Article

The good, the bad and the perfectionist

We’ve all been asked that tricky question at interview: ‘what do you think your biggest weakness is?’ Some of us will unashamedly reply: ‘oh, well I am a bit of a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard or spend too much time on something.’

However, perfectionism isn’t a positive attribute conveniently masquerading as a fault. Being a perfectionist doesn’t just mean having a keen eye for detail and high standards; it can actually have adverse effects on many aspects of our professional and personal lives.1 Vets are often over-achieving individuals with high expectations so it may not be surprising that perfectionism is common to many of us. But what are the realities of this and what can we do about it?

What is perfectionism and is it always bad?

Perfectionism is the tendency to enforce high standards and be overly critical when it comes to self-evaluation.2This has been associated with a number of physiological and psychological disorders, with the majority of manifestations being maladaptive. Perfectionism has been linked to depression, eating disorders, social phobias, performance anxiety and suicidal thoughts. However, our understanding of perfectionism has progressed recently and it is now thought to be a multidimensional personality characteristic with more than one type.2To tan or no to tan?!

The two most common divisions of perfectionism are self-oriented perfectionism and socially-prescribed perfectionism. The former occurs when an individual believes that being perfect is important which leads them to set excessively high standards for themselves, whereas the latter occurs when the individual believes that others have set high standards for them and think that to be accepted they need to fulfil those standards.3 Socially prescribed perfectionism is widely understood to be more associated with negative outcomes and psychological problems, whereas self-prescribed perfectionism can more often result in positive outcomes such as goal attainment and academic achievement.4 The key is recognising the boundary between adaptive and maladaptive responses and making sure you stay the right side of the line.

Am I a perfectionist?

While by no means a diagnostic test, ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you;5

  • You have exceptionally high standards and expect others to have the same
  • Nothing truly gives you a feeling of lasting worth, even reaching your goals
  • You measure your self-worth by your achievements
  • You often think your work is not good enough and don’t believe others when they tell you that it is
  • You can’t let yourself just do a ‘good enough’ job; you feel pressure to be faultless
  • Even when you do achieve, you feel you don’t deserve it
  • You sometimes adopt a ‘do it perfectly or don’t do it at all’ attitude
  • You fear failure and what others may think of you if you do fail
  • You class not achieving perfection as failure

If you find that some of these statements resonate with you, it might be time to review the impact perfectionism could be having in your life. Ultimately, most people are striving for some form of love and respect and the belief that the only way to achieve these two things is through high achievement can be extremely damaging. It also ultimately doesn’t lead to long term fulfillment.

Perfectionism in practice

In a very thought-provoking lecture at London Vet Show 2014, Brian Faulkner, vet and director of VetPsych, described how there are two types of confidence: task-confidence and self-confidence. Having worked with many vets on trying to improve tasks such as consultation skills, he believes trying to enhance task-confidence in someone with low self-confidence is often futile and traumatic. Perfectionism is just one manifestation of low self-confidence.

Brian argues that obtaining perfection has never made anyone happy and describes it as a ‘compulsive and exhausting belief system ‘. Perfectionists tend to ‘blame and shame’, attaching words such as ‘wrong, weak, freak, fraud and flawed’ as well as ‘mad, sad, and bad’ to their perceived inadequacies and supposedly faulty actions. Rather than believing they are worthy now just as they are, perfectionists often think they will be worthy at some point in the future, perhaps when they do, look or act in a certain way.

There are many aspects to veterinary practice which fuel perfectionism as well as many outlets for existing perfectionist characteristics. Brian describes that many vets fall victim to what he calls the ‘three year wobble.’ Reaching three years post-qualification a young vet suddenly feels like they should have all the answers, feels less able to ask others for help and generally loses confidence. Being a vet is full of uncertainty and being unable to remove this can lead to a lack of self-confidence. Experience of failure may be very difficult for those with high level of perfectionism and as failure is an inevitable part of clinical work, people with perfectionistic traits may struggle in practice.2,4

Brian describes that by taking a simple approach to first opinion consults, vets can have a much healthier outlook on their abilities and achievements in the clinical setting. Using the acronym PDS, he describes the three main aspects to most cases – ‘Problems, Differentials and Strategies’. Of the strategies, there’s usually no absolute right or wrong way and there are always likely to be alternatives. 80 % of responses are likely to be reactive, based on assumptions, while the other 20 % will either be a proactive management plan or euthanasia of the animal. Breaking the process down in this way can help to build a more resilient outlook and productive approach.

Ultimately, vets have to learn to be ok with the fact that they can’t control all of the variables all of the time and that they cannot guarantee the outcomes. For practical tips on how to combat the potential negative manifestations of perfectionism, read the second article in this series here

Do any of these issues affect you? Do you feel that your work or personal life is affected by perfectionist tendencies – either as a help or a hindrance? Or perhaps identified with a few of the statements but hadn’t previously identified them with being a perfectionist. We would love to hear your thoughts on this highly interesting and rather pervasive topic!

  1. Stembert, F. M., Lipman, L. J., & Loomans, J. B. (2003). [Veterinarian: a healthy profession?]. Tijdschrift voor diergeneeskunde, 128(18), 565-569
  2. FROST, R. A., MARTEN, P., LAHART, C. & ROSENBLATE, R. 1990. The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.
  3. HEWITT, P. L. & FLETT, G. L. 1991b. Perfectionism in the Self and Social Contexts: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Association With Psychopathology. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 60, 456-470.
  4. BLATT, S. J. 1995. The destructiveness of perfectionism. . American Psychologist 50, 1003-1020.
  5. Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1990). Perfectionism and depression: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 5, 423-438