Sometimes, since I started running, people say to me, “I don’t like to run outside because I think people are watching me and thinking how slow I am, or how I don’t look like a runner.”
This is, of course, ridiculous. Non-runners have no business deciding who looks like a runner and really have no idea how fast you are going. Runners are usually just jealous that you are running and they aren’t. Our ideas can have immense power over us even when they are totally inaccurate.
Veterinarians frequently suffer from something called Impostor Syndrome. This is a phenomenon that generally affects high-achieving individuals who are doing important, quality work, but are fearful of being discovered as a fraud. As a result we have trouble taking credit for our accomplishments or feeling like we deserve to be congratulated on them. We routinely perform invasive and technical surgical procedures, dispense advice that could save a life or end it, and prescribe drugs that could poison as easily as they could cure.
These are decisions we make dozens of times every day and the responsibility we assume when we make them is enormous. We feel that enormity when they go awry and are quick to blame ourselves, but when everything runs smoothly we can’t take any credit. We finish another hectic day of solving problems large and small and then it’s directly on to charts and calls. A nearly bloodless spay ends routinely with a neat row of invisible sutures and we’re off extracting a tooth on another pet without a moment’s thought. Someone sends a thank you note with a plate of cookies after we euthanize a pet and we feel a little guilty reading the note and eating the cookies – after all, we were just doing our job.
Since May 2015 I have been absorbed into the world of People Who Love To Run. I never understood why people ran for fun, until one day I went out and did it, and then kept doing it. Today I cannot imagine a life without the feeling of reaching out and pulling the road underneath me, one meter at a time. I rarely run with headphones now, preferring to fall into the rhythm of breathe in-step-step-breathe out and the soft sound of one small person moving through the atmosphere with no intention other than to disturb it as little as possible on the way from here to there. Running has become my church, my therapist, and my proof that even when the forced achievements of childhood are long behind you, it is OK to set new, seemingly impossible goals and just start aiming straight for them, head up, wings out, no limits.
And yet, even with all of that being absolutely true, it’s so easy to compare myself with other runners and feel like a fraud. My achievements are commonplace. My shortcomings are many. One distance – the first 5K, the first trail race, the first half marathon – is run and the next looms, casting a shadow that swallows the hard-won incredulous victory of a self-described non-athlete slowly realizing what her body has to offer.
The same type-A, driven personality that lies barely concealed beneath so many white coats is also a common trait among runners. We push ourselves so hard, only to feel we’ll never be good enough. What should be our greatest asset – the constant desire to improve, to learn, to show what we can do and strive to be the best we possibly can be – can also be a terrible handicap if we allow it to drift over the line into crippling self-doubt.
The delicate balance lies in the knowledge that we are doing something quite momentous as part of our daily routine. We know in our hearts that surgery is actually quite a big deal. We know we could easily make mistakes in any aspect of our jobs that could compromise the health of our patients in a disastrous way. We know our clients place enormous trust in our abilities, even if they don’t realize how many small miracles we perform – and rely on – every single day. But to sit down every morning and think hard about these things would be a fast track to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. We need to treat our jobs as if they are No Big Deal or we would find ourselves paralyzed at the start of every day. But this attitude also gives us permission to trivialize what we do, to avoid taking credit for a job well done, and to worry that we aren’t doing enough.
Marathon training is a serious thing. I know this from my first 36 years on the planet when I could not imagine running more than a mile at a time for any reason, and from the exclamations when I say I’m running late because of the 16 miler I had to get in before work. I’m surrounded by experienced runners, many-time marathoners who can trot along much more quickly than I can for much longer, for whom marathons are just a part of life as they know it. But even the most seasoned among them know that one of the most important rules of the marathon is this: whether it’s your first race or your hundredth, you must respect the distance.
Ultimately the marathon can and will derail your best-laid plans. With a sudden heat wave, a missed water station, or a cramp at mile 19, it can take your careful training and turn it on its head. So if you make it to the end, if you cross that finish line on two feet with your arms up and a smile on your face, you’d better take that moment and enjoy the heck out of it. It’s a really big deal. But to get there you have to get up every day and put your shoes on and hit the pavement, one foot in front of the other, even when it hurts, even when it rains, even when it’s so hot you can’t imagine how you will get through to the end. To focus too hard on the Bigness of the task ahead of you would be to fail yourself before you even got out of bed. But the promise of that finish line, glimmering at the end of many weeks of tired feet, quietly pulls you along until you’re moving of your own volition, remembering how much you can do, and how much you love to do it.
We vets need to remember the finish line moment too. How many times have you tackled a disaster case, or a difficult surgery, or a skeptical client, and emerged victorious – only to move on to the next challenge without a moment’s pause to appreciate your own work and absorb it? Next time take a minute after your fat dog spay and hold that virtual medal up. Get a selfie with the parvo puppy you pulled back from the brink – you earned it. You did that. Maybe you pulled three horrible teeth in a cat with resorptive lesions, and got all the roots out and sutured those flaps like a boss. Good on you! Remind yourself later that you rock. The beautiful young dog who grew all his hair back because you diagnosed his allergies would love to be a photo in your “I don’t suck” file.
Celebrate those victories because they may be just a blip on your daily radar, but to those animals you just crossed the only finish line that matters. Don’t let your self-protective instinct, the one that says, “This is just my job – thousands of people do it every day,” trick you into believing you’re not great at what you do. Respect the distance. Know things can go wrong. But celebrate the crap out of it when they don’t.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
About the Author
Dr. Katie Berlin is a small animal general practitioner in Mechanicsburg, PA. She is also a reader, a rider, a runner, a lifter, a teacher, and an art lover. She graduated from Williams College in 2000 with a degree in Art History and worked in art museums before going back to school and earning her DVM from Cornell in 2009. She is an avid supporter of Fear Free practice and the battle against compassion fatigue in the veterinary profession.