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I am going to put this right out there for your consideration even though I can already hear many of you preparing your arguments to let me know that I can’t possibly understand just how challenging all the difficult people in your life might be. I mean, I am preparing those arguments even as I type. If you are anything like me, you will immediately bristle as you read the quote below and have a million reasons why it can’t possibly be true.

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. Carl Jung

Can I be real for a second? It is more comfortable for me to point out all the flaws in other people than reflect on the ways in which I might be annoying. It is much easier to blame others for all the struggles I face in my own life. And if I am really being honest, it makes me feel better about myself when I comment on the sad state of those around me. At best, this approach to life buys us some temporary relief, but leaves us stuck in place and unlikely to learn and grow. At worst, failing to look in the mirror every once in a while will lend itself to a continuation of patterns that potentially cause harm to others and ourselves.

I fully recognize that what I am going to ask you to do in this reflection will be hard and potentially scary. It may lead to uncomfortable feelings and perhaps some stress. Thankfully, you are in control of how deep you go and how intensely and specifically you look at yourself. Our experience at the Veterinary Leadership Institute is that this type of self-reflection, though challenging, has the potential to help you find fulfillment in veterinary medicine because it shifts the locus of control from external to internal ( we are going to lead well and thrive in veterinary medicine, we must do the hard work of peeling back our layers. Our feelings about others are a great way to do that. I am hopeful that the questions below will help you better understand yourself.

  1. Think about a person who you find irritating.
  2. Identify, as specifically as possible, all the traits and/or behaviors of this person that are irritating to you.
  3. As you are thinking about this person, be aware of what is happening in your body. Are your shoulders tensing up? Is your heart rate becoming elevated? Have you furrowed your brow? How is your breathing? Has your posture changed? Make notes about your physiological response to thinking about this person and their behaviors.
  4. Take a few moments to do some tactical breathing. Tactical breathing is a strategy used by the military, first responders and athletes in order to calm down, reduce stress, focus, manage stress and reduce worry and nervousness.

  1. As soon as you are relaxed and feel in control of your thoughts, answer the following questions: Do I see anything in myself that is similar to the person I have been thinking about and the things about that person that I find irritating? If yes, what are the similarities? What do I gain by being annoyed with someone else instead of working on my own issues? What specific steps can I take to better understand this issue within myself? If no, what specific strategies can I employ to manage my irritation with this person (keeping in mind that the only person I can change is me)?

Using this exercise in my own life has resulted in a profound positive change in my overall well-being as well as significant improvement in both my personal and professional relationships. And although I am not sure EVERYTHING that irritates us about others will lead us to better understanding of ourselves, the research suggests that it is often true. Looking in the mirror and taking time to reflect on what we see can be difficult. But it is like any other skill. It takes practice and support from trusted members of our community. The VLI community is here to travel this road with you. Here’s to doing the hard work together in 2020.


Betsy Charles

Betsy loves being a veterinary radiologist and trying to make the world a better place. When not reading films, teaching veterinary students, or when she takes a break from trying to make a positive difference for the profession, she enjoys having meaningful and authentic conversation with all who cross her path, developing young entrepreneurs as they pursue their passions, riding her horse Lenny, reading, and hiking with her red heeler, Sadie.

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