Overcoming Perfectionism as a New Grad PT

Today’s post comes from physical therapist Michelle Morrow, DPT, OCS. Michelle has been practicing in outpatient orthopedic physical therapy for 4 years and currently works for Bellin Health in Escanaba, MI. She is also residency-trained in orthopedic manual physical therapy through Evidence in Motion.

I contacted Michelle for some words of advice with some things that I’m struggling with as a new grad physical therapist right now, and her words of advice were so good that I couldn’t help but relay the message to all of our readers! Hope you enjoy!

Michelle writes:

When it comes to perfectionism and wellness, here are a few of my thoughts/things I’ve found helpful:

Positive self talk. As a new grad, I used to find myself saying a lot of negative things to myself, such as “I’m not good enough to treat these people. They should see someone better than me. I’m never going to be good enough at this.” That constant stream of negative self talk was very harmful to my confidence, which is not good for wellness, happiness, or building a good therapeutic alliance. I had to allow myself to be a beginner which was very hard for my type A personality. Instead, I would try thoughts like, “Even people like Tim Flynn were new grads once,” or “I’m getting better all the time”, “The only way to learn is to do,” and “It takes time, I wouldn’t expect anyone else to learn this over night”. My mentor in residency really helped me with this. Give yourself the same love and grace you would give a friend in your same situation.

Mentorship. If you want to learn at high speed, high quality, and in a clinically relevant way, mentorship is crucial. I hope you have a mentor, and if you don’t I strongly encourage you to seek one out. I can’t speak highly enough of EIM’s orthopedic residency program, but that’s not for everyone. It was truly practice changing for me though, and clinical mentorship (while difficult and anxiety inducing for me at first) was the most valuable part.

Wellness. I can’t stress enough the importance of regular exercise (there is never a good time, you have to make time), eating as well as you can (meal prep helps me do this easier during the week, and I don’t stress about being perfect, I just try to eat well more often than not) and getting enough quality SLEEP. Seriously, sleep is so important. I’m at a point now where I will not sacrifice my sleep for much. Example: Clean my house or get enough sleep? Read PT journals or get enough sleep? Sleep! I can’t pour from an empty cup and taking care of myself is the best thing I can do for my career longevity and my patients. Of course there are times where I get out of balance, but I try not to let that go on for too long.

Ask for help. This speaks directly to our ability to be vulnerable. This was insanely hard for me when I first started my residency, so much so that I actually ended up having a mini-break down and crying in front of my mentor. This was highly embarrassing at the time, but the best thing ever for my development. None of us can do this alone, and we shouldn’t be expected to. As rewarding and wonderful as our profession is, it is very difficult at times. So if your caseload is getting too full and you can ask for some help, do so. Struggling with difficult patients? Need to practice some hands on techniques? Feeling frustrated and need to vent? Ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.

You are allowed to have a life outside your job. I know it seems like some PTs are always working at an insanely high level and that’s fine if that’s your goal and it makes you happy. However, you do not have to feel guilty or bad about having a “laid back” day completely unrelated to your profession.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Seriously, with Facebook and Twitter it’s so easy to see all the amazing people in our profession and what they’re doing and feel like we’re not good enough. Use them as great examples and resources but don’t for a second let that detract from your value. I always liked the quote by Henry Van Dyke, “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” I also love the quote from John Steinbeck, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”. Perfectionism is a lie, and it is damaging. I find it’s usually driven by shame, by a fear of having others see your flaws. My perfectionism is really rooted in fear, like I have to be perfect in order to be accepted and loved. Reading books from Brené Brown really helped me understand this as well; her work on vulnerability and connection is amazing.

Volunteer. I volunteer at an animal shelter once a month or so. It’s not much, but it’s always good for perspective. Plus, who doesn’t love puppies and kittens? Also, sometimes just having a simple task to do that you can accomplish as long as you put the work in is really refreshing. Working with patients is so unpredictable, so sometimes something simple and rewarding is a nice change of pace. Find something that you care about and give back. It can be rejuvenating.

Spend time with family/friends and people who make you feel loved and supported. Make them a priority. It’s so easy to say, “I am too busy right now, I will call my friend back later” and let relationships degrade over time, but human connection is crucial to our well being and to our joy. Remove negative people and influences from your life. Your time is incredibly valuable, and you do not need to invest it in people who do not build you up.

Counseling. If all that still isn’t working, seeing a counselor can be very helpful. We often recommend this for our patients, but often we are more hesitant to take such a step for ourselves. Don’t we deserve the necessary help to take care of ourselves? Why would we think we can treat anxiety or depression or any other mental health issue all on our own, when we would never expect that from another person? I want seeing a mental health care professional to be as routine and normal as seeing a family care doctor for high blood pressure. Mental illness doesn’t make us weak, in fact in some ways I think my anxiety has made me a compassionate and stronger person, and I can personally relate to many of the people I treat more effectively.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and every person is different, but I hope that sharing what has been helpful for my wellness will allow others to reach a state of better wellness themselves. After all, we are all in this together.

Special thanks to Michelle for sharing these amazing words of advice! I’d also like to recommend a book I’m currently reading Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist. Great book attesting to several thoughts that Michelle shared! Thanks for reading!

Until next time,


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