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Is perfectionism decreasing your worth?

Being non-judgemental, acknowledging our errors and facing the emotions that they give rise to can liberate us from the habit of hiding behind self-depreciation so that we can move on

Striving to be the best veterinary professional and/or person that you can be is always an asset to the practice, your friends and loved ones… right?

This is not necessarily so.

When striving to be great is accompanied by a yearning to be better than we realistically can be, it is a perfect storm that can lead us down the destructive circle of yearning, disappointment, self-judgement, self-flagellation, trying harder, more disappointment, harsher judgement, loneliness and desperation.

Now I am not saying we should stop trying to be the best we can be. Not at all. But so many of my psychotherapy clients who are self-declared recovering perfectionists find that swapping the above cycle for a less judgemental one means that they have the head space to focus more clearly on tasks at work, thus leading to better outcomes for their patients, colleagues and ultimately their clients and their pets.

Ironically, accepting less than perfection can improve their quality of work

Ironically, accepting less than perfection can improve their quality of work.

Tackling self-judgement and self-depreciation

Have you ever worked with someone who constantly puts themselves down and lists their own faults, errors and inabilities in an effort to convince their audience that they are worthless? Have you ever been that person? Or have you ever been in the company of someone who accepts that they aren’t infallible, who owns their imperfections and makes sure that they don’t impact on their patients, colleagues and friends? Who would you rather work with, and who would you rather be?

For me, I feel more confident in my colleagues’ ability to handle a case if they realise their limitations and ask for help rather than forging ahead when the risk of error is high. When something goes wrong with a case, a colleague who takes ownership of the complication and deals with it – with or without help from others – is, to me, way more valuable than a colleague who is self-flagellant out loud.

So, how do we manage to not beat ourselves up when faced with a complication at work or when faced with what we see as a flaw in our general make-up?

Being ambitious and always wanting to do better are qualities we want in our veterinary team. As surgeons, we are encouraged to criticise our work and learn reflectively every time we operate: what five things could I have done better on this fracture repair? Even if we are super happy with our repair, and we know that the outcome is likely to be a comfortable leg and a rapid return to normal function, developing a healthy habit of self-assessment does so much for our self-development as surgeons and as people outside of work.

So, what is the difference between self-assessment and being judgemental?

Broadly speaking, being non-judgemental means not putting any thought or emotion into a “good” category or a “bad” category, but instead just noticing it, accepting it and allowing ourselves to feel it

This may seem subtle, nuanced or even non-existent until examined more closely. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). Broadly speaking, being non-judgemental means not putting any thought or emotion into a “good” category or a “bad” category, but instead just noticing it, accepting it and allowing ourselves to feel it.

Non-judgement is not always about judging people or things they have done or their characteristics. Nor is it about judging ourselves. It is about relieving ourselves of the need to place things into boxes so that situations, thoughts, emotions, people or even the weather can just be.

Mini-meditation on non-judgement

So, sitting comfortably with your eyes open or shut, take 10 normal breaths, noticing only the movement of the breath in and out of the nose. If a thought comes into your head during this time, gently push it aside for now.

Then, during your body scan which we have practised in previous articles, try to notice any discomforts. For example, you may have an itchy scalp or an aching joint. You might not be sitting quite comfortably enough; maybe you would rather change your posture. Without scratching the itch or moving from the uncomfortable position, try to notice the physical feelings associated with it. Name the physical sensations: they might be “itchy”, “irritated” or “painful”, etc. Allow them to be without doing anything to relieve the discomfort or annoyance. Focus on the discomfort wholeheartedly: it does not need to be perfect.

This is an acceptance of discomfort.

You can open your eyes and try to notice the relief of not having to correct the imperfections.

Meditation for failure

Meditation for when we have failed is harder as instead of feeling just the physical discomforts, we feel the emotional pain of failing.

Many feelings and emotions come to mind: shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, loneliness, desperation. We may tend towards awfulisation, where the potential outcomes of our error become enormous in our mind and we lean towards only the worst possible scenario as a definite reality. Physically we might feel nauseous, weak and/or faint. Or we might have palpitations, a sinking feeling in our chest or a lurching stomach. We have all been there.

The challenge of this meditation is to allow these feelings to be present, one by one, in the forefront of your mind for as long as you can hold them there. It is difficult when our natural reaction is to push these hideous feelings away. But it has been shown time and time again that naming these feelings, whether it is the feeling of nausea or the emotion of shame, and allowing yourself to feel them at their fullest defuses their hold on you, thus enabling you to get on with your life.

It is difficult when our natural reaction is to push these hideous feelings away. But it has been shown time and time again that naming… and allowing yourself to feel them at their fullest defuses their hold on you, thus enabling you to get on with your life

It is so important to pull your mind away from trying to justify why you feel any of these feelings. Therein lies the non-judgement part: it does not matter if you should or should not feel something, the point is that you do feel it and that is it.

When we are being non-judgemental of the emotions we are feeling as a result of being imperfect, we are indeed noticing them, allowing ourselves to feel them and accepting that they exist. We are not justifying whether these feelings should or should not exist. We are not defending why we are feeling what we’re feeling. We are just noticing each emotion one by one, giving them a name and recognising that the plethora of feelings can indeed be sorted into an orderly queue of individual emotions to be dealt with and accepted. It is like the mass of cables behind the TV: when untangled, it is a great deal easier to organise.

In summary

It is telling that when we make a mistake in our profession, it’s called “committing an error”, similar to committing a crime.

Dealing with errors as a team who runs morbidity and mortality rounds is a fantastic way to learn how to accept imperfections and mistakes; you can liken it to a mini-meditation but as a group of fallible beings. When run intelligently, these are an opportunity to say out loud that something went wrong, and we did it. Then it is out in the open.

These rounds are not about blaming anyone, it is about accepting that we make errors and that there are outcomes from these errors. We talk about the near misses and the deaths that we could not prevent, and we feel sick to the core when talking about it. The physical feelings and the feelings of shame are a given. We feel them as a team. We discuss how to prevent various mistakes from happening again, put more protocols in place and ironically, come away from these meetings even more bonded as a team and more at peace with the fact that we made those mistakes.

They make us feel hideous and that is life.