Why we need to all start taking perfectionism more seriously
25 Jan 2021 1 comment
Cast your mind back to medical school interview prep. It is likely that you rehearsed or at least knew the answer to this question:
What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?
Perhaps you said that you were a perfectionist. Perhaps you knew that you had evaded the question and actually given what many would argue was a strength.
So, what is a perfectionist? Perfectionists tend to have a desire to reach a goal which may be unobtainable. They feel a lack of satisfaction when that goal is achieved and have a strong need to be flawless. The benefits of being a perfectionist in a field like medicine are obvious. Being extremely organised, determined and a high achiever can make all the difference when matters of life and death are involved. A perfectionist constantly trying to improve their clinical practice is likely to better their patient care and therefore achieve healthier outcomes.
It is however, important to emphasise the distinct difference between healthy perfectionism (which mostly benefits the individual and does not affect normal day-to-day life) and toxic perfectionism (which causes mental and physical detriment to the individual and does affect day-to-day life).
‘Toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism is quickly becoming the norm. Higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress have all been seen in those dealing with perfectionism. The idea of ‘toxic’ perfectionism is perhaps unknowingly encouraged to us students. When applying in order to secure a place at medical school, we are told time and time again that we must be ‘perfect’ in order to even have our application considered. The ‘perfect’ grades, ‘perfect’ extra-curriculars and ‘perfect’ references are less of a personal choice and more of a requirement. At medical school, the pressure to uphold previous academic success continues. In an environment where everyone is used to being the best, it is impossible for everybody to be ‘perfect’. Those struggling to keep up perhaps feel isolated in their experience, and consequently question their abilities against their seemingly ‘perfect’ peers.
Medical schools have a responsibility to cultivate doctors that know the value of their efforts. It is clear that perfectionism can have many benefits, but for those struggling it is crucial that the devastating mental and physical impacts are taken more seriously. Ultimately, as future doctors, medical students must be taught in an environment where doctors are humanised.
A doctor can never be ‘perfect’ but they can know their limitations and ask for help when needed.