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Stoicism: Helping vets win the battle of the inner demon

When things go wrong, do you feel like the world is crashing down around you? Is it all you can muster to put on a brave face and gut your way through it?

For many of us, that’s what problems are, things we want to go away as quickly as possible. Things that stress us into making poor decisions. Things that make us want to quit.

Unfortunate things happen, that's just a fact of life.

Sometimes they happen directly because of actions we take or don’t take. For example, if the culture of your practice is poor and you have problems retaining staff then it’s probably not because you are unlucky, or it’s "just the way it is in the veterinary sector". More likely it’s because you hired poorly and are not doing your job as a leader as well as you might.

Other times, these things happen because life is a twisting road with no guarantee of a happily ever after ending (or start/middle for that matter). An example of this might be a team member, close friend or family member gets seriously sick or passes away.

These occurrences, devastating as they feel, are very likely to fall outside of your control.

But if we take the general view that a certain amount of problems are inevitable, regardless of cause. Then how do we approach them in such a way that we can function effectively and continue to have a happy life?

This is without a doubt one of the most important big questions we must seek to answer right now as a profession. The levels of stress, burnout and suicide in our industry are all far too high.

Techniques to improve your leadership

The good news is that there are two ways we can change our response to adversity for the better. The first technique involves dealing rationally with facts and the second involves a process of “reframing" events so we can see things differently and work more effectively.

Let’s deal with the rational facts technique first. When something goes wrong, we humans have a tendency to make a much bigger deal of things than is actually true. Or to see correlation (possibly linked) rather than causation (actually linked). In overly analytical people (you know any of those in veterinary medicine?), this frequently leads to the affected individual "boarding” the runaway train to mental disintegration called catastrophisation.

In the afflicted, the unpleasant problem quickly becomes an all-consuming disaster from which their ego/reputation/life will likely never recover…

That is until things pass and the bad stuff didn’t happen.

Self-awareness is crucial if you are a catastrophiser and a powerful antidote to this behaviour is to remind yourself to “See things as they are, not worse than the are.”

In other words, boil away the BS your overactive imagination is creating and chose to only deal with objective fact.

A client sending in a complaint means someone is a bit upset. Enough to write a letter and they probably want to be listened to, apologised to and things to be put right.

The letter does not mean they hate you, want to see the practice burned down and you never work as a vet again.

A patient suffering a fatal complication under anaesthesia is a rare but horrible experience for a practice, team and individual to bear. Of course, there will be a devastated pet owner to face. But it does not mean that you are terrible people who should all quit tomorrow. In such moments it pays to bring a sense of objectivity and curiosity to the event (alongside the inevitable sadness and guilt).

Hard though it may be, this mental approach will help you to recover, learn and move on from this and any other trauma that may befall you.

The second opportunity is to shift your perspective when facing down problems. This is the classic glass half full or glass half empty perspective and we all get to make our own choice as to what version of reality we want to operate in. Sadly, many of us choose to see the glass not just half empty, but pretty much dry.

Reframing an issue is an ancient concept makes a lot of sense. In Buddhism for example, there is a wonderful concept when working with people we find challenging, to see them as gurus, sent to give us the opportunity to work with a side of our self that we have not yet mastered.

We all have certain people who trigger negative emotional states in our life. Most of us would try to change them or avoid them. But in reality, all you can really change is your own response to that person. Master the emotion, make different choices and you can work to see that person in a totally different light. Be the change you would like to see, played out at the micro-level. This is what emotionally capable people can do.

Reframing doesn’t change the facts of a scenario, but it works by allowing you to pivot around the issue and see it differently.

Change and challenge are always viewed with caution and often fear. Fear, causes the limbic system to switch on and suppress the critical thinking centres of the brain. Meaning you regress into primal, reactive behaviour. Fight or flight.

We often hear the sabre-toothed tiger metaphor deployed to describe this. And yes a sabre-toothed tiger would be a fearsome beast to face down. But what if you could catch the tiger, tame it and then use it to scare off your enemies? Would that be a positive?

Trying to find the positive in any situation can be really hard. But there is always something to grab on to if you are willing to look for it.

A client blew up and posted a bad online review… OK, that sucks and maybe you feel hard done by. But it happened and now you have a choice. Did you deserve to get it? What can you learn from it? Did the client find a weak spot in your armour that you couldn’t see before and now you have something new to work on? Or are you going to stew in your juices, feel aggrieved and think about how unfair the world is?

Ancient wisdom for modern life

What ties these two concepts together is the stoics philosophy of being able to classify the various components of any challenging issue down into two groups. Firstly, the parts of the puzzle that fall out with your control, the things you cannot change. Secondly, the parts of the problem that are under your control and can be changed.

A new practice opened up next door, tough luck, you do not control this. But you are 100% in control of how you operate your marketing, HR and leadership systems. And so, are in a great position to remain master of your own destiny. Too many of us spend time and energy worrying about things that are not real or we cannot change and not enough time working with things that we can.

Life can seem unfair, but these are labels we apply and my suggestion is that these labels are unhelpful to you if you seek sustained business success, balance, calmness and happiness.

So my challenge to you is this. The next time you are faced with a problem, take a beat and recognise that you have a lot more control than you may think. Seek out, and deal with, only the facts. Steer clear of labels and judgement. And ask yourself what is good about this situation. And finally, ask yourself which bits of this situation you can change and which lie are outside of your control.

Don't beat yourself up over things you couldn’t control. Take action on the things you can. Then move forward with good intentions.

It’ll still be hard of course, that’s life. But your ability to handle stress and work through challenges will improve substantially as you get better at this process. You’ll feel more in control and your outcomes will improve. 98.75% guaranteed.

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