Perfection fuels physician burnout

Whenever I talk with groups of medical professionals about job frustration and burnout, there’s a theme that shows up that’s hard to ignore. I call it “the pain of perfection.”

Most of us pursued careers in medicine to help others. And if we’re honest, we must admit that we have type A tendencies infused in our bloodstream.

Can I see a show of hands, please?

That part of us, the one that strives for perfection in every endeavor, is what makes us excellent surgeons, pathologists, family practice doctors, or radiologists.

We constantly strive for perfection; it sets us apart from the rest of the world, the type Bs.

Some days, after I’ve burned the meatloaf, spilled red wine on the white tablecloth, or dictated the wrong operative report on the right patient, I long for a giant bear hug of a dose of type B.

I wonder to myself how it would feel to say, “Yeah, that’s plenty good enough,” and truly be content with the result.

Fortunately, my patient husband has a secret stash of type B hidden away that pops up when I least expect it.

Like the time I miscalculated the time zone conversion from West Coast to East Coast and we missed an important phone call. Or the morning I sat down for breakfast and was greeted by a lovely anniversary card on top of my cereal bowl, front and center.

Oops. The search for perfection is a futile pursuit.

Does the pain of perfection show up in your practice? If you are at all like me, you feel it almost weekly.

It’s the little things that throw us off:

  • A “B-plus” surgical outcome on a traumatic injury that could’ve easily been a “D-minus,” yet, you can’t shake that longing for an “A.”
  • The upset patient who complains because you’re running 20 minutes behind, right after the one who gave you a glowing report for the way you explained a difficult diagnosis.
  • The family member who whines about not getting enough time with you, right after you schedule some quality “me time” that has been sorely missing in your life.

I want you to hear this, loud and clear: Perfection is the enemy of excellence.

Doctors are human. There, I said it.

We must humble ourselves and remember that we are, in fact, not perfect. We must acknowledge that — regardless of our specific beliefs — there is a higher power, a higher authority that is not you.

There is something you can turn to that is bigger than you.

And, whatever that something is for you, let it be. Breathe it in. Believe.

We may not be perfect, but we are enough.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and her upcoming book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, will be available this summer. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.

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  • RenegadeRN

    I can personally attest that this applies to RNs! I would have been much less stressed over the past 20 years if I could just dampen that drive for perfection.

    • buzzkillerjsmith

      I suspect you are female. I apologize if you are not. Perfectionism is more common in women. Nice recent article in the Atlantic about male overconfidence and female underconfidence and perfectionism and how this plays out at work.

      • RenegadeRN

        Bingo! Even if I do get accused by male friends of having more of a male mentality- I’m all female! Lol.
        You know some “looking to be offended” women might have gotten their knickers in a twist by perceiving your remark as sexist- I am NOT that woman. Thank God. You’re safe.

        • buzzkillerjsmith

          Thank you. I am start enough to keep my mouth shut on such matters in meatspace. Safety first.

        • RenegadeRN

          Went back and read my reply… No offense meant! Just my warped sense of humor!

          • buzzkillerjsmith

            I get you.

  • QQQ

    When you try to be perfect in a imperfect world, the results are usually aren’t good!

  • NewMexicoRam

    Then let’s just tell all the attorneys and insurance coders TO BACK OFF!!!!!!!!!
    I’m smiling.

  • Patient Kit

    The drive for excellence is definitely different from the drive for perfection — in medicine and elsewhere. Excellence is attainable. Perfection is not attainable and, therefore, perfectionists set them selves up for failure — no matter how good they are. There is a strong connection between perfectionism and suicide rates. Little “failures” are blown way out of proportion by perfectionists.

    As a patient, of course I want my docs to be excellent. But I also want them to be human, which by definition is imperfect.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I have a friend of a friend who is a super perfectionist and was diagnosed with OCD. She became a dental hygienist. The appointments are probably pretty long.

    I myself, like all good docs, don’t give a damn about anything. Haven’t brushed my teeth or bathed or checked my patients’ labs in a week. I ain’t worried about it. It’ll be OK.

    • EmilyAnon

      Any openings on your calendar for new patients?

      • buzzkillerjsmith

        Yes, but sometimes I just don’t show up to work.

  • rbthe4th2

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! Doctors ARE human. The worst docs I had were perfectionists who could do no wrong. Get over the ego, training or whatever. Just fix what is wrong. I’ll be wrong, you’ll be wrong. Can we just get along and try to make me better? If I don’t bring lawyers to the table, can you not bring ego and hubris there either? Can we bring research and experience together?


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