Shifting the Focus: Stress to Self-worth

Stressed doctor

To us, it is no secret that we are a kind and caring community. Those working in the veterinary profession witness first-hand the stress: the long hours, the tears behind closed doors and the multiple strays adopted into our own homes. We were all once “outsiders” that knew nothing of what went on in practice, but joined the career due to our underlying love of animals and need to care. I see many posts on social media outlining our daily struggles and trying to bring more understanding to the public about what we face. I like the posts that highlight the issues in our profession, and I honestly think that most clients do sympathise, but sadly I think in times when their pet is unwell, they are panicking so much they can’t see the wood for the trees. It is in times like these when our self-worth can take a hit.

There is definitely stress in our workplace, but there is also stress in other peoples’ lives from day to day. I think in turbulent times, some clients do not see vets and nurses as “people” – they get sucked into their subconscious pre-programming to react reflexly and not respond. Their field of vision is narrowed, and they have a negative voice in their head dragging them to worst-case and disaster scenarios. For those that are programmed to panic over money and the world being “unfair”, they likely treat shop staff, family, partners, pharmacists, police, NHS workers in the same way. We are dealing with a system that has been in place in their subconscious for years. We indeed have the same thing. We have all been guilty of sometimes saying “it just wasn’t like me” after an event, and potentially having acted in a way that we wouldn’t have chosen retrospectively. I definitely don’t think this makes it acceptable at all, but I do think mutual understanding comes into it. It goes way beyond “vet: client”, it’s “human: human”.

Trying to reconstruct things in the macro is difficult; changing how the world treats each other would be amazing, but it’s a titanic task. We need to shift our focus. Rather than educating the world of our realities, we need to focus on helping teach vets and nurses that these client responses are not a personal attack on them, and how to respond appropriately. So often I see clinicians basing self-worth on how they are treated by clients. A few years back I realised that when I’m dealing with someone like this, it is not personal – despite what words may come out of their mouth – it is the default mode they’ve slipped into in panic. I listen to them, I do what is in my capability to help and I empathise, then I go home and don’t dwell on it. At these times, I honestly do sympathise as they know no better than to respond in this way; the anguish they put outside is likely nothing compared to that on the inside. At this point, insightful Facebook posts about vet practice realities will not help.

Whatever coping strategy that you use, it has to be based around infallible self-worth. If you pin your identity to anything external, it can be removed. Being a good vet being affixed to client feedback, you are putting that position in a delicate balance; Mr. Smith having an explosive rage in the consult room, maybe more a “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario, when his wife left him earlier in the week, his car broke down and now his dog has diarrhoea. None of the above is your fault, but so oftentimes our subconscious tries to own that outburst in the guise of not doing a good job, or creates the story that clients are all unreasonable. Not every thought that you have is yours, nor is it based on fact; as with the clients we have our own subconscious programming too, and sadly we believe that is us. We need protection on our brain, and that is what we need to teach the veterinary community.

Effectively installing your own neuro-antivirus, and knowing that your self worth does not depend on anything external, allows you to deal much more effectively with difficult clients. Oftentimes, I see people going in with alternative armour, reflecting anger and frustrations right back towards clients as a learned defence mechanism. This does not end well. What ensues is effectively a battle of our subconscious learnings, and neither party benefits. I can assure you that when a pet owner says that we don’t know what we are doing, there is a negative voice in my head screaming “tell them they’re wrong, show them! What do they even know?!”, but I choose not to let that voice run the show.

My personal strategy starts with unbiased listening. I let the client explain all of their worries, and I do not take offence or personal attack from them. Much of what they say may even stem from events that happened years ago, not involving myself or the clinic at all. I do not anticipate the next thing that I will say before they have finished, and I genuinely try and put myself in their shoes. Perspective and mutual understanding help everyone. Once I understand their primary concerns, I can try to more effectively help them, or move in the direction of someone that can.

So, how do we install this anti-virus on our brains? There are many resources available. Joining the Vet:X community is a brilliant start, with coping strategies and help from mentors. Secondly, 1:1 mentoring and coaching can be a useful way to understand techniques and increase consciousness.

Dr Katie Ford

This article was written by Dr Katie Ford, one of the mentors at VetX Thrive for the Europe region. To learn more Dr Ford’s career and our other mentors at VetX click here

We hope you enjoyed this article today and will be able to harness your stress for self-worth. If you liked this content and want to learn more about how to have a great career as a vet, then check out our VetX Thrive program designed to teach you all the non-clinical skills you need to not just survive, but thrive as a vet.

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