors to physician suicide).
So what is there to do? Well, now that I have examined the different kinds of perfectionism, I see the patterns of maladaptive perfectionism (Perfectionistic concerns). I can strive (haha!) to set significant goals, be in action around those goals, while doing my absolute best, all while working on giving up the self-critical evaluation and listening to the voice in my head that can get very loud about failure, worth, and taking a risk. It is something that I have been working on and that you can do, too! It is a practice to be conscious and mindful of maladaptive thoughts, interpretations of events and concerns. I have come to know my practiced ability of self-awareness allows me to live a fuller and happier life. I have more research to do on this, but I can see this as a helpful tool in the coaching process of removing barriers to performance, fulfillment and, in the end, a happy healer.
If you would like to take a couple online tests to see what kind of a perfectionist you are, here are a couple resources for fun (not meant to be diagnostic or prognostic).
In the end, I have to laugh at myself because it took me so long to write this post because I wanted it to be perfect before I published it! I am sure there are a ton of healers that can relate!
Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 20(3), 269-288. doi: 10.1177/1088868315596286