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Fear of failure

It is healthy for those in the veterinary profession to have some fear of failure, but can that fear prevent progress?

16 April 2018, at 4:07pm

When the word ‘fail’ changes from being a verb (“I might fail at that”) to a noun (“I am a failure”), then we are verging on ‘atychiphobia’ – a phobia of failure. In the veterinary profession, a healthy fear of failure makes us strive for the best clinical outcome. 

However, when we are so gripped with this fear that we lose sleep, avoid bitch spays, and procrastinate about interventional treatments, we are doing our patients and ourselves a disservice. 

When researching the various self-help guides on how to overcome fear of failure, many advise us to ‘give it a go’, ‘believe in yourself’, and remark that ‘only through failure can we gain knowledge’.

By changing the way we think, we can change the way we feel and in turn, change our actions

The Dalai Lama advises: “If you are afraid because you have no self-confidence and feel that nothing you do will ever succeed, stop a while to think it over. Try to see why you imagine you are a loser before you have even started. The problem stems from your way of thinking, not from real ineptitude.”  

Given that the Dalai Lama isn’t referring to vets or doctors here, where failure can be catastrophic, it can be hard to apply this insight to our situation. Having said that, often the problem does stem from our way of thinking more than from past failures. By changing the way we think, we can change the way we feel and in turn, change our actions. 

Fear has been described as a ‘mind killer’, an ‘eradicator of potential’ and an ‘eraser of personal progress’. So how do we stop fearing fear? And then, how do we stop fearing failure?

Approaches to tackling fear of failure 

Some counsellors use acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with mindfulness. Instead of repressing or avoiding the procedures or interventions that we fear, in ACT the focus is placed on accepting the feeling of being fearful, but still taking action. In other words, tackling the fear head-on. Fear is a conception. It is a valid feeling, but it is an emotion nonetheless. 

Others will use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to relieve the anxiety associated with fear of failure in a particular situation.

For example, if spaying an overweight Labrador is a procedure you would never tackle for fear of failing, and supposing that fear is paralysing you, you can apply a few basic CBT concepts to the situation: 

1 and 2 Disputing irrational beliefs and doing your cognitive homework 

Instead of believing that if you spay that bitch, she will bleed out and die, try to be rational about the chances of that patient actually bleeding out and dying. Yes, there is that risk. However, it is minimal.

3 Change your language in order to change your thought process 

Instead of “I’m not spaying that bitch because she will bleed to death”, try saying “I will spay that bitch. However, I may need help if she starts to bleed.” In this way, you are changing from a ‘can’t do’ attitude to a ‘can do’ attitude and putting a strategy in place in case your fears are realised. 

4 Shame attacking exercises 

There is little to be gained from feeling shameful because you aren’t ‘up to the job’. Steer away from self-flagellation. 

5 Imagery and role play 

I, and many other surgeons, will play out a procedure in my mind before the actual event. It helps to plan and to focus. It might be useful, prior to the bitch spay, to imagine the procedure from incision to closure. Then imagine it including the ligature slip and bleeding, and visualise yourself finding the vessel and ligating it. 

6 Desensitisation 

It may be stating the obvious, but the more often you spay large bitches (albeit with someone more experienced available to scrub in if necessary), the less it will frighten you. Of course, the more often you tackle a bleeding pedicle, the easier it will become also. 

7 Skills training 

This is a good way to boost your confidence and could involve CPD opportunities, such as training with wet labs.

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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