There has been a lot of discussion over the need to train veterinary professionals to become more resilient. We use the derogatory term “snowflake generation” to reflect a lack of resilience as new graduates encounter a world where we are all being asked to do more, to be perfect at all they do and to remain upbeat in the face of imminent disaster.

However, the challenge for us is ensuring resilience doesn’t turn into hard-heartedness. To be able to show empathy for those around us we need to understand what it means to come back from a place of pain, sadness, anger, or grief.

Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or change. That is very different from the meaning we now give it: being able to struggle on in the face of whatever life throws at us. Flexibility, on the other hand, is defined as the ability to be easily modified, a willingness to change or compromise, of being able to bend without breaking.

Looking back at my time in general practice I realise that my method of “being resilient” was to smile in the face of adversity. Just push on and get through the day so you can get home to that bottle of wine.

Did I recover easily from the challenging PTS or 4 emergency calls I had to do back to back one night on call? No, I didn’t, I tried to pretend I had, but all I did was put on a harder shell to make sure no-one could see how difficult I was finding it. After a year of this I wanted out. I wanted to escape from a profession that I had spent 5 years at University to enter.

Is this your type of resilience? Is that really what we expect from ourselves and those around us? It’s rather like learning to cope with bad weather. Being resilient to the weather means always having a waterproof or warm clothes on so we are ready when with bad weather hits. Being flexible means that we can cover up when we need to. We can also bare our skin and feel the warmth of the sun when it appears.

The degree of resilience we are expected to deliver as vets means that we end up with multiple layers of protection and ultimately full body armour. It becomes impossible to go out without it – for the fear of being caught out. It’s impossible to take it off and feel the warmth of good weather.

We are so wrapped up in the protection we stop even noticing what the weather is like and just assume we need every layer of protection we can get. We even stop bothering to take it all off at home.

Resilience becomes a shell that no-one can penetrate. We become closed off to friends and family. Our colleagues and clients may think we lack empathy. Have you ever tried being flexible in full body armour? It’s just not possible so our resilience means we are less flexible and more likely to break when further pressure is applied.

If we consider the difference between the definitions of resilience (being able to adjust easily to misfortune) and flexibility (the ability to be easily modified) it’s clear that we need both flexibility and resilience. To achieve this balance, we need to accept our emotions and feelings about the situations we come across.

This means we need to recognise them, feel comfortable experiencing  them and be able to let go of them. We need to show flexibility and be able to bend without breaking. Letting down your guard and taking off your armour may make you feel exposed but if you close off all “negative” emotions then you will also shut down those positive emotions such as fun, happiness and fulfilment.

Next time you feel overwhelmed or feel an uncomfortable emotion rising up, don’t just jam it down hoping it will go away, set aside some time to feel the emotion and to work through it. Let your body move in response to the feelings you’re experiencing and let the emotion come out – be that anger, sadness, fear, guilt, grief or shame.

If we take time to release the emotions we feel each day, the  heavy armour we carry with us becomes lighter and we have a greater chance to notice our positive emotions rather than being numb to everything. We can then show flexibility through be willing to change and compromise.

Of course we need to act professionally but is there really any harm in showing that we are upset when a client loses their much loved pet, or when a vet student sees us taking time out for a short tea break when you have just had a really tough morning surgery. If we all get better at this, we will all be able to support each other and know that we are not alone in our battle with resilience.

To recap:

  1. We need to stop thinking of resilience as a badge of honour.
  2. Take off your layers of armour and let yourself feel the uncomfortable emotions. You may find you rediscover the positive emotions in your life.
  3. Always let any emotion work through, rather than suppressing it until it bubbles up uncontrollably.
  4. Let’s reward the flexibility that allows us to adjust to the challenges of veterinary life by being aware of all our emotions.

If you would like learn how to develop a balance between flexibility and resilience then book a free discovery phone call below.