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Managing perfectionism
  1. Catherine Oxtoby, MRCVS

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Catherine Oxtoby is the veterinary risk manager for the Veterinary Defence Society.

Are you a perfectionist? If so, it would seem you should be worried.

Perfectionists are consistently defined as people who strive for flawlessness, set excessively high standards of performance and tend to be overly critical of their own behaviour. In veterinary practice, where even the best laid plans do not always work out, the pursuit of perfection is unlikely to end well. But, according to popular belief, perfectionism appears to be a popular trait among veterinary clinicians.

Research suggests that perfectionism exists in two distinct forms:

  • ‘Adaptive perfectionists’ are able to accept small failures, set realistic goals and manage the stresses surrounding achievement. They use positive reinforcement to develop and stretch themselves and report higher levels of self efficacy, self esteem and positive wellbeing.

  • ‘Maladaptive perfectionists’ are harshly self critical, often driven by a fear of failure or criticism, and they can spiral into a self-perpetuating perception of under achievement, paralysed by the fear of making a mistake. They often experience anxiety, depression and feelings of inferiority and low self esteem.

This monthly wellbeing series is provided by VDS Training. Topics are listed below:

  • Knowing what you want from life

  • Managing perfectionism

  • Becoming responsibly selfish

  • Getting the most out of your time

  • Feeling in control

  • Setting achievable goals

  • Personal leadership

  • Developing a resilient approach

  • Developing an assertive approach

  • Dealing with difficult clients

  • Worried about a colleague?

  • Fulfilment at work

Perfectionism can be a good thing. In the veterinary context, it translates into clinical excellence, quality patient care and self-motivated professionals who advocate for their patients.

As vets, many of us feel that perfectionism is the only way – fallibility is not an option. We are often fuelled by a fear of the consequences of making mistakes – the reactions of clients, colleagues and the RCVS, and, above all, the reality of causing harm to our patients. But, it’s important that we keep this in check and ensure that our perfectionism doesn’t take the maladaptive form, leading to disruptive behaviours both for ourselves and for the wider veterinary team.

How to manage perfectionism

  • Practise reflecting on your own attitudes and in recognising behaviours that are maladaptive. Look out for early warning signs of perfectionism, such as:

    • All or nothing thinking (‘I had a poor outcome therefore I must be a bad surgeon’),

    • Failure to delegate (‘I’ll do it because then I know it’s done right’),

    • Procrastination (‘I’d better refer that case because I won’t be able to do it as well as them’).

  • Discuss mistakes and accept feedback from colleagues. Personal coaching or cognitive behavioural therapy have also been suggested to reduce the negative side effects of perfectionist tendencies.

  • Note that perfectionism can also be fuelled by the view of others, such as our colleagues and clients. In this sense, senior clinicians should be honest about their own mistakes, as this will enable junior colleagues to realise that those people who may appear to be ‘perfect’ have made their fair share of errors.

  • Be realistic about your and your colleagues’ capacity to perform. Understand that things can go wrong because of inherent human limitations and the nature of the environment we work in: ‘Doing your best’ will never equate to ‘never getting it wrong’.

  • Bear in mind that healthy perfectionism can be a valuable asset, so long as it doesn't morph into destructive behaviours and patterns of thinking.

Top 5 points

  1. Perfectionists are people who strive for flawlessness, set excessively high standards of performance and are overly critical of their own behaviour.

  2. Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with fear of failure, anxiety, depression and low self esteem.

  3. Signs of perfectionist behaviour include failure to delegate, all or nothing thinking and procrastination.

  4. Reflecting on our actions, accepting constructive feedback from colleagues, and personal coaching can reduce the negative aspects of perfectionism.

  5. Discussing mistakes, and understanding and accepting our limitations as people will enable safer systems of care for patients as well as for clinicians.

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