When I was younger, I excelled at school. I would come home after exams with 100% and when I would tell my father, he would grunt, at best. But if I came home and said I had scored 99%, he would look up from the newspaper and ask: “What happened to the other 1%?” with disapproval in his eyes. My life became a quest for the 1%, for his grudging appreciation.
I became a perfectionist – never content to settle for anything less than 100%, in anything. As humans, physical perfection is not possible, and this was a setup for failure and misery – in work, relationships and in life.
And my quest for approval extended to all the father figures in my life – especially my teachers and mentors in medicine and surgery.
Most medical students and doctors are perfectionists, always striving for that elusive 1%; that’s how we got to do medicine. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, it is just not possible!
And if, like me, you are perfectionist, trying your best to “get it right”, “do it perfectly”, every time, as an imperfect human working with other imperfect human beings, this system is impossibly stressful, and we set ourselves up to fail.
Medicine is an apprenticeship system, based on gaining approval from those in positions of power and authority over us. Their approval is not a luxury, but a necessity, for if they don’t approve of us, we are out of a job!
There is a reality to this, but it is so important that we don’t become invested in gaining this approval at all costs, including our own health and wellbeing.
We have to value ourselves as people first, to appreciate ourselves and honour and respect ourselves, if we are to have any hope of surviving medical training with our self-esteem intact and then enjoying the practice of our profession and living a long and healthy and happy life.
We can never be “good enough” in another’s eyes – or our own – if we are always seeking approval or acceptance from another, for anything, and therefore invested in what we do at the expense of who we are.
The only possible perfection lies in the quality of our being, in the quality of who we are as people, and how we express that quality.
Are we kind, loving, gentle, tender, truthful, joyful?
Do we open ourselves up to people, let them into our hearts, and accept them as they are?
Do we appreciate them as people first, and then for what they do?
Do we accept and appreciate ourselves?
Do we stop and take a moment to acknowledge when we have said or done something lovely or great?
Do we stop and take a moment to appreciate ourselves, just for who we are?
Appreciation is the key to building a foundation of love and care for ourselves, a foundation on which we can stand, and from which we can live our lives. It helps us to withstand the stresses and setbacks that are an inevitable part of human life, to weather the storms that will come our way. It helps us to value ourselves, irrespective of the inevitable mistakes we may make, and of the opinions others may have of us.
If we love and care for ourselves, and appreciate who we are, no matter what happens, and no matter what we do, we will always be “good enough” just as we are, and we can lovingly work on perfecting what we do along the way.
In this way, from a foundation of appreciation, we can build ourselves up in life to be greater, rather than tearing ourselves down or allowing others to do it for us. We won’t stand for bullying, harassment, discrimination or any form of abuse, if we don’t abuse ourselves. For failure to appreciate who we are, is in fact a form of abuse.
And if we all live in this appreciative way, we will challenge the way we treat ourselves and allow ourselves to be treated by each other and by the medical system. Change will come because we will no longer tolerate anything less than true care. That is the power of appreciation.
This article was first published on 27 September 2017 on To Medicine with Love