I recently wrote an article for the New Zealand Complementary Veterinary Medicine Branch Newsletter on the challenges of valuing oneself within the veterinary profession. Since this isn’t an issue just for veterinary professionals, I wanted to share my thoughts here as well. It is especially relevant for those in healing professions. I hope at this time of year (typically, a period of contemplation and reflection) that you’ll consider the ways you are valued and find meaning in the work you do.
What is Your Mission Statement?
When examining the “mission statements” of our lives, questioning who and what we are in relation to our world can shed light on the concept of Value. How do we value ourselves — as veterinarians, doctors, teachers, employees, business owners, or whatever our chosen career is? Do our clients and customers value us and our work? Do we make a difference in the lives of pets and people, family and friends, and as members of our community? Why did we choose to become who we are? And is any of this important? Each one of us will have different answers, our choices motivated by different factors.
Coming to Terms With Reality
Although I had originally planned on going into the field of human medicine, after interning in a hospital I realized I would be miserable in that profession. But biology, biochemistry, botany, and physiology all fascinated me, and I had deep a love for animals. So when I learned there was such a thing as a “veterinarian,” it felt like the perfect fit for a vocation that would be both emotionally and intellectually rewarding.
However, working “under” other veterinarians was not inspiring. Veterinary medicine was all about the “business” of selling shots, prescribing drugs and antibiotics, and sending the client home with prescription dog food, or flea and tick products — something.
Running an emergency clinic for three years while being the Head of Surgery was another disappointment. Managing the happiness and efficiency of staff, paying bills, and getting along with the owners was not what I wanted (or had been trained) to do. I wanted to spend my time helping animals, not dealing with the nitty gritty of running a business.
Clients who routinely undervalued the clinic’s work added to my frustration. After taking in their pet for hospitalization or surgery, a client would question, “Why did it cost so much?” The smaller the incision, the less they felt they needed to pay. If a dog came in mangled by a car, barely alive, and after four hours of intense emergency treatments died anyway, pet owners did not feel obligated to pay for the services. I pondered — Should payment for my services be contingent upon the successful recovery and specific degree of health and wellness of my patient? What kind of profession was this?
And the deeper issue lurked: How could I value myself when my clients didn’t?
Taking A Break To Re-Evaluate
With so many distraught and emotionally upset people walking through the clinic door, I sometimes wondered if I should switch professions and be a psychologist. Instead, I took six months off from practice, sold my shares, and went camping in the forests of the Northwest with three dogs and Dr. James Herriot’s books. After reading his books and contemplating my life, I decided I wanted a practice similar to Dr. Herriot’s, and opened the first mixed animal housecall practice in the San Francisco Bay area. Finally I felt good, excited, and ready for a new adventure in veterinary medicine. The flexibility of my practice allowed me time to study other areas of health, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, so I continued to grow and improve as a healer.
When it does not feel good going to work in the morning, and when you come home continually exhausted day after day, it’s time to reassess your life and look at your needs and dreams that are not being addressed. Take care of yourself. Let go of the things and the people in your life that no longer uplift you… especially those who employ you.
Find Meaning Within
A 2014 mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians “showed that they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, experience bouts of depression, and have suicidal thoughts compared with the U.S. adult population… nearly one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might experience serious psychological distress, and more than one in six might have contemplated suicide since graduation.” (JAVMA News, April 2015)
As one of my colleagues, Dr. Liz Hassinger, explains, “Many healers are innately seeking approval and appreciation as part of their lifelong psychology. Thus the lack of acknowledgment of their own sacrifices and recognition for their devotion to their work leaves them with compassionate fatigue.” She goes on to say, “There is a value to feeling appreciated, and certainly a value to avoiding burnout and possibly depression, or even suicide, related to our profession. There is a need to acknowledge, at least among ourselves, that in our hard work, we give greatly of our emotional energies, of our heart.”
I can understand why many vets feel this sense of extreme depression, discouragement, and failure. Many clients come to see me when they are emotionally unstable, feeling guilty, fearful, and sick with worry, and trying to find someone or something to blame for a devastating (and often terminal) issue with their best friend. I get it. But it’s very easy, and potentially destructive, to tie self-worth to the success of one’s career and satisfaction of one’s clients. “Are my clients happy with me?” If the answer is yes, you feel great! But if the answer is no, you may start to doubt your own value.
This is not a great way to live.
During challenging times we need to remember that while it’s ok to “give greatly of our emotional energies,” it’s not our job to take on other people’s emotional baggage or be responsible for their grief.
Surround Yourself With Good Relationships
Happiness is… happy people around you.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that having healthy and happy working relationships with my staff and other peers in my profession is essential to my vitality. Working with a “family” of people you like, who enhance your ability to do your job, who “see” you and respect and understand your value, and love you for it, is truly a Blessing! This is the key to happiness in your work.
It’s not always easy to surround yourself with great working relationships, as it doesn’t typically happen just by accident. It takes effort from the leader of the team to smooth out the rough edges between staff, and understand how best to communicate and teach without hurting feelings. Above all, everyone on staff needs to have mutual respect for each other, and make the effort to communicate and listen freely and openly.
As with relationships in general, sometimes you simply have to end a partnership and move on. If your place of work does not make you happy, if you feel unfulfilled by your work, or if you are not really “in the flow” with your coworkers, it might be time to consider a new path.
You Are More Than Your Career
Veterinarians are not just animal doctors. We are also expected to be animal mechanics, family psychologists, office and business managers, entrepreneurs, staff support coaches, educators, miracle workers, animal behaviorists, herbalists, acupuncturists, pet psychics, and more! And of course, we are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, lovers, and spiritual beings. It’s the same with many professions. We all hold many responsibilities in our lives. So how does one balance all of these roles?
The first step is to prioritize yourself — take the time to value your own needs and practice self-care through activities that bring you fulfillment and joy. For some, that means taking more vacations or retreats. For others, it means taking a class on a topic that interests you, or exercising more regularly. Or perhaps it just means restructuring the parts of your life that aren’t working well right now. The bottom line — and the challenge for us all — is to balance “Giving” with “Living.”
In order to heal others, we first need to heal ourselves. And to heal ourselves, we need to know how to deal with ourselves.
– Thich Nhat Hanh