Dr. Andraya Cole – 23 April 2021
Mental Health in Practice
Stating that our personalities affect our mental health may seem obvious, but mental health and the practice of wellness (or lack thereof) can come from a very personal place of life experiences independent of the profession. The current mental health crises in vet med do not all stem from toxic environments and ill-managed systems in which some work. There are compounding traits and stressors that correlate to how we interact with coworkers, respond to clients or deal with difficult caseloads. Our individual personalities are one such factor that has been shown to play an integral role in the decision to go into veterinary medicine in the first place. And it is also what can set us up to struggle with work-related stressors like burnout and compassion fatigue more so than others.
We Must Have Perfection!
An overwhelming number of veterinary professionals have personality traits that could be categorized as “type A” or “perfectionist”. We are often at the top of our class, driven by academic achievement or competition, and thrive being in charge and finding solutions to problems. These traits make us excellent students, team leaders, and lifelong learners. These characteristics are also specifically sought after by veterinary admissions committees and revered by the public in medical practice.
I most certainly fall into that “type A” category and have for as long as I remember. For years I struggled, and still do, with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compounded and fueled my academic achievements and continues to keep me working hard on cases for my clients. In many ways, I think that the inner voice that drives me to do better all the time is what makes me a great friend, colleague, and doctor.
However, these traits create so much frustration and even distress when I can’t solve something or there are barriers to my perceived perfectionism. They can make me spiral into feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome when clients don’t recognize my efforts, or a patient dies despite trying everything I can. Perfectionism is a personality trait that has been linked to an increase in mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, and perfectionism is thought to make veterinarians more likely to have suicidal ideation. While it isn’t a unique trait to #vetmed, think about what this means if the majority of your classmates or co-workers are individuals with these tendencies.
It’s so Typical…
The truth is I have been that “type A” person to experience what happens when my perfectionism lends itself to mental distress. I have spent a great deal of my adult life stuck between the urge to push myself towards achievement and actively learning to back down because of the harm it can create. In my best times I have anxiety about sticking to a schedule or dealing with seemingly simple social interactions. In my darkest times, I have been literally on the brink of ending it all.
So, what has helped me get through? First, I have accepted that I won’t ever rid myself of some of these traits and instead try to shift my perspective to find new approaches using the tools I already have. What research has shown us is that the same people with the traits that allow them to excel academically and in medicine may also be those with lower emotional intelligence. This is ironic because so much of what we do as veterinary professionals if done well requires us to navigate our cases and teams with a high degree of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Emotional intelligence allows us to step outside ourselves and see things from different perspectives with a clearer understanding of why teammates, clients, or ourselves behave and react in certain ways. This is not to discredit the overflowing compassion and love for animals we have, but rather to point out an entirely different skill set that isn’t emphasized or built on during our educations and careers.
This is no easy feat and takes a lot of conscious effort, not unlike building our medical knowledge, technical proficiency, and surgical skills. Sometimes, patients will die without us knowing why and clients will just be plain jerks. But more often than not, if you hone your emotional intelligence, you’ll find that people want to be seen and there are some simple solutions to what may have normally felt like colossal failures to a perfectionist.
Finding the Harmony
Ironically, these traits can be in direct conflict with compassion fatigue and burnout when we want to be everything for our teams, patients, and clients and just can’t do it all. Sometimes it can be harder to address life-long learned behaviors and thought processes when they have, in general, served us so well in the past. I believe part of the answer is open communication. When I discuss feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome with colleagues, I almost always find common ground- that they experience it too and there is reassurance that my best effort was indeed enough. There needs to be more transparency about these issues not only in practice but in our application processes and in our continued education. Only then can we start to normalize the pressures that come with our personality traits and find avenues where they are most helpful while recognizing others that need redirecting for more healthy practices and in the veterinary profession.