4 steps to get those monkeys off your back

August 7, 2017
Sarah J. Wooten, DVM
Sarah J. Wooten, DVM

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.

If you take emotional responsibility for everyone else's problems, putting their monkeys on your back and on your mind, you find yourself home at the end of every day in veterinary practice with no room for your own needs.

(Shutterstock.com)I filmed a video for Firstline a few months ago titled, "Not my circus, not my monkeys," in which I play a veterinarian who is so buried under psychological "monkeys" from her job that at the end of the day, she doesn't have any room left for her personal "monkeys."

My original purpose in making this video was to take a lighthearted approach and raise awareness of a few of the underlying causes of veterinarian compassion fatigue and burnout in private practice. What I didn't anticipate (my bad-sorry!) is that the video touched a raw nerve with a lot of our readers, and people were left asking, “Yeah, I see that problem and I have it! Now what? Give me some solutions already!”

Watch "Not my circus, not my monkeys" to laugh at the problem before you dig in and deal with it.

Over the past 15 years, there have been several things I've learned that have helped my emotional wellbeing and resilience. While I'm not a perfect monkey manager (Who is?), the four activities below have saved my life. Try them.

Over time, you, like me, may experience greater practice satisfaction and be able to hand emotional monkeys back to your clients and coworkers so you're able to manage your own personal monkeys better. In the words of veterinary wellness thinker Kimberly Pope-Robinson, DVM, CCFP, "Nobody wants a monkey farm," so let's tame these little suckers ...

1. Practice self-awareness

The first step of monkey management is awareness of your thoughts and feelings in situations where clients or coworkers try to give you their monkeys. What do you feel when your client is asking you for a discount, trying to project their beliefs about money onto you? How do you feel when you read sad stories from other vets on Facebook? How do you respond when a coworker bullies you, either out-right or by being passive aggressive?

In the moment, you probably feel angry, sad, scared or guilty. You might feel a lump in your throat, your heart might race or your face might flush. In this moment, your lizard brain, the amygdala (Editor's note: A veterinary neurologist has a funny anecdote about it, actually), takes over and you've been emotionally hijacked by something that isn't your problem. When you're emotionally hijacked by somebody else's monkey, you let other people project their problems onto you. Fortunately, you also have the ability to deflect monkeys thrown your way.

When your emotions take over, the logical, thinking part of our brain has been overrided, and you're triggered into a fight-flight-or-freeze response. Recognizing the symptoms of an emotional hijacking in the moment can give you the power to stay centered and in control and less likely to take somebody else's emotional monkey on as your own. Once you've recognized the signs of emotional hijacking, you can take steps to halt it, such as breathing, meditation or just stepping away for a moment before the monkey gets stuck to you and puts you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

2. Name the monkey

When people feel ashamed about something, such as not being able to afford a car payment or pay for veterinary services, it feels bad. Icky. Embarrassing. Uncomfortable. If they have a low level of emotional intelligence or they themselves have been emotionally hijacked in that moment, they'll look frantically for a target to offload that bad feeling.

Check out Dan Siegel's Mindsight Institute for mindfulness tools.

Unfortunately, without good monkey management skills, you're a perfect target for a client in the exam room. If you practice self-awareness and take note of how you're feeling, you may be able to keep your own emotions under control and be in a better position to recognize when people are trying to hand off yucky emotional monkeys to you. Psychologist Dan Siegel from UCLA advises that we "Name it and tame it." For example, in the scene in my video with the pet owner who has a parvo puppy is manipulating the veterinarian with shame, the vet could head the monkey off at the pass by naming the monkey "shame" in her head. This prevents the veterinarian from accepting the monkey and being emotionally hijacked by the client's financial problems.

Monkey management becomes harder when we voluntarily take other people's monkeys on as our own. In my own practice, I noticed that veterinarians who spent a lot of time reading the posts on the Not One More Vet Facebook page, a support group for struggling veterinarians, started to talk more negatively about the state of our profession. Don't get me wrong-that Facebook group and others like it are a wonderful resource for veterinarians on the brink of suicide or clinical depression, but if your life is going pretty good and you're pretty happy with your career, why on earth would you sabotage your own happiness by voluntarily saddling yourself with the monkeys of other people you've never met?

Positive monkey management starts with being willing to guard our own emotional and mental health. If people you talk to or things you read or places you go bring you down, stop, and take care of yourself right now.

3. Turn down the empathy (just a little!)

The third step of monkey management is cognitive attunement, or perspective taking. If you've been to any of my recent lectures, you know I'm crazy into perspective taking. I believe it transforms your ability to connect with clients and persuade them to follow your recommendations. Perspective taking is also critical in monkey management. Lemme explain.

Veterinarians are some of the most compassionate, hard-working, empathetic people I know. I want to take all of you, tuck you into bed and serve you tea because you take care of everybody before you take care of yourselves. The problem with too much empathy is that it inhibits you from doing your best work. When it comes to working with clients and coworkers, veterinarians need to understand the difference between perspective taking and empathy. Empathy is a feeling skill, and when you feel everything your client or coworker is feeling, you're grabbing that monkey off of them and sticking it onto yourself.

Dr. Sarah Wooten covers soft skills ("Sharpen your soft skills, change your life") and perspective taking ("Pimp my brain: A crash course in perspective taking") at 2017 CVC Kansas City and San Diego. Visit thecvc.com to register.

Perspective taking is a cognitive skill (and veterinarians are good at those!). You intellectually understand and respect your client's or coworker's perspective (monkey), but you don't take it on yourself. Understanding the monkey gives you clues on how best to interact with your client or coworker. Make sense?

Once you understand that, you can turn down the empathy meter (not a lot, just a little!) and turn up the perspective taking meter.

If you want to learn more about perspective taking and how to be better at it, come see me at a CVC near you.

4. Manage your relationships

The fourth part of monkey management is relationship management. Dan Siegel's fascinating work in neurobiology often covers the "social brain." Humans are highly social mammals who've needed a tribe to survive throughout most of human history. In the past, expulsion from the tribe would have been life-threatening. Consequently, to best facilitate the tribe, our brain evolved to allow subconscious connections with other human brains.

One of those connections is found in mirror neurons. Basically, mirror neurons fire in our brain in response to the behavior of others and produce something called "emotional contagion." In emotional contagion, the most powerful person is the person sending emotions-or, in our case, monkeys. One way clients or coworkers unconsciously manipulate is through projecting contagious emotions that our mirror neurons pick up. In the past, picking up these signals was crucial to survival, as the sender was likely communicating that a saber-toothed tiger was about to eat the receiver's baby. These days, however, toxic monkeys sent from clients or coworkers may hurt us more than help us. We have to decide which monkeys we let in and from whom.

In my video, the veterinarian had let in so many monkeys during the day she didn't have any space for monkeys from her husband. How many of you can relate to that? I know I can! (If you want a quick primer on dealing with a negative coworker in situations like these, check out this Wharton School of Management tip I found helpful.)

Becoming skilled in monkey management provides us with invaluable perspective on ourselves and others. By increasing the awareness and management of our own feelings, we can better understand other people. That mindset sets a trajectory for us to skillfully handle all the monkeys that others throw our way and to stop being zookeepers for other people's emotional monkeys.

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.