Fearless columnist Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.Read Articles Written by Natalie Marks
I was only a few months into veterinary practice ownership when I received life-altering feedback. While my business partners and I were responsible for delivering performance reviews to our associate DVMs and other team members, what was equally important was to receive the same in return. So, one afternoon in our management office, my senior partner started going through the comments about me. While I got many positive remarks around my clinical acumen and mentoring of younger associates, a few colleagues stated that they found me intimidating and unapproachable. Those two words were difficult to hear and even harder to process because I had the opposite perception.
As a recovering perfectionist, I came to two important realizations:
- Feedback need not be permanent criticism; we can evolve continually.
- Our behaviors have primary causes. The root of mine was my goal of an unachievable state of perfectionism.
While we have clear roadmaps for improving and preserving the physical and emotional health of our canine and feline patients, what’s much harder is to look inside ourselves and confront our bad habits, especially those with significant consequences for ourselves and our teams. As veterinarians, many of us struggle with owning silent expectations, the fear of vulnerability and the avoidance of new tasks until we are certain we can achieve them.
Here are a few ways to release perfectionism from our lives and achieve a calmer, healthier hospital environment and a happier inner self.
The Curse of Silent Expectations
Like many of my colleagues in veterinary medicine, I very much identify with the characteristics of perfectionism. One that resonates strongly is my desire to achieve perfect results and that others do the same. While acknowledging the former is relatively easy, the latter can cause the downfall of veterinary leaders. The difference between a stressful work culture and the successful development of veterinary teams is often centered on expectations and clarity.
As a young associate veterinarian, I gave my clients expectations every day — wait time updates, blood work statuses, physical exam findings. I started many client discussions with, “I’d love to know your goals for your dog or cat.”
However, when I transitioned to practice owner, I was terrified that delivering direct expectations to team members would be perceived as bossy or negative. Instead, I guided my teams using silent expectations. I somehow believed we could achieve desired tasks at a high level without transparent communication. Not only did that approach create a work environment full of anxiety and disappointment, but I started internalizing the thought that I was failing as a leader. Truthfully, the only failure in that moment was my failing to understand that silent expectations can never be heard or achieved.
Through practice and support, my delivery of clear expectations lifted the feeling of heaviness from everybody’s shoulders in the hospital. A great starting place for me was to try to eliminate words like “should,” “must,” “can’t” and “supposed to.” In their place, I shared kind but firm expectations with my team. My new technique empowered everyone as we began working toward a hospitalwide AAHA certification. We agreed on deadlines and specific tasks, held each other accountable, and received feedback openly. The change in our work culture was palpable, and the stress level in everyone, including myself, decreased drastically.
Vulnerability Is Not Weakness
One common takeaway in literature regarding perfectionism in human health care focuses on thinking less of yourself when you need to learn something. I was in that bucket early in my career. Back then, if I wasn’t 100% confident that I could master a surgery or handle a difficult client, I avoided the situation at all costs. I was afraid of being in a risky place where I could easily be imperfect or make mistakes that might lessen the team’s respect for me.
I was so wrong. By outwardly acknowledging that I didn’t know the answers, I didn’t lose trust and respect; I gained it. By trying something new, asking for help and even failing in front of others, I became human. By encouraging team members to do the same, I could lift them by:
- Supporting them for the risks they took.
- Teaching in the moment.
- Using compassion when respectfully correcting any errors.
As time passed, I accepted that kindness could exist in the face of mistakes and imperfection. While we rationally know that veterinary medicine and clinical practice are not clear-cut, we often irrationally categorize any imperfection involving a medical case or client as outright failure. Such a response leads to frustration, anger and even an internal retreat.
Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection
To a perfectionist, excellence sometimes can seem like profound failure. Even in our moments of tremendous accomplishment, we tend to fixate on the smallest of flaws in ourselves and others. Sometimes, something as simple as a casual comment about a therapeutic diet another colleague would have recommended or a preferred suture pattern can create a cascade of negative thoughts that harms one’s sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, such reactions can direct negative energy toward team members, escalating their anxiety.
Because they worry about minutiae, perfectionists tend to live in a state of constant vigilance. It’s visible physically in the form of anxious behaviors, or it’s invisible emotionally. I found myself in that camp frequently, afraid of making mistakes and what my team would think if I did. Even if I achieved a goal, I felt unfulfilled.
I struggle to this day with the feeling that life and career development and relationships are black and white. Therefore, interactions with friends, family members and colleagues who don’t struggle with perfectionism can be difficult and stressful.
If I’ve hit a chord in you, you’re not alone. Light and hope are ahead. When you’re on the road to the unattainable state of perfectionism, you need to find an off-ramp. That’s the moment to reexamine and reset your thinking.
While I still have a long road ahead in overcoming my perfectionism, I’ve learned to embrace the journey, practice self-compassion and remember that we are all works in progress.
DO A SELF-CHECK
Here are 10 signs of perfectionism as described by wellness coach Dr. Elizabeth Scott at bit.ly/3JFgAmj.
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Being highly critical
- Feeling pushed by fear
- Having unrealistic standards
- Focusing only on results
- Feeling depressed by unmet goals
- Fear of failure
- Low self-esteem