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How to Stop Being a Perfectionist as a Veterinarian

A perfectionist arranging items.

A perfectionist mindset plagues so many new veterinarians and stops them from reaching outside of their comfort zones. The need to be perfect is a huge self-imposed pressure that is simply unnecessary. How can you escape from the clutches of perfectionism? Read on for five strategies.

Before we delve into the five perfectionist-combatting techniques, I would like to talk a little about psychology. You probably did fairly well in school, received constant praise throughout your childhood, and worked hard to get into veterinary school – you probably beat 20-35 candidates for your place. Furthermore, if you ever have encountered failure, you have likely been supported by family and friends who acted as your buffer.

You’re in your first veterinary job and…wham! Now it gets real. You are treating real patients with real consequences, and failure is no longer a concept. It’s about to hit you in the face. This is your first job, so you must accept that you will make mistakes. Improve your first job experience by following these techniques.

Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture

If you are a perfectionist, you will be highly conscientious and focused. You possibly let tasks run away with you and will remain dedicated to the cause, no matter how long it takes or how big of a snowball it is turning into. Ultimately, this can lead to burnout.

If you find yourself obsessing over a report that your colleagues may have deemed finished hours ago, put it into perspective. Is this a task that requires absolute perfection? Is your time being put to good use?

Create a list of objectives and prioritize them. This way, you will be able to see what kind of tasks deserve the most attention. For example, one of your objectives may be to master dental surgery within six months. Does totally re-writing a patient’s record contribute to achieving this? I doubt it. This is not about skimping on your work but working smarter. Set yourself a timer and be dogmatic about it: 5 minutes for that patient chart and 5 minutes on the invoice. No more is needed.

It’s important to recognize, if at least for your own sanity, that there comes a point of diminishing return. Perfecting those notes will not make a remarkable difference, whereas putting this extra time into mastering your skills or working on other important things (like eating your lunch!) could make a huge difference to the lives of animals.

Set your own expectations

Perfectionism is fuelled by the fear of failure. In this ‘insta-ready’ society, successes are lauded and failures are hidden: everyone seems to have the perfect life, Peter has seamlessly become a master of surgery in a matter of no time, and everyone is always excruciatingly happy at Debbie’s practice. We all know that the journey to success is far more nuanced and tumultuous than this, and that behind every filtered picture is a moment of struggle (probably several). Yet, we cannot help but compare.

I therefore urge you to cut out social media, or at least to stop comparing yourself to others. Set your own expectations, and make yourself accountable to them. Don’t let anyone define what your own version of success is. It might take you an hour or more to complete a spay surgery as a new veterinarian, but this is still a success. Don’t beat yourself up because Julie, who is more experienced than you, can do it in twenty minutes. Keep practicing this skill until you become a master, and if you need any tips, foster a curious mindset and ask Julie about it – she’ll probably be really happy to share her tips and expertise.

Re-frame failure

Linked to this is the way perfectionists envisage failure. Failure is too often seen as the marker of doom: the end. Perhaps because of constant testing and examination during university, veterinarians emerge with a black-and-white mindset: success versus failure.

In reality, this negative perception of ‘failure’ is a damaging story you are telling yourself. Mistakes are a necessary part of any learning process. They are the rungs in the ladder as you climb to success. Sometimes, you may even have to take a step downwards, have a breather, and then climb up again.

By reframing failure as a necessary part of the learning process, you will be far more likely to reach outside of your comfort zone and take genuine steps to resolving mistakes rather than just abandoning them. A prevention mindset – avoiding failure – is hardly the best one for innovation and creativity. Therefore, adopt a growth mindset, which will require you to embrace ‘failure’ in the process.

Practice self-acceptance and gratitude

Perfectionists are often highly critical – of themselves and others. A great way to combat your critical, nit-picking nature is to practice gratitude and self-acceptance.

Firstly, you should be incredibly proud of yourself. Your hard work has paid off and you have achieved your dreams of becoming a vet! You wouldn’t be here, standing in this veterinary practice right now, if you didn’t deserve it. This is where your journey truly begins and there are so many exciting opportunities to come: you may decide to specialize in cardiology or become a veterinary leader.

Keeping a gratitude journal is a key way to ground yourself and put things into perspective. At the end of each day, write down things that you are grateful for: your colleagues, your clients, your patients, and new learning opportunities. Before, these things may have fallen by the wayside. By noticing them, you will dispel your critical tendencies and embrace the positives, of which there are so many in the veterinary profession.

Your scars will be beautiful

I wanted to finish on this final image. You may have heard of kintsugi, the Zen Buddhist approach to ceramics. It literally means ‘golden joinery’ and is the process of reassembling broken ceramics with luxuriant gold lacquer.

In contrast to our social media-dominated society, this process actually emphasizes the fault lines; they become beautiful and render the complete object fully functional. Failure can be shattering, but it makes up who we are and contributes to our learning experiences. When I became a veterinary leader, I was well and truly thrown into the deep end and I didn’t know how to cope with the pressure. Taking time out wasn’t a failure, but a huge learning opportunity. I learned how to practice self-care so that I could become a successful leader. Without the struggle, there is no progression.

As a perfectionist, you probably have a preconceived notion of the ‘ideal’ life, whether this be professional or personal. Indeed, I actively encourage you to have goals and objectives, but also to consider what will happen when – inevitably – life throws you a curveball. Being adaptable as well as successful starts with quashing your perfectionist mindset. I hope these five tips have been a good starting point.

Struggling to overcome perfectionism? Try our 12-module course, 'So You're a Vet, Now What?', to steer your career on the best possible track:


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