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Is perfectionism decreasing your worth?

Being non-judgmental liberates us from the habit of hiding behind self-depreciation, instead of acknowledging our errors, facing them and all the emotions they give rise to, and allowing ourselves to feel the shame, embarrassment, and agony in all its foolishness so that we can move on.

Striving to be the best vet, nurse, person you can be is always an asset to the practice of your friends and loved ones, right?

Not necessarily so.

When striving to be great is accompanied by a yearning to be better than we realistically can be, it’s a perfect storm that can lead us down to the destructive circle of yearning, being disappointed, self-judgment, self-flagellation, trying harder, more disappointment, more harsh judgment, loneliness, and desperation.

Now I’m not saying we should stop trying to be the best we can be. Not at all.

But so many of my psychotherapy clients who are self-declared recovering perfectionists, find that swapping the above cycle for a less judgmental one, means that they have the headspace to focus more clearly on tasks at work, thus leading to better outcomes for their patients, colleagues, and ultimately their clients and their pets.

Ironically, accepting less than perfection can improve their quality of work.

Have you ever been with someone who constantly puts themselves down, listing their own faults, errors, and inabilities in an effort to convince their audience that they are worthless?

Or have you ever been that person?

And have you ever been in the company of someone who accepts that they aren’t infallible, who owns their imperfections and makes sure those imperfections don’t impact their patients, colleagues, or friends?

Who would you rather be with? Who would you rather be?

For me, I feel more confident in my colleague’s ability to handle a case if they realize their limitations and ask for help rather than forging ahead when the risk of errors is high.

And when something goes wrong with a case, again a colleague who takes ownership of the complication and deals with it, with or without help from others to me, is way more valuable than a colleague who self flagellates out loud, listing their incompetencies and being eloquent about how rubbish they are.

Being non-judgmental liberates us from the habit of hiding behind self-depreciation, instead of acknowledging our errors, facing them and all the emotions they give rise to, and allowing ourselves to feel the shame, embarrassment and agony in all its fulness so that we can move on.

So how do we manage to not beat ourselves up when faced with a complication at work or when faced with what we see as a flaw in our general makeup?

Being ambitious and always wanting to do better are qualities we want in our vets and nurses. As surgeons, we are encouraged to criticize our work and learn reflectively every time we operate. What 5 things could I have done better on this fracture repair? Even if we are super happy with our repair and we know that the outcome is likely to be a comfortable leg and a rapid return to normal function, developing a healthy habit of self-assessment does so much for us as surgeons and as people outside of work.

So, what’s the difference between self-assessment and being judgmental?

It may seem subtle, nuanced, or even nonexistent until examined more closely.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. 

Non-judgmentally broadly means not putting any thought or emotion into a “good” category or a “bad” category. Rather than just noticing it, accepting it, and allowing ourselves to feel it.

Non- judgment isn’t always about judging people or things they have done or their characteristics. Nor is it about judging ourselves. It’s about relieving ourselves of the need to place things into boxes. So, situations, thoughts, emotions, people even the weather can just be.

Have you ever heard the saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothes? Well, that’s a bit contradictory because while we’re saying hooray, we don’t judge the weather as good or bad, but sadly we are saying that wellies are great, and sandals are substandard. It’s a bit patronizing.

An easy starter for this is a simple mini-meditation on non-judgment.

So, sitting comfortably, eyes open or shut, take ten normal breaths, noticing only the movement of the breath in and out of the nose.

If a thought comes into your head during this time, gently push it aside for now.

Then, during your body scan which we have practiced in previous articles, try to notice any discomforts. For example, you may have an itchy scalp or an aching joint. You might be sitting not quite comfortable enough. Maybe you would rather change your posture.

Then, without scratching the itch or moving the uncomfortable position, try to notice the physical feelings associated with it.

Name the physical sensations. It might be “itchy”, “irritated”, “painful” etc.

Allow them to be, without doing anything to relieve the discomfort or annoyance. Focus on the discomfort wholeheartedly. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

That is acceptance of discomfort.

You can open your eyes and try to notice the relief of not having to correct the imperfections.

A mini-meditation for when we have failed is harder.

Instead of feeling just the physical discomforts, we feel the emotional pain of failing.

Many emotions come to mind: shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, loneliness, desperation.

We may tend towards affiliation, where the potential outcomes of our error become enormous in our mind and tend towards only the worst possible scenario as a definite reality.

Physically we might feel nauseous, weak, faint. Or we might have palpitations, a sinking feeling in our chest, or a lurching stomach. We’ve all been there.

The challenge of this meditation is to allow these feelings to be present one by one in the forefront of your mind for as long as you can hold them there. It’s difficult when our natural reaction is to push these hideous feelings away.

It has been shown time and time again that naming these feelings whether it’s the feeling of nausea or the emotion of shame, that looking them in the eye and allowing yourself to feel them at their fullest, defuses their hold on you, thus enabling you to get on with your life.

It is so important to pull your mind away from trying to justify why you feel any of these feelings. Therein lies the non-judgment part. It doesn’t matter if you should or shouldn’t feel a feeling. The point I that you do feel it and that’s it.

Now is not the time for yearning for the error to not have happened. It has happened.

So, when we’re being non-judgmental of the emotions we’re feeling as a result of not being perfect, we are indeed noticing them, allowing ourselves to feel them, and accepting that they exist.

We aren’t justifying whether these feelings should or shouldn’t exist. We aren’t defending to anyone why we’re feeling what we’re feeling.

We’re just noticing each emotion one by one, looking it n the eyes and giving it a name. Recognizing that the plethora of feelings can indeed be sorted into an orderly queue of individual emotions and dealt with and accepted. Like the mass of cables behind the TV. When untangled, it’s a great deal easier to organize them.

Isn’t it telling that when we make a mistake in our profession, it’s called “committing an error”?

Similar to committing murder or committing suicide or committing a crime.

Dealing with errors as a team that runs Morbidity and Mortality rounds is a fantastic way to learn how to accept imperfections and mistakes. Like a mini-meditation but as a group of fallible beings. M and M rounds, when run intelligently, are an opportunity to say out loud that something went wrong, and we did it. Then it’s out in the open. These rounds aren’t about blaming anyone, we all know who did what. It’s about accepting that we make errors and that there are outcomes from these errors. We talk about the near misses and the deaths that we didn’t prevent. We feel sick to the core when talking about it. The physical feelings and the feelings of shame are a given. We feel them as a team. We discuss how to prevent various mistakes from happening again, put more protocols in place, and ironically, we come away from these meetings even more bonded as a team and more at peace with the fact that we made those mistakes, they make us feel hideous and that life.