Physicians are known to share some strong personality traits. We are generally hardworking, skeptical, and perfectionistic. Those characteristics support us in our quest to continually add knowledge and skills, think critically, and strive to provide the best care to our patients. They also wreak havoc with our life balance, our relationships, and our confidence.
As Lee Lipsenthal MD says in Finding Balance in a Medical Life, perfectionism is excused and justified because we deal with life and death decisions. Certainly, the consequences of our mistakes can be quite grave. My sister, a successful retail executive who managed millions of dollars in transactions once remarked, “if I make a mistake, we lose thousands of dollars, but if you make a mistake, someone could die!”
Since we are human, the goal of becoming perfect is completely unattainable. The great baseball hitter, Tony Gwynn, carried a lifetime batting average of .338 and won major League Baseball’s Batting Title 8 times – by being successful 1/3 of the time. While we strive to be successful more than 1/3 of the time, accepting occasional failures, mistakes, or ignorance is an important part of our growth if we want to live a happy life. Expecting perfection makes us anxious, irritable, and extremely judgmental of ourselves and others.
Perfectionists tend to focus on whatever negative interaction we had during the day, sometimes becoming overly distracted so we function at a level lower than we might otherwise. Perfectionists can receive a multitude of compliments but remember the only negative comment we received, or become depressed by a single complication and not recall the thousands of successful treatments we provided to our many patients. Our medical education trained us to always ask, “What could I have done better?” We never think we are good enough.
So what are we perfectionists supposed to do about this?
One simple thing we can do, beginning today, is to end each day asking ourselves a different question: “What did I do well today?” This will help us bring our view of ourself into balance. Just this one short question, this one small change, gives us the opportunity to ease up on ourselves and allow greater joy in our life.
Sounds simple – what have you got to lose? I invite you to try it!