Curb Your Perfections

Nov. 1, 2005
In the course of my research, it turns out we may be driving other people crazy.

In the course of my research, it turns out we may be driving other people crazy. Who knew?

NOVOCAINE, the movie, stereotypes the hygienist (played by Laura Dern) as a perfectionist. Her dentist-slash-fiance, played by Steve Martin (wouldn’t he be fun to work for - remember Little Shop of Horrors? Sorry, I digress.) keeps commenting on how meticulous she is in her work. She wears the matching blue outfit: blue suit, blue shoes, blue stockings, blue bag … you get the picture. Her collection of pig figurines is perfectly lined up and labeled in her bedroom. Of course, this trait is ultimately what gets her in trouble. Go rent the movie. I won’t spoil it for you. (R rated: viewer discretion advised.)

Cappy Snider, in the May 2003 issue of RDH, wrote an article titled “The Cleanup Batter,” where she suspected that there might be a special gene (obviously the HY-gene) that programs hygienists to be perfectionists. Just because we obsess about getting every little spicule of calculus? Just because our scalers are all lined up on the bracket table and our drawers are neat?

Then, there was a course presented by Tricia Osuna. Here again, accusations were made that hygienists tend to be very anal. She’s been peeking into our operatories and opening our drawers. Well, sure, we’re saving America’s teeth. We have to be organized. What’s wrong with that? Anal is the dentist who had his office manager speak to the new hygienist because the paper towels rose above the rim of the trash receptacle when she used the restroom. (I am not making this up.) She is to push them down if this happens again!

I decided to appoint myself to the task of investigating this important matter of perfectionism. (Somebody’s got to do it.) When I was on the advisory board of a community college dental hygiene program in central New Jersey, the dentist members wanted to know if there was a “personality test” we could give to screen prospective students. The answer was no. What if there was a DNA test that could be used? Maybe we could send those who didn’t have the special gene on to careers in auto mechanics or pizza-making so they wouldn’t experience the burnout so prevalent in the profession. (Or have to work for Steve Martin-type dentists.)

In the book, Living With Our Genes, Dean Hammer, who studies genes at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., found that the only personality genes identified so far are in the area of “novelty seeking,” which manifests as worry, addiction, or depression, i.e. a basic inherited temperament. Environment was equally important in determining how big a factor the gene was in the person’s development. No help there. There is no evidence of a perfectionist gene as yet.

How about firstborns? An amazing number of my hygiene friends and officers of my state association are firstborns. Especially the really, really organized ones. Email them and they’re back to you the same day. A firstborn myself (big surprise, huh?), it was scary reading Dr. Kevin Leman’s The New Birth Order Book. Dr. Leman has been on Oprah and spends his career studying birth order. Here’s his list of firstborn traits: perfectionist, reliable, conscientious, list maker, well organized, hard driving, natural leader, critical, serious, scholarly, logical, doesn’t like surprises, loves computers. Of course, not everyone will have all these traits, but see what is number one? Perfectionist!

Aha! Maybe we’re on to something. Dr. Leman goes on to point out that more often than not you will find firstborns in professions that take precision, strong powers of concentration and dogged mental discipline…people who like structure and order. He makes a game of picking firstborns out of his audiences, “every hair is in place and they are color coordinated from head to toe!” Oh boy, are we that obvious?

On the plus side, firstborns tend to have higher IQs and do better on tests. As children they received more time and attention from their parents. Parents had high expectations, which the children tried their best to live up to. When siblings came along they were expected to set a good example and be the “responsible” ones. And, of course, the siblings got away with murder.

Dr. Leman goes on to point out, however, that perfectionism can also be the firstborns’ worst nightmare and asserts that it is not a healthy way to live. Loving to be exacting, precise and picky can take its toll on us and our relationships with others. Even though we can spot a flaw at 50 paces, we need to give ourselves permission to be imperfect and make mistakes. “The key is to learn the difference between the hopeless pursuit of perfection and the satisfying seeking of excellence.” No doubt there is a connection between the burnout and physical aches and pains our profession is known for and the constant pursuit of perfection. It now frightens me to see all the dollar bills lined up in my purse, sorted by denomination and all faces in the same direction.

OK, so maybe we can’t use firstborn as a screening tool for entry to tooth-cleaning school. In the course of my research, it turns out we may be driving other people crazy. Who knew? In The Perfectionist Predicament: How to Stop Driving Yourself and Others Crazy, authors Miriam Elliott and Susan Meltsner have devoted an entire book to helping people overcome their perfectionism. Helpful tips such as: good enough is good enough (former NJDHA president Elizabeth Nies told new grads to the chagrin of their instructors who just got done teaching them to be perfect that all hygienists leave calculus); learn to welcome constructive criticism; lead a balanced life embracing personal relationships and activities in which excellence is not a factor; try new ventures - mistakes are OK and inevitable.

At the end of the movie, Laura Dern, the hygienist, snaps “I’ve made everything perfect my whole life and I’m tired of it!” Apparently perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The key seems to be to never lose your sense of humor and have fun being imperfect.

Barbara Burlew, RDH, BS, works full time in clinical hygiene in central NJ, Exit 100. Her motto is “I refuse to have a bad day.” The perfect parent, she frequently visits her son and his wife in Hawaii. She is currently the Editor and Webmaster of NJDHA and can be reached at [email protected].