In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, reviews how we are still trying to overperform to survive in veterinary medicine. Is there an argument for stepping back in life?

November 2020
It has been an epic year — and not in a good way. As we round out the last month or so of 2020 and limp into the holidays, it’s apparent that the vast majority of us are ‘wired and tired.’ The thrum of pandemic and sociopolitical anxiety is as palpable as ever. Many of us have forgotten what daily life – let alone work – looked and felt like one year ago.

Something I have noticed about my own response to this year is that my dirty little secret comes out to play, and daily. And that secret – overperforming – has made maintaining my physical and emotional health quite a challenge as the strains of work and home accumulate. Overperforming is the behavioral pattern born of the need to control events that would otherwise cause anxiety; it is the tendency to always leap into action to fill the gaps, anticipate problems, and DO ALL THE THINGS. On a benign but irritating level, it looks like asking your partner/spouse/teenager to take out the trash, waiting a few minutes, and then taking it out yourself because #justdoitalready. (*Eyeroll*, cue the resentment.) On a more problematic level, it is not just having difficulty saying ‘no,’ but having difficulty stepping back from the overflowing to-do list. It is the refusal to delegate because delegation increases the lack of control over process and product. It is assuming that others are incapable of handling a problem or task, sometimes because they don’t automatically see something that needs to be done (this is rarely fair or accurate, by the way). It is the fear that if we leave space for others to step in, we will be missing out, cleaning up a mess, or otherwise having to manage the emotional blowback of not being involved or consulted.

Having worked with perfectionists for many years, I am fairly certain I am not alone in this struggle. Overperforming comes with the territory of wanting to be at our best and, related, not wanting to let anyone down. Overperforming, however, does not leave much room for vulnerability, let alone help-seeking. Nor does it leave room for others to step in, to build their skills, or to practice problem solving. Get any overperformer in a room and you will almost guarantee the emergence of an ‘underperformer,’ too. Unlike overperformers, underperformers respond to anxiety by shrinking back, getting small, and waiting for someone else to take the reins. Underperformers wait and watch; they almost always know that an overperformer will take the bait.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A few years ago, I started to wonder if high pressure professional training programs subconsciously set us up to swim in a sea of stressed-out overperformers. I mused that if we didn’t enter our training as control-freak perfectionists, we certainly graduated with that set of behaviors in place. After all, stepping in, assuming leadership in difficult situations, and solving problems is kind of what both veterinary professionals (your field) and social workers (my field) are expected to do. Time and again, though, I’m aware that this isn’t necessarily a ‘healthy’ default pattern. Particularly as the world around us becomes less predictable – and less controllable – there is something sanity-preserving to be found in stepping back.

Stepping back takes many forms, such as:

  • Leaving work on time
  • Leaving space for others to volunteer for projects
  • Leaving a little bit of time (5-15 minutes) between request and response, particularly when the request isn’t related to life threat. Yes, this gap is uncomfortable, but it forces others to start thinking about how they will solve a problem themselves.
  • Delegation, delegation, delegation… particularly with underperformers who need encouragement to step up/step in
  • Observing device-free time (away from email, texting, and all other screen work) for a few hours every day
  • Observing one day of rest each week in which we DO NOT WORK. This isn’t always possible during periods of specialty training or on-call duty, and yet we need to guard every opportunity to step back from the role of ‘fixer.’
  • Carving out time for reflection and quiet.
  • Reserving time and space to be messy, imperfect, and unscheduled humans. Because we all feel better when we can drop the façade for a bit.

If these strategies sound impractical or too much to ask, I implore you to implement them, and pronto. It is when I am at my most harried that I am also profoundly unbalanced; it is when I most want control that I need to cede it. Stepping back is sanity saving, folks. Do yourself a solid and draw down.

  1. Makes me wonder if I step back who would fill in my spot. Also was interesting to realize that if someone is doing everything, someone else isn’t doing much. They aren’t learning.

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