It’s ok to be a bit hard on yourself, but…


I watched the frustration grow on her face as she struggled to lift the ovary far enough out of the abdomen to get a clamp behind it. We were all sweating in the sticky tropical heat, but she was sweating more. It was her first spay, and it wasn’t going smoothly. Eventually, despite a few stumbling blocks, (and a fair amount of blood!) she finished the surgery with minimal intervention from the mentoring team, but she was clearly upset. She took a bottle of water and walked away to a quiet spot in the garden where she stayed, shoulders slumped, for quite some time. Later that day in the car home she was still not happy, but now willing to talk about it. “You did really well. Don’t be so hard on yourself,” we all told her. And it was true, she had done well. She listened to what we had to say and cheered up a bit, but I could tell that she still wasn’t entirely satisfied. This made me wonder: is telling someone not be hard on themselves always the right thing to say? Maybe by giving someone permission to accept less than great we set them up for poor performance?

There’s a lot to be said for expecting yourself to perform well. If you accept mediocrity then mediocrity is what you’ll get, but by setting the bar high you are ensuring that your rate of improvement will be rapid, and that the end result will be excellence. You are an intelligent and capable person, used to excelling in whatever you undertake, and you’re right to expect nothing less from yourself. You SHOULD aim to be an excellent surgeon. It’s just not going to happen today. 

See, the thing you are trying is very hard. Harder than most of the things you’ve ever attempted. So let go of that idea that you’ll just be naturally great at it on your first attempt. That’s arrogance, not confidence. This is going to take a bit of time to master. But master it you will. 

Next time that you are facing a difficult challenge, try this approach: 

Set your expectations to the right level. By all means, get yourself phsyched: “I’ve got this. I can do it,”  but be realistic. “It’s going to be hard. It’s unlikely that I’ll be a prodigy at this. I’ll probably need some help.”

And when you’re done and wasn’t all smooth sailing, rather than sulk about it and berating yourself (“I suck at this. I’m such a bad surgeon…” Of course you do – what did you expect!?), try to be more specific with your self flagellation. Ask yourself: “What specifically did I struggle with? What one thing can I learn, practice, or do to make myself a little bit better next time?”

Then finish your post-game analysis on a positive note by celebrating the wins, however small: “I spayed a dog. That takes courage and knowledge and skill. It didn’t die. I found the linea alba, even if it took me 15 minutes. I tied 3 good knots. Next time I’ll do 6.”

By all means – be hard on yourself when it comes to your long term expectations, but remember to also be kind to yourself, be proud of what you have achieved, and to be a bit more patient. 

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