Why being a “good enough” animal caregiver is best

    When I became a mother I, like many new parents, experienced a great deal of anxiety.

    Was I feeding my baby too much? Was I feeding too little? Is it normal for babies to cry this much? Am I responding too quickly? Am I not responding quickly enough? I wanted to be the perfect parent.

    On top of this, I worried that my dog Velvet wasn’t getting enough attention and I felt sorry for her. As she had been the ‘only child’ for six years I wondered how she would cope. So, during the early months of having my baby I did as much as I could to be the perfect pet parent; making sure she had enough time with me and with my baby boy; responding to her every need; giving her lots of treats, walks and attention.

    With very little sleep, and feeling so very tired, I wanted to have a break and then would feel guilty for it. I wanted to be perfect and give everything 100 percent and, not surprisingly, I was failing miserably. All this worrying about trying to be perfect and my struggles between caring for myself and caring for others lead to a lot of stress and anxiety.

    Having noticed this in myself I made sure I became the perfect self-carer as well. Determined to fix the error of my ways and rid myself of anxiety. After all, I taught and studied psychology so if I can’t fix this then who can? So off I went practicing and ticking off every CBT worksheet, gratitude journal, exercise, diet, and meditation I could, and I still felt anxious and stressed. I’m just not trying hard enough I thought. The harder I tried not to stress and to relax, the more I felt stressed and the less relaxed I felt. The irony is all quite funny now when I look back at it.

    What I didn’t understand and, what I do now, was that the idea of a perfect parent, a perfect pet parent and even a perfect self-carer, fixer upperer just, doesn’t exist. Once I let go of that illusion and instead aimed to be ‘good enough’ an enormous weight was lifted, and guess what? I felt so much better!

    The idea of being ‘good enough’ was first coined by Winnicott (1992), who used it to describe the idea of being ‘a good enough mother’. According to Winnicott, for optimal development to occur, the child needs a parent to not be everything all the time because it helps children learn to tolerate frustration and live in an imperfect world.

    Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison (2016) also apply this idea to being a “good enough practitioner” and state that being good enough, and knowing when to pull back and rest and when to put in 100% effort is key to a sustainable career as a caregiver. Further, the idea of perfection can also prevent us from taking chances for fear of failure and, when we are afraid of failing, we lose our ability to be creative and grow as professionals (Kushner, 1996).

    Giving 100%, 100 percent of the time, just isn’t sustainable and can lead to burnout. I’m so glad I learned this lesson all those years ago. It’s what helps me sustain my career as a compassion fatigue and pet loss therapist and its one of the things that contributes to resiliency both personally and professionally. Since research has shown that burnout contributes to intentions to leave, and a decrease in quality of care, perhaps being good enough is what we should all be aiming for?

    I’m not saying don’t aim for high-quality care. What I am saying is to cut yourself some slack, except that you are human and nobody is perfect. So, here’s to excepting our failures and our imperfections, here’s to taking breaks, and here’s to asking for help when we need it, because being “good enough” is better than striving for perfection at all costs.

     

    References

    Kushner, H. S. (1996). How good do we have to be? A new understanding of guilt and forgiveness. Boston: Little, Brown.

    Routly, J. E., Dobson, H., Taylor, I. R., McKernan, E. J., & Turner, R. (2002). Support needs of veterinary surgeons during the first few years of practice: perceptions of recent graduates and senior partners. Veterinary Record, 150(6), 167-171. doi:10.1136/vr.150.6.167

    Shanafelt, T. D., Balch, C. M., Bechamps, G., Russell, T., Dyrbye, L., Satele, D., . . . Freischlag, J. (2010). Burnout and medical errors among American surgeons. Annals of surgery, 251(6), 995-1000.

    Skovholt, T. T. & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2016). The resilient practitioner: Burnout and compassion fatigue prevetion and self-care strategies for the helping professionals. NY: Routledge

    Sung, K., Seo, Y., & Kim, J. H. (2012). Relationships between compassion fatigue, burnout, and turnover intention in Korean hospital nurses. Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing, 42(7), 1087-1094.

    Trimpop, R., Kirkcaldy, B., Athanasou, J., & Cooper, C. (2000). Individual differences in working hours, work perceptions and accident rates in veterinary surgeries. Work & Stress, 14(2), 181-188. doi:10.1080/026783700750051685

    Winnicott, D. W. (1992). The child, the family, and the outside world. NY: Hachett books

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