The Recovering Perfectionist

Hi, my name is Elizabeth, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

I used to think that perfectionism was an admirable quality because it led to things being done well. The issue is that even when they were done well; I found little satisfaction in it. Because it wasn’t perfect. Because nothing is perfect.

In reality, the concept of perfectionism hindered my growth. I wouldn’t try things I thought I couldn’t master, or I would give up on myself quickly. Perfectionism is why it took me so long to put my writing out in the world; I didn’t think it was good enough.

Psychologist Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D. states that “Perfectionism is a self-esteem issue, involving a desire to be perfect, a fear of imperfections being seen as evidence of personal defects, and an emotional conviction that such imperfections make one personally unacceptable.” Basically, we think that people won’t love us because of our flaws, so we try not to have any. 

Trying to be perfect is very different from striving for excellence, which is aiming to be your best self. Working to be better, not perfect, comes from a place of self-love. Perfectionism is a form of fear, rooted in trauma. It can come from experiences like being rejected in the past for doing something incorrectly. Or maybe you grew up in an environment where love was given to you only when you achieved something great. From this, we can internalize the belief, “I won’t be loved if I make a mistake.” We will then find ways to reinforce this belief, like when a patient chooses to see someone else, or leaves a bad google review.

The thought process behind perfectionism is considered a cognitive distortion, or, “a lie our brain sends to our conscious mind.” As John D. Kelly explains in Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness, common distortions include “ignoring the positive, whereupon one’s mind is flooded with thoughts of all that is wrong with a particular situation, rather than positive aspects of the occurrence.” The focus on the “negative” may lead to negative beliefs about ourselves. This is like having a root canal that fails after hundreds more that were successful, and then creating the thought, “I’m not good at root canals,” and then choosing never to perform one again. I used to think like this. As if the fifty patients who walked out of my office in joyful tears about their new smile was not worth that one who left in pain.

The harm in this kind of thinking leads to anxiety, lack of satisfaction, and depression. Like my experiences with this very newsletter, the anxiety caused by the standards of perfection can inhibit success more than help it. “All-or-nothing” thinking is dangerous – it can stop us from starting something new, learning, expanding, or exploring our creativity. If we don’t give ourselves a chance at something, we are guaranteed to not succeed, grow, or find fulfillment.

So let’s dive into how perfectionism shows up in the culture of dentistry.

Clinically, we have extremely specific standards to meet, and they teach us to perform the ideal cavity and crown prep, and to learn rigid rules for determining restorability in dental school. Remember those wonderful practical exams? We had points removed from any imperfection on these preps and restorations, which, theoretically, were great for teaching clinical techniques and self-evaluation. But very few real cases walk through our door looking like the mannequin we practiced on. Yes, we can now reference the “ideal” and aim for it, but continuing to judge our work in a way that knocks us down as clinicians can be self-deprecating.

Let’s talk about the social side:

“Oh, you’re a dentist. Wow, I bet you make tons of money.”

I’ve heard this so many times as a reflexive response to sharing what I do. We have this expectation to work four days a week, run a practice, create wealth, be philanthropists, parents, and partners, and stay fit and healthy, all while wearing a smile. Let’s be real, this isn’t easy.

Some of us are doing it, and it may even come naturally, but this is an image that society has projected onto us of what our lives should be. Achieving this “picture-perfect” life comes with a lot of pressure. 

So how do we break out of this mindset? Here are three ways to start:

1. Accept Your Humanness.

We are all well-educated, high-achieving, successful, and goal-oriented people. But we are human and naturally imperfect. Fully accepting this about ourselves can allow us to practice detachment from our outcomes. I don’t mean that we don’t care about our outcomes, but that we don’t tie our personal values to them. Our value as humans is not conditional, and it is not dependent on any form of professional achievement. It is innate. So give yourself some grace, and enjoy the process of what you do.

2. Set Real Expectations For Yourself. 

I’ve come to learn that my dissatisfaction is frequently rooted in unrealistic expectations, whether at work or in my personal life. When we are unhappy with ourselves or our environment, we often look to change it. Although we have the power to change our lives and circumstances, we have to question if what we’re aiming for is realistic. Sometimes what we need to change is our expectations. I’m not saying to settle, but if we take a moment to be honest with ourselves, we must ask: Is what we want attainable? Is it sustainable once achieved? Do we need it to feel good? 

3. Strive For Progress, Not Perfection.

We should all aim for excellence in what we do. But remember, as students we are practicing dentistry, it is always a practice. Every mistake is an opportunity to evaluate what is and isn’t working, and maybe try something new. If there’s a certain procedure that you’re lacking confidence in, identify it and take a course on it. These imperfections allow us to hold on to the students inside of us. It is showing us that there is always more to learn and space to grow. The next time that same procedure comes around, and you know exactly how to handle it, you’ll know that you are evolving, perfect or not. 

I’ll leave you with this phrase that my husband tells his ten-year-old and six-year-old daughters, “All you can do is your best.”