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There I was, minding my own business between appointments, when a technician rushed a crashing Bichon into the treatment area. The dog was breathing hard, dazed, and pale, with dirt ground into his fur and deep puncture wounds in his belly. The owner, weeping, said he had been attacked by a loose dog and shaken like a rag doll.
We got him on oxygen and IV fluids. Radiographs showed free air in the abdomen. Next thing I knew, I was blinking at the signed estimate I’d prepared for his exploratory surgery and quaking in my boots. What was I going to find in there? How badly could I screw this up? Was I in way over my head? Was this owner going to accuse me of malpractice? Because, in my mind, that estimate constituted a written contract for me to deliver a happy, living dog on the other end, no matter how torn and shredded he was inside.
I scrubbed in for surgery, breathing deeply and trying hard not to puke. Then in walked my boss. He smiled big, clapped his hands together, and said, "Let’s see if we can save this dog’s life!"
Fear Is the Mind Killer
-Frank Herbert, Dune
Same patient. Same surgery. Two totally different mindsets. I wanted to mainline my boss’s optimism. He had confidence in his training, sufficient experience to know he wouldn’t blame himself if things went south, and a go-get-em attitude that allowed him to achieve success often. Meanwhile, I staggered under the weight of self-doubt, feeling like an imposter who would fail spectacularly or succeed through sheer blind luck.
Maybe you relate to my boss’s eagerness. But I suspect if you struggle to find joy in practice, fear of failure haunts you, too. My own impromptu poll of veterinary colleagues revealed that many attribute their burnout to a fear of making mistakes, whether due to seeing more patients than they can reliably serve well or from performing complex procedures they are uncomfortable with.
Fear of failure steals the joy from many veterinary professionals because, as a group, we are high achievers who expect perfection in every aspect of our lives. And yet we have chosen to work in the incredibly high-stakes, complex world of medicine, where failure can mean death, because we seek to serve others in truly significant ways.
To make matters worse, many of us equate performance with self-worth and identity. Thus, if I make a mistake, I’m a bad vet. My colleagues will see me as a sham, a wild card, a liability they have to control for. My clients will drop me like a stone as soon as they realize that I am barely hanging on by my fingertips with every decision I make. If such thoughts rule your day, you suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome results from negative filtering, a term used to describe a person’s tendency to focus on negative situations or expect poor outcomes while refusing to give equal air time to positive trends or one’s own ability.
Take heart, everyone at some time or other feels like an imposter. "Fake it ’til you make it" is in the English vernacular for a reason. But just as chronic joint inflammation chews up cartilage and ends an athlete’s career, so too does chronic self-doubt traumatize your psyche and knock you out of the veterinary game.
The Practice of Medicine
As my boss so keenly stated, "They call it the practice of medicine for a reason. Nobody does it perfectly every time." He also allayed a great many fears when he said, "You’ve never made a mistake I haven’t made myself."
I no longer had to be perfect. I just had to try and learn and then try again.
Sometime early in my career, I canonized this as a new rule for myself. I was allowed to make a particular mistake…once, and only once.
Thus every mistake became a learning experience, a way to enlarge my problem list, build my treatment repertoire, and improve my client communication skills.
Change Your Trajectory
When you feel overwhelmed by the task ahead, run through the following questions to reset your perspective:
Next, visualize yourself working at maximum ability. What will success look like? Though your heart pounds and hands shake, think of this stress response not as fear but as proof that your body is arming up, heightening your ability to perform well. This mental technique, called cognitive reappraisal, has been shown to physiologically improve outcomes in controlled experiments that range from public speaking competence to standardized testing performance.
Combat your fear of failure by controlling your thoughts, strategizing the best way forward, and building a resume of success.
GuardianVets offers a suite of client communication services to help you meet patient needs while streamlining workflow. An under-utilized area of veterinary medicine that can address the common complaint of "too many animals to see in not enough time" is telemedicine. Performing shorter, live video visits for simple patient ailments, rechecks, and client questions can clear your clinic schedule for patients who otherwise fill up the dreaded work-in column.
A major impediment to the adoption of telemedicine is the fact that veterinarians do not have enough mental energy to try something new. We fear what we do not know because we fear we may fail at it. But telemedicine can provide the exact solution you need to thrive again. For more information, go to www.guardianvets.com.