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Should You Change Your Perfectionism…Or Your Perception?

Changing perspectives

As a relatively new vet, you must have heard countless anecdotes about how perfectionism and neuroticism plague the profession. Indeed, it is now assumed that you guys are all typical ‘Type As’, scared of failure to the core and conscientious until burn-out. 

If it is true that many vets share these common personality traits – perfectionism being the main culprit – what can you do to combat the impact these are having on your mental health and wellbeing? 

Or, is this focus on perfectionism a narrative you are telling yourself that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are you really pre-dispositioned to be a perfectionist veterinarian?

In all likelihood, it is probably a bit of both. As a vet, you are a high achiever and have been throughout your whole educational career. Conscientiousness and the need for perfection go hand in hand. By the same token however, certain personality traits such as perfectionism have become a huge generalisation for the whole profession. Therefore, if you weren’t aware of being a perfectionist before embarking on your vet degree, you probably think you are one now. 

Whilst this is not to say that perfectionism in the veterinary profession is a fallacy, but sometimes stepping outside the narrative is important. Indeed, the cold, hard figures speak for themselves: suicide is four times more prevalent in the veterinary profession than the general population. There must be a reason for this.

BUT, by perpetuating the generalisation that all vets are perfectionists, we also imply that you are more likely by nature to suffer from poor mental health as a result. This narrative is harmful because it takes the focus away from how systemic factors in the profession could be improved and proposes the individual is the cause. You may also start to believe that you are ‘destined’ to have poor mental health because it’s in your makeup, and you may dismiss factors such as a toxic blame culture, unfair working practices, a chaotic leadership style, and long working days, as contributing to your stress levels.

Please, do not just assume you are a perfectionist because you are a vet. To change your perfectionism, you must change your perception of it too. 

What Does Research Say About Perfectionism?

According to a recent study, it cannot be proven that the veterinary profession may attract individuals with personality traits that render them susceptible to mental ill-health, and that this could contribute to the heightened suicide risk evidenced in this population. This perception of the ‘perfectionist vet’ is more anecdotal than evidential.

In fact, you may be surprised to know that the veterinary students surveyed scored significantly lower for perfectionism than both pharmacy (p = 0.02) and law students (p = 0.005).

Are you a perfectionist? Or is this your perception?

How to change your perception of perfectionism

Notice When You Are Internalising

Perfectionism is typified by attentiveness to inner feelings and a need to magnify and analyse experiences. This can lead to internalisation, self-blame and catastrophization (when we blow up a situation and imagine the worst possible outcome). 

Notice when you are internalising a situation, step outside of the event and gain perspective. You can even channel these traits into positive energy by keeping a journal (a great creative outlet), regularly exercising and/or practicing a hobby. If necessary also consider counselling as a great way to work with difficult feelings. 

See the Good in the ‘Bad’

Perfectionism is seen as a negative characteristic. But, there are two sides to the story. With enough self-awareness, you can extract the positive aspects of perfectionism and become a successful vet.

Try to turn your doubts about actions and concerns over mistakes into personal standards of organisation. The trick here is to switch your focus on the past to the future. Use your attention to detail and your analysing mind to focus on organisation, time-management and how you can improve for the future (rather than dwelling on the past).

Recognise Your Key Qualities

The same piece of research showed that vets have high levels of agreeableness. This characteristic is linked to altruism, trust in others, cooperation and empathy. Instead of focussing on perfectionism, focus on these great qualities that many veterinarians share.

Obviously, having a high level of empathy can take its emotional toll when dealing with patients. However, your love for animals and providing the best care possible is also your ‘why’: your driving force. Furthermore, being cooperative is great news for creating a cohesive and supportive team. 

Avoid Blame, Seek First to Understand

Instead of blaming yourself or others for mistakes, consider why they happened in the first place. Perhaps this is something to do with an engrained practice culture? Is there a systemic factor that could be questioned, changed, or innovated? Could extra equipment reduce the number of mistakes made? Should new training on emotional intelligence be introduced?

Instead of resorting straight to blame, think of the wider picture. Consider the external factors, the practice values and the culture. 

Hopefully you now have a new perspective on perfectionism. Not every vet is a perfectionist, and, even if you are a perfectionist there are ways to use this characteristic adaptively: it’s not all bad. For example, you can turn your detail-oriented mind to organisation and shift from the past to the future. Perfectionism does not mean you are destined to suffer from poor mental health! 

If you have found this post useful and would like build a successful and sustainable career in veterinary medicine, why not check out our twelve-module, 'So You're a Vet... Now What?' course:

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