The last few weeks have been pretty stressful, for a whole bunch of reasons. The last few years even more so. The pandemic has made me highly aware that one of my responses to stress is to jump into the rabbit of hole that is perfectionism. This is dangerous territory for me as the deeper I dive the more I feel like I don’t match up, that I’m just not doing a good enough job and that I’m letting my colleagues and patients down by not being ‘more’. I have to consciously remind myself that being good enough is not about being perfect……..its about being open to improvement and learning. I have to actively remind myself that nobodies perfect. Trite I know but its true.
The truth less told
My husband and I often sing the following lyrics to each other:
“Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Dolls like you and me
Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
So if you’re not at ease with your nobbly knees
and your fingers are all thumbs
Stand on your two left feet,
and join our Raggy Doll chums
Cause Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Are happy just to be
Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Dolls like you and me!”
Singing this is something we do when we get carried away into a shame spiral. When our actions have demonstrated imperfection and we feel bad as a result, when we have jumped into the perfection rabbit hole and forgotten that just being normal is OK. It acts as a reality check in the standards we are setting for ourselves and for others, a tongue in cheek way of grounding each other when the stresses of life get too much.
The fact that we even need to do this has recently left me wondering……….if nobodies perfect, and we all acknowledge this to be true, why do we spend so much time trying to be? Do we think that rule doesn’t apply to us? Are we somehow better than everyone else that we could reach perfection? If the answer to that question is no (and I suspect it is) why do we constantly beat ourselves up for not reaching a target that we have pre defined as unattainable? What is it about perfection that seems to be so alluring that we will all put ourselves through so much emotional anguish to strive for?
My journey to imperfection
In some ways I completely get the striving for perfection, we’ve been told it’s a good thing all our lives. When as a child I got 96% in a history exam I still clearly remember my father asking ‘what happened to the other 4%’. Failure is uncomfortable and (because we are trained to see it this way) often humiliating. Worse than that if we fail in medicine the consequences are not just for ourselves but have significant impacts on others. It’s a reflection that we aren’t enough, haven’t tried hard enough, aren’t smart enough. The truth is however that the world isn’t split into black and white, good and bad, perfect and imperfect. There is a spectrum, a pathway and instead of obsessing about moving from one ‘category’ to the next the process should be about moving forward on the pathway. We are neither failures or successes, we are all in fact just works in progress.
Since becoming a Consultant my ‘perfection’ moments have become more frequent, partly because the shoes I’ve stepped into were considerable: I’m benchmarking against someone who was not only superb but also had 30+ years of experience. I joked with a friend the other week that what I have become best at since taking up the post is being comfortable with failure. She got really angry at this, saying that not achieving inbox zero etc wasn’t my failure but a failure of the system. I don’t feel her rage as I don’t see failure as being such an abhorrent word and so I’m happy to use it. Maybe however, what I should have said, is that I’m becoming more comfortable with imperfection, both mine and that of the system I work in. This doesn’t mean that we accept the status quo and not try to improve, but that we also shouldn’t spiral into self hatred just because of the fact that we don’t always achieve the standard we set in our minds. Perfectionism can be paralysing and mean that if perfect is the only standard we measure ourselves against we fail to grow and achieve. Instead lets aim high but know that the standard I’m actually aiming for is that in 15 years I can benchmark against my consultant who just retired, not on day 1 on the job.
There is power in being me
In many ways I’ve come to accept that it is my imperfections that lead to my strengths, they are the things that make me uniquely me. It’s my imperfections that led me to start writing this blog as an honest way of organising my thoughts and trying to be a better scientist, leader and human being. In all honesty, if I was perfect they would probably be little to write about or discuss.
One example of this is that I’m not someone who remembers and is able to quote facts, I remember events linked to stories. This means that unlike my consultant I replaced I will never be a walking encyclopaedia of microbiology and infectious disease. It does mean however that I have been able to work with Nicola Baldwin and others to set up the Nosocomial Project where we use stories in order to engage in conversations about healthcare science and infection control, in a way my consultant never would have. The impacts of these two skills are not the same but they both have impact and maybe shouldn’t be measured against each other or have value judgements attached.
One of the other things I’m learning is that I am not alone in feeling the pressures of perfection and by sharing my imperfections it not only helps me but helps others. I work every day surrounded by some of the smartest, most accomplished people on the planet, quite literally world leading experts in what they do. Sometimes it can be easy therefore to believe the hype and to judge yourself against their appearance of perfection and competence. The pressure to live up to appearances is enormous. I am not by any stretch of the imagination in their category but I feel that by being honest about who I really am gives other license to take off the mask of perfection that they wear.
Why striving for perfection could actually be a bad thing
Perfection could be described as the death of learning as once it is achieved then there is no room for progression. Instead of striving for perfection we need to be striving for learning. To take it a step at a time and do each one better than the one before, allowing us to benchmark against where we were, not where we are striving toward. I sometimes think that perfectionism also stops us from being fully self aware, from being able to fully explore where our strengths and weaknesses are to support us in making the best choices for our futures. If we place a value judgement and associated stigma on not being perfect then we may not be able to live with the self judgement required to truly evaluate our skill sets, as instead of being able to enter a growth mindset self reflection drives us into a shame spiral.
Are the dangers of perfectionism the same when we expect perfection in others? When we put leaders, friends, or partners up on a pedestal of perfection are we in fact setting them up to fail? If we place people on pedestals and they don’t achieve are we just doing it in a way that allows us to accept our own failures better? If we accept that imperfection in ourselves is a key way to enable us to truly improve should we be offering this same perspective to other key relationships in our lives? That doesn’t mean we can’t have high expectations of those we have relationships with, but those expectations should be constructive rather than destructive. Otherwise expecting perfection in others may mean we cannot demonstrate the empathy required to build relationships and therefore limit the stability and longevity of those connections.
Acknowledging imperfection is not a way to get out of doing the work we all need to do to be better, but instead a way of freeing us up to actually be fully participant in doing it. If I have freed myself of the delusion that I have to be prefect I’m less scared to take a true look at myself and work out where to begin. It’s about wasting less time in agonising over why we aren’t better and on self recrimination to spend that time on making progress and learning how to improve. So join me in the Raggy Doll army, embrace your imperfections for the learning they offer and for everything they do to make up the wonderful person who is uniquely you.
All opinions on this blog are my own