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Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?

Blame, perfectionism and the art of putting demons to rest


June 21, 2017
By: Michele Gaspar
For The VIN News Service


Dr. Michele Gaspar

Photo by Sonia Roselli
Dr. Michele Gaspar

In the days and weeks following the recent suicide of a colleague, my social media feed and probably that of many other veterinarians contained frequent shares of several posts such as this and this. These posts and multiple comments to the shares linked snarky client comments, client bullying, social media revenge, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy regarding veterinary activities to clinician suicide.

As a veterinarian, psychotherapist and member of the VIN Foundation’s confidential support group Vets4Vets, I understand the emotional strain and challenges we confront as doctors entrusted with the care of patients. We chose this path. 

Rather than collectively reacting to the pressures that come with that choice by suggesting that we are bullied victims, we need to move to a healthier emotional place. Until we do, many of us will be stuck ruminating on burnout and compassion fatigue, view clients with disdain and find camaraderie in seeing our glasses as half-empty. None of this has helped us to date, and rather than go down these well-worn rabbit holes, we need to choose a new way of thinking about ourselves and what we do. 

For starters, it might be helpful to accept that our jobs as veterinarians are to assess/evaluate and make recommendations for treatment — nothing more. If we have done this with diligence, we have done our duty to the client and patient. We have far less control in most client decisions than many of us hope for, and to understand that is actually freeing. Ultimately, the fate of the animal is in the client’s hands.

Make no mistake: Caring is important, but we cannot care to the point where it becomes masochistic and we sublimate ourselves and all who are important to us in the service of our clients and patients. The result is resentment, anger and rage.

We must remember that veterinarians don’t “own” compassion and empathy, and disconnect from a widely held position that we care more than most. There is much confusion in our profession about what compassion and empathy actually are: Compassion is the desire for the relief of suffering; it does not necessarily involve action. Empathy is deeply understanding another; it is not the same as resonating with someone’s mood or affect. 

There is no blame meant in my remarks. I hope none is taken. My fervent wish is that each of us begins the necessary steps of realizing that our fates are in our own hands; we have ownership of our lives and destinies more so than most.

We have chosen a noble, healing profession. Clinical practice is difficult; not everyone can do it. No one should tolerate abuse or mistreatment. There are ways, however, of developing the necessary boundaries that allow us to move through difficult days and client interactions with ourselves intact and our hearts not hardened. Those skills, which involve self-observation and self-reflection, need to be taught as early as possible in our schools’ curriculums and refreshed throughout our careers. Without them, career sustainability is in jeopardy.

Several years ago as a hospital chaplain, I cared for the parents of a young man who suffered catastrophic brain trauma on Christmas Eve. When he was declared brain dead early on Christmas Day, their decision was to make him an organ donor. Surgery was scheduled for the next day, in part so that future Christmases would not be marked by his death anniversary.

Over the course of that terrible 48-hour period, there were several neurologists who cared for that patient and his family with incredible compassion and concern. During a break, I asked one of the physicians how he could do the difficult work he did. He told me that early in his career, he decided that his patients could have only a portion of his heart.  He explained that the rest was reserved for his family, friends and himself. 

We would do well to follow that example. Doing so does not diminish us; rather, that attitude provides us with the resources we need to take care of ourselves and those we hold dear.

Most of us need to recognize perfectionism in ourselves, work to temper it and realize it for the blessing and curse that it is. Perfectionism is considered a maladaptive schema, an unhelpful way of thinking that becomes part of us very early (by 5 years of age, according to some experts). The problem with perfectionism, in contrast to other maladaptive schemas, is that in addition to problems, it also brings benefits, including academic achievement and professional accomplishment. 

Perfectionism is in response to one of two ways of thinking about ourselves: the first is that we were and are defective in some way; the second is that we were validated for being “good” and seek to hear those accolades again and again. As such, we either work hard to defend against defectiveness or strive to be validated. Perfectionists not only are exquisitely sensitive to external criticism, they have a particularly vicious internal critic. Sound familiar?

As clinicians we must remember that in the end, we can do only what time and resources allow. We often think of clients as the limiting factor due to their finances or (lack of) attachment. However, we, too, can be limiting in a given situation due to inadequacies in our knowledge base, limitations of our hospitals and our staffs’ training, etc. When we give up perfectionism and replace it with self-compassion, our patients do not die with any greater frequency, and contrary to what we might think, we do not lose our motivation. Rather, we become more likely to take well-reasoned risks because we fear failure less while gaining courage and resilience.

We also need to reinforce our internal sense of the value of who we are and what we do so that we can understand our client’s reactions and not be sucked in by them. We can control only how we comport ourselves in the room and the actions/words we use; we cannot control how we will be perceived or what will be posted on social media. If we reinforce our necessary self-esteem and belief in what we do, the errant Yelp review won’t cause us to lose sleep.

Finally, I suggest we reassess the concepts of “pet parents” and “fur kids.”  As veterinarians (particularly small animal clinicians), we treat animals, not children, and that needs to be OK, because it is OK. We have the noble task of attempting to relieve the suffering of other creatures. Why does our work need to be held commensurate with human pediatrics in order for it to be meaningful?

Clarity on who we are and what we do ultimately provides us with a sense of self and integrity that allows us to go about our days with courage, compassion and understanding. As a result, we are not victims but have ownership of our lives and destiny. And that’s a very good way to live.

I suggest we start now.

Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP (feline practice), MA, LPC, wears a few hats: On VIN, she is a consultant in the feline internal medicine folder; is a member of Vets4Vets, a free service of the VIN Foundation that helps colleagues with professional and personal issues; and facilitates an annual mindfulness meditation course as well as other continuing-education offerings on the topics of career sustainability. Michele is a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (feline specialty) and received an MA in pastoral counseling from Loyola University/Chicago. She is a licensed professional counselor and completed the adult psychoanalytic psychotherapy program of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis, where she is a first-year candidate in psychoanalysis. She is a staff psychotherapist at Live Oak Chicago.




VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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