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Perfectionism: Friend or Foe?

Bill Claytor DDS, MAGD

NCCDP, Executive Director

I remember as a kid being fascinated with rocks and minerals, especially gemstones. As a collector, the gemstone that immediately caught my eye was an emerald and to this day it is still my favorite. I was enthralled with the beauty and richness of the deep green color and considered the emerald to be the perfect gemstone, even above a diamond. However, my perception of the perfect emerald was not real. Gemologists will tell you that even the “perfect” emerald has flaws embedded inside because that’s how they form in the ground. The concept of a “perfect” emerald being “flawed” didn’t make sense to me at first until I looked under a microscope. How could this apparently clear and beautiful gemstone have flaws? I realized that this is exactly how we as human beings are: Imperfect. Nobody is perfect and we should be careful not to set an unobtainable standard of perfection as our goal.

Perfectionism affects how one thinks, behaves, and feels. Perfection should not be our goal in dentistry for two main reasons: First, it is impossible for a human being to reach perfection, and second, being perfect is actually a denial of one’s humanity and can become a paralyzing reality if not confronted in constructive ways. We often hear the phrase, “Just do the best you can”, but something inside a lot of us hears, “That’s just not good enough!”

The practice of dentistry is an art and science. Dentistry incorporates skills and calculations while attempting to recreate the esthetics, comfort and function of the human dentition. Dentistry is no stranger to perfectionistic ideology as we attempt to flawlessly perform an exact science in a dynamic and ever-changing oral environment. This, however, is not reality and is not possible. I am not suggesting that we do substandard work and hope for the best. Instead, we should “do our best” while constantly trying to improve our skills and realizing that being perfect is not possible. Our goals in dentistry should reflect excellent work, compassionate treatment of our patients, and acceptance of the reality that no one is perfect.

Remember the emerald? In all its glory and beauty, it is “perfectly” flawed. Dentists are like emeralds: We can do gorgeous dentistry resulting in happy patients without being perfect. No one is perfect, not even me or you!

Self-Evaluation of Common Dental Areas of Concern

How do you handle…?

Making Mistakes:

  • Negative Feelings
  • Failure vs. Learning Experience
  • Frustration
  • Loss of respect from others

    Setting Too High of Standards:

    • Second-rate people are less than
    • I have to be perfect always
    • Less than perfect is for losers

    Dealing With Expectations of Others:

    • I have to be the best or it will upset my parents or other people
    • If I’m going to do something
    • I might as well do it right the first time
    • Excellence is for winners, not second best


    • If I don’t perform perfectly, I will be punished
    • I can’t live up to my/others lofty standards

    Experiencing Self-Doubt:

    • I doubt my abilities sometimes
    • If I tell anyone else that I’m not sure what I’m doing, others will think I am weak

    Losing Control:

    • I must appear being in control or neat at all times
    • I’m a very important person

    Learning to Recognize Perfectionism

    Perfectionism affects how one thinks, behaves, and feels. If you have difficulties with perfectionism, the following examples may be familiar to you:

    Examples of Perfectionistic Feelings

    • Feeling depressed
    • Frustrated
    • Anxious
    • Angry, especially if you constantly criticize yourself for not doing a good enough job after spending a lot of time and effort on a task.

    Examples of Perfectionistic Thinking

    Black-and-white thinking:

    • “Anything less than perfection is a failure”
    • “If I need help from others, then I am weak”

    Catastrophic thinking:

    • “If I make a mistake in front of my coworkers, I won’t be able to survive the humiliation”
    • “I can’t handle having someone being upset with me.”

    Probability overestimation thinking:

    • “Although I spent all night preparing for a presentation, I know I won’t go well”
    • “My boss will think I am lazy if I take a couple of sick days.”

    Should statements thinking:

    • “I should never make mistakes”
    • “I should never come across as nervous or anxious”
    • “I should always be able to predict problems before they occur.”

    Examples of Perfectionistic Behavior

    • Chronic procrastination, difficulty completing tasks, or giving up easily
    • Overly cautious and thorough in tasks (e.g., spending 3 hours on a task that takes others 20 minutes to complete)
    • Excessive checking (e.g., spending 30 minutes looking over a brief email to your boss for possible spelling mistakes)
    • Constantly trying to improve things by re-doing them (e.g., rewriting a work document several times to make it “perfect”)
    • Agonizing over small details (e.g., What movie to rent?)
    • Making elaborate “to do” lists (e.g., When to get up, brush teeth, shower, etc.?)
    • Avoiding trying new things and risking making mistakes
    • Increasing alcohol or other mood-altering substances to help cope with the stressors and pressures of NOT being perfect!

    Be careful with increased substance use as it could be a road you find yourself unexpectedly going down. If you have concerns or questions, please call the NC Caring Dental Professionals at 980-295-2055 for information and/or help. Thank you!