I had my annual physical yesterday with my primary care physician, whom I’ve been going to for over 20 years. I like her because she takes time to talk to me and check in on my emotional and mental state rather than focus solely on my physical ailments. She was happy and excited to learn I had graduated from nursing school. She asked whether I planned to have more kids. I shared my anxiety over my ability to have another healthy child at my advanced maternal age. I started to talk about parenting and the guilt I feel about being an older mom to my daughter. She knows me well, however, and knows I can be overly critical of myself.
I responded that this was the problem with being a perfectionist; I recognize I can be needlessly hard on myself. She declared, “I want to eliminate the word ‘perfectionist.’ What if we replaced perfectionist with ‘overly critical’? No one wants to be overly critical!”
I tried to explain I am not proud to be a perfectionist and am trying to change. Still, I shared how my perfectionist attitude got me through pre-requisites and helped me complete a competitive accelerated nursing program. She shared how she can relate to this and proceeded to tell her story when she was younger.
When she was in medical school, residents were required to go to counseling. She met with the counselor, who eventually noted, “You have a harsh critic inside, don’t you?” The counselor encouraged her not to be so critical, “You don’t yell and scream at a two-year-old to learn their alphabet. You don’t yell and scream at a toddler to get them to walk. You don’t have to be so difficult on yourself”. My doctor defiantly declared to her counselor that she had no intention to change since her harsh critic served her well. My doctor rationalized to her counselor that she accomplished her goals and got to medical school because of her “harsh critic.” Her counselor responded that she didn’t do those things BECAUSE of her harsh critic; she completed those things DESPITE her.
I appreciated my doctor’s story because it paints an alternative to being “overly critical.” As a parent, I can relate to the patience and compassion needed to teach a child a new skill. I could scream and make my daughter cry about brushing and flossing her teeth, for instance, but there are other ways I can guide and encourage her. In the same way, I can choose different ways to talk to and motivate myself. I don’t have to suffer so much by my internal critic or be perfect to achieve my goals.
I have had to consciously and regularly examine the toll of aiming for perfection in nursing school. I shared how I would reason, “I could kill myself to get 100% on a care plan, or, I could spend more time with my family and get a 93%.” After hearing this, my doctor exclaimed, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” She echoed what I have struggled to remind myself over the years.
There’s a book entitled “Good to Great” by James C. Collins that my pastor talked about during one of his homilies years ago. From it, my pastor learned and shared, “Good is the enemy of great.” I never got around to reading the best-selling book, but that message stuck with me: I would challenge myself to do better. I’d ask myself if my work or actions were the best I could do. At some point, however, I’d get discouraged and have an all-or-nothing attitude. If I couldn’t do things as well as I thought I should, I didn’t want to do it at all, or I’d scrap an entire project. I’d be ashamed of myself and compare myself to others. Striving to be perfect, I would feel frustrated, resentful, and spent. However, years since that homily, I’ve often thought, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”
While I do not advocate living one’s life by always doing only the bare minimum, sometimes the bare minimum maintains my sanity. “Good enough” has allowed me to survive and move forward from perceived failure. I’m learning to ask myself more often, “What’s it going to take?” and “Is it worth it?” (like in writing dreaded care plans) or “How can I approach this without so much suffering”? I still need reminders to be gentle with myself and that not everything has to be perfect to be great, so it was nice to hear my doctor affirm my previous thought.
I appreciated my doctor taking the time to remind me: perfect is the enemy of good. No one is perfect. Humans are imperfect and fallible, and it’s our struggles that lead to our growth…And sometimes, “good enough” is pretty frickin’ remarkable.