The moment I realized I was not perfect occurred when I was lying on a gurney in the pre-op area at the University of Washington in Seattle. A surgical intern was digging around in my arm to find intravenous access while my parents sat off to the side praying. In that moment, I transformed from a doctor to a fearful patient being prepped for an urgent surgery for a rare medical disorder called achalasia.
It wasn't an illness that appeared overnight. I was slowly losing the ability to swallow and was suffering incapacitating chest pain from a stricture in my esophagus. The stricture physically grew tighter in my chest as my own stress levels peaked to the point of career burnout.
I didn't know the symptoms I was suffering had a diagnosis of physician burnout, career burnout in physicians. I thought my problem was that I was a complete and total failure. Physicians are certainly not alone in suffering career burnout. Any high-pressure situation where we demand perfection of ourselves carries a high risk. I hear the same stress related symptoms from accountants, lawyers, teachers, CEOs and entrepreneurs alike.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 80 percent of visits to doctors' offices are related to stress and stress-related illnesses like ulcers and chest pain due to angina, depression, anxiety, hormone imbalances and insomnia.
When I awoke from the successful surgery, I knew a part of the healing required was to knock myself off the pedestal of perfection. I do take full responsibility for putting myself there. I had created a life for myself that was literally hard to swallow.
I initially didn't know how to embrace the realization that I was "imperfect." All of my life's actions were done with the purpose of answering to my parents, my patients and the hospital administration.
It was only in the quiet moments of practicing yoga and sitting in meditation that clues started to surface. Practicing asanas, the physical postures, of yoga connected me to breath and helped me to quiet my analytical mind. Sitting in meditation taught me how to be in the present moment.
The only perfection is in being in the present moment, yet the perfectionist is never present. The perfectionist is constantly stuck in the past analyzing a failure or worried about a future outcome. Being in the present moment is as simple as taking a breath. In this present moment when we connect to our breath, we stop and accept that everything is as it is.
The moment I stopped trying to be a perfect daughter, I found a way to heal my relationship with my parents. The moment I stopped trying to be a perfect doctor, I found a holistic way to heal others.
What did I learn as a doctor, patient and, now, mindful living expert about how striving for perfection harms our health?
1. Chasing perfection can lead to unhappiness in your personal life.
Chasing a "perfect life" is often rooted in deeper limiting beliefs about ourselves such as, "I am not good enough" or "I am not worthy." When we chase perfection, it has us constantly chasing an unrealistic future rather than practicing gratitude in the current moment. Clinical studies show that people who are happy have one thing in common, and it's not the perfect career. Happiness is tied to an attitude of gratitude.
2. The need to be perfect can lead to career burnout.
There is no such thing as a perfect job. You can give 100 percent of your efforts to your current job, but you will never be perfect. Accepting our imperfections opens all of us up to being vulnerable and more authentic. This is how our co-workers and clients will relate to us, through our imperfections. Creating relationships will create sustaining fulfillment in your career. Trying to be perfect will only add to stress, cause emotional exhaustion and lead to career burnout.
3. The minute you stop trying to be perfect, everything in life connects.
The initial thought of a physician, trained in neurology, pursing yoga teacher training and traveling the world learning meditation techniques seemed a little crazy even to me. I look back now and realize that everything connects. After becoming board certified in Integrative Medicine through the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine, I now use all of my experiences to help clients heal from stress-based illnesses in the field of mind-body medicine.
Breathe and know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Everything in your life connects. Our imperfections are what create the perfect moments for all of us, right now.