Building Resiliency Through Our Story
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.”1 Essentially, it means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.
What makes something difficult? The answer is…our brain does. Our experiences are not difficult until we have a thought that makes them so. (Stay with me on this.)
When you look at the facts of any experience and don’t get tangled up in the story your mind wants to create, you will find that you have some options.
In fact, you have a choice in how you interpret anything. That includes any situation, any patient, any client, any organizational change, and any coworker’s behavior.
How you adapt or bounce back from something is determined by how you handle it in your mind. There are the facts, but it is what you make of those facts that determines your ability to be resilient.
You always have 3 options in response to any situation: empowerment, neutrality, or drama.
Jennifer is an LVT I recently met in Louisiana. After she attended a compassion fatigue workshop of mine for animal workers, she contacted me to share her story.
She told me how she worked in disaster relief during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She witnessed unspeakable tragedy, including the suffering and death of animals. Yet this is what she told me: “I was so honored and proud to be able to help those that I could. I know I saved a lot of lives in the weeks I was in New Orleans.”
Jennifer could’ve easily told me about all the horror she witnessed and how unfair it all was. She could have described how there wasn’t enough help for the animals and how many animals died. But she didn’t. She chose to tell her story from a place of empowerment.
She knew she couldn’t control much of the situation, but what she could control, she was going to own.
NEUTRAL IS AN OPTION
Megan is a CVT in Illinois and a former coaching client of mine. She works in lab animal research, and part of her responsibility includes euthanizing the animals.
When we started working together, Megan was suffering from compassion fatigue and was very attached to thinking how unfair it is that these animals have to be euthanized. She also felt it was unfair that she is often the one to do it and that we have to use animal models in research.
Now, Megan thinks about it completely differently. She owns her role as a caregiver and welfare advocate for the animals in her care. She accepts that euthanasia is part of what she signed on to do. Does she love that part of her job? No. Yet she knows she can honor her animals’ sacrifice and give them a humane ending. She chooses to tell people her story from a neutral place: I work with animals in research. We learn from them and give them a peaceful death.
HERE COMES THE DRAMA
Earlier this year, an international veterinary association magazine interviewed me for an article on compassion fatigue. They also asked for a photo of me to include with the article, so I sent one of me and my beloved pug, Ernie. A few days later, I received a reply from the editor informing me that they “do not use photos of dogs or cats with known animal welfare issues such as brachycephalic breeds.”
My mind was going crazy, creating all kinds of stories about how they must think I’m a terrible person for having pugs, etc. I was feeling attacked, victimized, and offended. Mind you, the editor’s words were not attacking, victimizing or offensive…I created all that in my mind.
So because I had created this story in my mind, I wanted to add to the plot. I shot off an email to my pug’s breeder, who happens to be a veterinarian. Within minutes she responded and supported my outrage. I then texted a dear friend of mine, an owner of 2 Boston terriers (Brachycephalics Unite!). Bingo! She too joined the story I was creating in my mind.
End of Act 1.
Act 2. My mind offered me the “solution” of dropping out of the article. If they don’t like who I am—someone who adores pugs—then there is no place for me in the article. (Ridiculous, I know. But my mind was on a roll now.)
This is an example of option drama. Something happened (“no pugs in our magazine please!”), and I rallied others to join my outrage and strengthen it, to prove how “right” I was. I considered opting out of the article in passive-aggression.
I’m smart enough to know not to fire off emails in the heat of the moment, and once a little time had passed, I asked myself this question: What is my purpose here?
Is it to change the way international veterinary associations view pugs? No.
Is it to help the veterinary community know what compassion fatigue is and offer relief from their suffering? Yes.
So I aligned with my purpose of helping the veterinary community, sent in a new picture (sans pug), and now I tell the story like this: This international veterinary association doesn’t use photos with brachycephalic breeds, so I sent in another one.
While it may have taken some time for me to get to that place, this is an example of how we always have options in our interpretation of anything. The way you interpret something will dictate how you respond. The story you tell yourself and others is entirely up to you.
How we bounce back or return to our normal state after experiencing something challenging is an integral part of veterinary medicine—and life. The severity and frequency of trauma makes a difference. The less time we have between events, tragedies, and adversity, the more vulnerable we are to staying stuck in what I call “resisting reality.” When we resist reality, we suffer. When we spend our energy wanting things to be different than they are, we pay a big price.
Horrific and tragic things happen. Animals are euthanized, sometimes at young ages. Animals are abused and neglected. So are people. Children get sick and die. So do animals. Humans do terrible things. So do animals. It’s all part of life.
We deserve to feel sad sometimes, to grieve the loss of a being that touched our hearts in a profound way. It’s okay to feel what we feel. As a matter of fact, it is vital to feel what we feel. But remember you have options in how you tell the story to yourself and to others. You can tell just the facts (neutral), describe how you rose above it (empowerment), or get caught up in your story and create a whirlwind of emotion (drama) that has no benefit.
Your story is yours to tell. Make it a great one, because it is a great one.
1. American Psychological Association. The Road to Resilience. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx. Accessed August 2017.