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Taming Overwhelm Step 3 - Taking small steps and letting go of perfection.

So far, we’ve covered the first step of taming overwhelm - Being fully present with the person or task at hand and last week, and we covered Step 2 - List, prioritize, eliminate, delegate, and let go.  Now let’s move on to Step 3 - Taking small steps and letting go of perfection. 


If any of those priorities from step 2 seem large, break them down into small steps.  The first time I saw this principle in action, it resulted in several wins. Dr. Anne Musser, our acting program director, called us together for a working meeting. We all came prepared with our lists of needed changes for the entire program. She listed all of our ideas out on the whiteboards as we called them out, grouped them, and then we voted. We prioritized – not too dissimilar to last week's blog suggestion.  Some were easy just to get done and just needed a task leader. Others were substantial. She had us take those and break them down into bite-size chunks. It worked. We had achievable and actionable items, and we made steady progress. It was quite a satisfying process. So when facing a task that seems too large but remains a priority, break it down into small steps. It lightens the burden and allows for forward-motion. 


The trouble with high achieving individuals, such as physicians, is that the feeling of overwhelm can sneak back in when we typically strive for perfection in an unhealthy way. 


Unhealthy perfectionism leads to either over-preparing, over-doing, or procrastination, or a combination therein. The tasks become time and energy sinks, and something as simple as writing an clinic note can loom larger than life.  


So, let’s break down the differences between unhealthy and healthy perfectionism.  (My brain likes the semantics here better than being told to give up perfectionism).


Unhealthy perfectionism is like a light-switch. I love this analogy and have heard it in various venues. It's either on or off. You're either perfect, or you're mediocre (or worse – a failure). There is no middle ground. It's all or nothing.  On the other hand, healthy perfectionism is more like a volume knob that can be turned up or down and fine-tuned. How close to perfect does each task really need to be? 


Unhealthy perfectionism is performance-oriented, while healthy perfectionism is mastery-driven. The unhealthy form is focused on others' opinions or some externally perceived bar and maintains a rigid definition of success. The healthy form is focused on growth and striving to get better and is from one’s own internal goals.


Unhealthy perfectionism leads to overwhelm because it’s unachievable. You’re human. It adds to your mental burden, decreases your efficiency as you over-do or procrastinate, and causes you to take work home. It interferes with relationships.  It’s a set-up for disappointment, negative self-talk, guilt, shame, and overwhelm. It often plays a role in burnout.


So, as you develop your perfection-awareness, ask yourself, “What is my motivation here? Am I using a light switch or a dial approach? Am I thinking of performing and meeting some external bar, or am I setting my own desired goal that grows me and helps me master something over time?”


When you find that you are operating in an unhealthy manner: First, be compassionate; there are reasons your brain offers this common way of thinking. Nothing is wrong with you, and self-judgment never moves you forward. Second, ask yourself what you gain by keeping the unhealthy perfectionism, really dive in. Third, ask yourself what will happen if you let go of it? Address the fears behind letting go, thereby robbing those fears of some of their power. Last, do some of your own experiments. Find lower risk areas where you can dial down the perfectionism, say to 83% and see what happens. Can you stop obsessing with every detail of the clinical note? Can you become the store-bought cookie parent? (Gasp.)


Learning to let go of unhealthy perfection and move toward healthy perfection is a key skill to develop.



At the end of the day, gaining command of overwhelm will protect your mental energy, contentment, and joy of life. Coaching can help too.

Have a joy-filled day!  Tonya


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