Regardless of where you are in your career or life, it’s worth pausing to evaluate whether you are living the life you want. As part of that, you need to know whether you can be your true self at work. It’s important to stay true to yourself in veterinary practice. This might seem like an extravagant or unnecessary idea, although I’m going to argue otherwise.
When we behave in a way that’s not consistent with our true selves, whether on a one-time or a repeated basis, it causes our body to endure stress. This is because our body perceives threat when we behave in a way that’s inconsistent with our values. Over time, humans have relied on their ability to detect and respond to threat for their survival. One’s ability to see a predator in the environment determines that person’s ability to live to see the next day. As such, evolution has helped ensure that we take any threat that we detect seriously.
In the world today, we experience fewer physical threats than our ancestors did 3,000 years ago. However, we do still experience threats related to our social standing, our emotional well-being and our sense of self.
When situations arise in which we feel we cannot act as our true selves, we often experience threats against our emotional well-being and our sense of self. There are a number of different responses to this type of threat. All of them require additional energy that leaves us with diminished resources to devote to our chosen activities.
Staying true to ourselves is one way to grow and develop our resilience. In contrast to focusing on ways to manage burnout or recover from compassion fatigue, we can devote energy and resources to being true to ourselves as a critical component of avoiding these experiences in the first place.
Burnout stems from a perceived lack of resources to deal with perceived demands. When we stay true to ourselves, we support a robust pipeline of resources. This can help prevent the signs and consequences of resource limitation, such as burnout. Compassion fatigue is a combination of burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS).
As mentioned above, trauma or threat can occur in response to a number of different situations. Another that relates directly to veterinary practice is when we are asked to do something that is against our set of values. For instance, falsify paperwork or perform procedures we feel are not in the best interest of the animal.
Simply being put in these situations, regardless of whether we act according to our set of ethics or not, can result in moral distress. The consequences to ourselves can be greater when we cannot or do not act in accordance with our own moral code. This again reinforces the need to find ways to practice in alignment with our true selves.
Who Are You?
When we consider what we would need to do to stay true to ourselves in veterinary practice, the first question we must address is who we are. What are our values, priorities, purposes and ethical principles? What type of person do we want to be? While these questions might seem simple, answering them is often not easy.
For many of us, the journey through the veterinary medical education system is transformative. We sacrifice many things to pursue our dream of becoming veterinarians. Much of the time, this happens incrementally. We hardly notice the parts of ourselves that are lost while striving to get into and graduate from veterinary school.
There were (and are) benefits to limiting our focus for short periods of intense activity or learning. Given the demands of the program and the academic and extracurricular requirements for entry, it’s possible that we might not have succeeded if our attentions had remained divided. That said, we must consider the consequences to this narrowing of ourselves. Despite veterinary school being a relatively short part of our overall journey as veterinarians, it shapes the type of people and practitioners that we are and will be in the future.
In my case, I realized that I had lost sight of the person I wanted to be a couple of years after graduation when I went to write an online dating profile. In trying to write a short biography that described what was important to me, I realized that I had not engaged in many of the activities that I was proclaiming to love in at least eight years. At that point, eight years was over a quarter of my life. I sat there, feeling a bit lost. I wondered whether telling strangers that these were things that I loved was misrepresenting myself. And yet, how could sharing them be a lie when they were true before? And I certainly did hope they would be true again.
I wish I could tell you that from that moment on I began an almost single-minded journey to rediscover (or discover anew) the person that I was and what was important to me. But that’s just not what happened. Slowly, though, I did begin to engage with the larger world. Over the past decade and a bit, have found myself being someone that my younger self would recognize. I began to stay true to myself in veterinary practice.
Learning about ourselves requires intentional exploration and reflection, which can be accomplished in a number of ways. A quick Google search for “how to find your true self ” will provide you with a plethora of different avenues to pursue. Feel free to explore those that feel right. Do consider that only you can know your true self. So, it is important to turn inward, rather than looking to others to answer these questions for you.
Keeping a journal with your thoughts and observations can be a meaningful way to keep track of your progress. It’s also important to note that we are always changing. So, we need to frequently check in with ourselves to ensure that the qualities we have identified with in the past still feel accurate.
Sticking to the Path of Staying True in Veterinary Practice
Having an idea of who we are is a critical first step on a long path of actually “being” ourselves. How do we boldly and confidently “be ourselves,” particularly when we might have colleagues or clients who have different values, or with whom our true selves clash with over certain things? How can you stay true to yourself in veterinary practice amongst differing belief systems?
One of the ways to help ensure that we stick to our paths is to develop robust inward- and outward-facing boundaries. Boundaries are the rules and guidelines we have for how we interact with the world. Given this definition, it’s simple to see how we can leverage boundaries to help us stay true to ourselves. We need boundaries to protect us. Boundaries create space so we can go about the hard work of being that person.
Inward-facing boundaries are those that protect our sense of selves—including our values, purpose, thoughts and intentions.
One of the greatest risks to our ability to be ourselves is the pressure we feel to conform to the expectations of others or of societal norms.
Inward-facing boundaries help us keep in touch with who we are. They help us recognize when our sense of self is being threatened. This allows us to respond in a way that protects ourselves instead of compromising.
Outward-facing boundaries are those that relate to how we interact with the outside world. They dictate everything from how we chose to spend our energy to the hours we work. Outward-facing boundaries are essential because they create space in our lives for us to do the things that matter most. Another consideration is to cultivate a social circle that fosters your ability to be yourself. A wise friend once shared with me the idea of “islands of sanity,” a strategy described by Dr. Meg Wheatley. She described the value of “safe, caring and compassionate spaces for meaningful conversations with others to help us move out of our survival mode and into a more humane mode.” These types of spaces, where we are able to engage with others that help build us up and engage fully with ourselves and others, can be tremendous gifts when working toward living our true selves.
There is no destination when it comes to being your true self or being able to stay true to yourself in veterinary practice. It is a daily practice. Some days we’ll do better than others, and that’s expected and OK.
There’s a caveat to consider: In some circumstances, it is not safe to be our true selves, whether that is because of the hateful beliefs of others or otherwise. In those situations, awareness of when we turn away from ourselves can help us heal from the damage that results from needing to hide that part of ourselves. Finally, know that we can get lost in many different parts of our lives, not just work. No matter where we lose ourselves, the path back is the same. It starts with a choice and a commitment to the effort of walking that path.