To Perfection or Not To Perfection

burnout impostor phenomenon mentalhealth mentalwellbeing perfectionism perfectionist Jul 02, 2021
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Dr Jessica Metcalfe
To Perfection or Not To Perfection

I always thought calling myself a perfectionist and striving for perfection made me a good, hard working and high-achieving individual. If not perfection, then why do it at all? If not perfection, why put myself out there? If not perfection, then I have to keep on working. If not perfection, then I will judge my own self-worth? If not perfection, then I’m not good enough. If not perfection, then I suck.

This is why I realized striving for perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

For many years, even leading up to dental school I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to be perfect.

In order to be a dentist, I needed to be the perfect student, to have the perfect resume, and fit into a perfect box. Who defined this box…I actually still don’t know. But I definitely created the rules for this box.

The box was held together by fear, judgement, blame and shame. This box wasn’t kind or compassionate. Instead, it chastised me saying that I’m never enough and I’ll never be good enough. But, this box allowed me to set extremely high standards, it kept me achieving, it made me work hard, and motivated me. 

But that’s the myth I kept telling myself. 

My inner voice (that box) motivated me through fear and would say, “Jessica, you can’t actually live up to those standards because you will never be smart enough or good enough. So you need to keep on achieving to prove your worth and you can’t stop working because then you’ll be a slacker. You’ll never be enough but you can’t take time off because you don’t trust others to do a good job because you’re the perfectionist.”

My inner voice (that box) was exhausting to live with.

In all honesty, I wore perfectionism as a badge of honour, but the amount of stress that came with it didn’t make sense nor was it healthy.

It wasn’t until I came across Brene Brown’s work and other research that I recognized being perfect wasn’t truly what I thought it was. Being a perfectionist not only affected how I did dentistry but it overflowed into my personal life.

That is where exhaustion isn’t even the right word to describe what I was feeling. I used to think more often than not I was a crappy dentist (this was how I motivated myself). I used to think that maybe it was only my bubbly personality and laughter that kept people coming back (or not suing me). Instead of looking at all the greatness I achieved, I kept looking at all the details that “went wrong” or so I thought went wrong.

It wasn’t until I started opening up to others about “my imperfections” that I realized I had a warped opinion about my dentistry and me as a human being.

To make matters worse, perfectionism is known to affect your mental health and well-being. Perfectionism isn’t all we think it is. Research has shown that experiencing perfectionism (alone or in combination with impostor phenomenon) has been shown to cause psychological distress, which could result in burnout. 

This still amazes me that a part of what contributed to my third burnout was the enormous pressure and stress I put on myself. I did this to me.

Brene Brown speaks about perfectionism being “the 20-ton shield we lug around hoping it protects us from experiencing judgement, shame and blame, when all it really does is keep us from being seen. And it’s heavy AF.”

Today, I like to question the unrealistic expectations that I set for myself because I do catch myself heading down that perfectionism path. It’s easy, it’s natural, it’s the way I have previously programmed myself. Even as of recent, I had a patient say, “I think you’re being too picky.”

Rewiring and brain training has taught me that setting healthy expectations, separating my identity from my achievements and building self-compassion is a great recipe for my mental well-being. It allows me to be the dentist, the daughter, the friend, and the athlete I have dreamed of being.

I like to call myself a recovering perfectionist because I still have to work on it daily. But you know what, challenging myself to NOT be a perfectionist is better than the alternative. I choose imperfection because perfection doesn’t actually exist.

Tip of the day: Give yourself the permission to create your own mental well-being recipe. What does that include?

Yours Truly,


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