As a veterinarian (and recovering perfectionist), I can say that perfectionism is a common trait had by those in our profession. I think if I polled a room of 100 veterinarians, more than 90 of them would self-identify as perfectionists. Perfectionism is a personality trait that characterizes a person striving for flawlessness who sets excessively high performance standards for themselves and others. It is often accompanied by overly critical self-talk and profound concerns regarding other people’s views or opinions. There are some positive attributes of perfectionism as it can motivate people to succeed and achieve goals; however, in its maladaptive form, it can drive people to attempt to reach unattainable ideals or maintain unrealistic expectations. When perfectionists do not reach their goals or meet expectations, psychological distress and even depression can result.
There are three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionists are driven by the need to avoid personal failure. They set rigid and high standards for themselves that they adhere to at all costs. They tend to be very self-critical and often suffer from imposter syndrome, which is the persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go together, especially in high-achieving female professionals. In those individuals, perfectionism is the result of believing that success is merely due to luck, timing, extreme hard work, or the ability to deceive others into thinking they are more intelligent or competent than they really are. Other-oriented perfectionists are judgmental and critical of others. As such, they tend to set unrealistic expectations on their partners, children, friends, and co-workers. Socially prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold them to higher standards than anyone else and that they can never measure up to the standards set for them.
I would venture to say that the majority of veterinarians are self-oriented perfectionists who set extraordinarily high standards for themselves and believe that the only reason they got to where they are today is because they have consistently met those high standards. Unfortunately, holding fast to these beliefs can be very detrimental in the long term and can exacerbate burnout and compassion fatigue, common problems in veterinary medicine. A recent study investigating trait perfectionism in Australian veterinarians found that those who were perfectionists had a higher vulnerability to moral distress when faced with a triggering stressor event. In other words, a perfectionist veterinarian who is met with the agonizing task of euthanizing a sick pet whose owners cannot afford medical care will experience a higher level of psychological distress. And unfortunately, moral distress is considered a leading cause of compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine.
It’s time for veterinarians to let go of the unrealistic expectation of saving every animal that walks through the door, making every client happy, being best friends with every co-worker, and never making a mistake. The sooner that we can let go of these unattainable beliefs, the better off we will be; and the longer we will survive in this profession. Because let’s be honest, veterinary practice is difficult enough without it having to be perfect.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who also has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She organizes Veterinary Wellness Workshops & Retreats for veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca/wellness.