Ever noticed that people tend to be a lot more honest about their life choices when asked to tell the truth in a game? This phenomenon is exactly what Drs. Caitlin DeWilde and Kimberly-Ann Therrien and I experienced when we used a popular party game to teach life lessons in Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative sessions at Fetch dvm360.
Never have I ever ... driven myself too hard as a veterinary professional and lost sight of my health, my family, my sanity ... ?
If you've never played ‘Never Have I Ever …,” it's simple. A question is asked, and participants raise a two-sided paddle, showing one side to the audience: “I have” or “I have never.” To our amazement, when we used this game in Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative sessions at Fetch dvm360, attendees admitted all sorts of things-tasting pyrantel pamoate, asking clients on dates, peeing in pools and secretly wishing they were wizards at Hogwarts. (As an aside, I think veterinary professionals possess the courage of Gryffindors and the knowledge of Ravenclaws, and where is my letter?)
Apart from being fun and hilarious, the game was revealing. Almost everybody admitted to telling lies to avoid conflict with co-workers, wishing they could leave work on time and cussing out clients behind their backs. Many people admitted to staying in toxic jobs because they were afraid. Mostly, the game taught us that we aren't facing the challenges of life in vet med alone and that it's safe to talk about the things that haunt us in this profession-namely, conflict, fear and poor self-care …
We've all been there. When you're in conflict with another person, it's hard to know whether to die on that hill or keep quiet. According to Dr. Thierren, conflict avoidance is when a person does not deal with the conflict at hand-instead, they use other tactics, such as ignoring the problem, changing the subject, complaining to someone else or shutting down.
Conflict avoidance is easy, because it deludes our brain into thinking we're safe from the conflict. The feeling of relief you get reinforces the avoidance behavior, making it more likely that you'll avoid conflict again in the future. The problem is that conflict avoidance can silently rot an organization and your emotional health from the inside out. Suppressed emotions, anyone?
Avoid getting bogged down in the stories you tell yourself about why people do things-stick to facts.
Dr. Therrien (who knows what she's talking about, BTW, as she manages more than 100 hospitals and spent a decade working for Canada's own border patrol) says that if we don't deal with conflict, we stunt our own personal growth. Instead of avoiding, we can choose to view conflict as an opportunity to change and grow. In her professional career, Dr. Therrien found Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson to be an invaluable resource.
The premise is simple: Anytime you find yourself stuck, there's a crucial conversation you're either not holding or not holding well. Above all, these crucial conversations must be safe.
Dr. Therrien recommends starting with empathy and positive intent, managing your emotions and mindset, maintaining a place of mutual respect and avoid getting bogged down in the stories you tell yourself about why people do things-stick to facts and own your contribution to the conflict. Ego is not allowed in crucial conversations. Following these recommendations could get you to a place where you can brainstorm new strategies to find mutual solutions.
If you haven't seen the recent Time article, the word is out: Vets are more likely to die by suicide than many others. Dr. DeWilde redirected some of her own energy as a veterinarian towards correcting some bad self-care habits that infect our industry. More often than not, vets are working more than 40 hours a week and spend six to seven days a week in the clinic.
For Dr. DeWilde, the moment of reckoning came when she realized she'd been devoting her life to a clinic that didn't appreciate her, and because she left for work so early in the morning, she didn't even know what her 1-year-old son ate for breakfast. During the session, Dr. DeWilde shared several tools that helped her course-correct, including establishing and sticking to boundaries and taking time for herself.
It's amazing how many veterinarians have unused vacation hours accruing … for what? Take it now.
When asked if they worked through lunch, almost every attendee raised the “I have” paddle. While it might not seem important, scheduling and actually taking breaks (and leaving the building!) is a must. Fifteen-minute breaks? Take them. Go outside. Walk. Breathe. Appreciate the birds or the sky or the lack of barking dogs. The work will still get done. How about your vacation time? It's amazing how many veterinarians have unused vacation hours accruing … for what? That magic time in the future when they'll have permission to take time for themselves? Take it now.
From experience, I know that you cannot pour from an empty cup, and if you continue to do so, your body, your mental health, your emotional health and your relationships will suffer. Take one step now to improve your self-care. It doesn't have to be huge to make a big impact.
I spent years imprisoned by fear. I stayed in jobs that sucked me dry, because I was afraid I wouldn't find anything else. I tiptoed through life, hoping to make it safely to death. The saddest part was that I didn't even know I was afraid. It felt like I'd been conditioned since birth to avoid risks, be a good employee, follow all the rules and never make mistakes.
What I didn't realize was that my fear of failure was greater than my faith in myself. Then one day, I woke up. Even though fear still had power over me, I realized that at its root, fear was a liar and I could choose whether I listened to fear or not.
So I cut the crap. I geeked out on books about fear and mindsets. I went to neurofeedback and talk therapy. I started meditating. I cut my excuses and started doing things that were way outside my comfort zone, like public speaking, diving with sharks and half-Ironmans. I stopped watching the news, I took Facebook off my phone, and I refused to engage with scary thoughts at night. I confronted my fear of failure head on, and books like Mindset by Carol Dweck and You Are a Bad Ass by Jen Sincero (Editor's note: Check out the sidebar on this page.) helped me along the way.
We are in charge of the life we design. Taming conflict and fear and engaging in self-care like a MOFO are all ways to get out of victim mode and take control of how we spend our days on this planet. How are you spending yours?
This article is real talk about tough situations, but our “Never Have I Ever …” game also had some fun (and funnier) choices. Here are a few. Have you ever …
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.
You. Can. Do. This!
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