Emotional Blackmail – When Words Hurt Your Veterinarian

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Last week I had some emergency medicine colleagues share with me a shocking statement said to them by some pet parents after they were presented with a medical treatment plan for their fur baby. The owners weren’t prepared for the cost of their pet’s emergency medical care. They were embarrassed, and as is human nature, they became immediately defensive.

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Their tactic: passively aggressively attack with a biting rhetorical question:

“How do you sleep at night?”

Such a statement is a blatant form of emotional blackmail, a cruel method of communication designed to get one what they want. Many veterinarians – paralyzed by the fear of angering a client and receiving a negative social media review that could destroy their reputation – cave to the pressure of emotional blackmail. They reduce costs for this type of client. They offer a discount to appease the owner. They financially compromise their ability to offer the best possible care for future patients all in the name of appeasing the emotional blackmailer.  

Emotional Blackmail & Emotional Intelligence

I’ve been working in animal hospitals since I was ten years old. The number of times I’ve heard a pet parent say to other veterinarians and/or me, “If you really cared about animals, then you’d treat my pet for free” or “You don’t care! If you did, then you’d give us a discount” is truly innumerable. When I was a younger veterinarian, my initial reaction to such ridiculous blackmailing statements was to get angry – really angry! How dare someone say that to me?! To have my integrity as a veterinarian questioned was infuriating. It was insulting. It was downright hurtful.

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Now as a seasoned clinician, my skin has thickened. Heck, I’m figuratively covered in emotional calluses from owner-induced verbal wounds. I also now have the emotional intelligence to know pet parents who make such nasty remarks aren’t truly bad folks. They’re scared. They’re worried about their pet. They’re anxious about paying for the medical care their pet needs. Let’s face it. The average human doesn’t possess effective coping skills for such fear and anxiety. This lack of emotional intelligence – as psychology and behavioral science experts call it – often manifests as pet parents lashing out at the very individuals ardently working to help their fur babies.   

Now after more than a decade and a half practicing as a board-certified veterinary specialist, such statements meant to emotionally blackmail typically bounce off me. In my mind I hear myself initially saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue” and subsequently, “What can I do to help allay this person’s fear?”

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To be honest, getting to this place hasn’t been easy. I’m now cynical, and I fully admit it’s hard to want to help someone who lashes out at me even if such behavior is simply a manifestation of their fear and anxiety. But I do. Veterinarians – across the board – do so every single day!

Veterinarians have historically “sucked it up” for the sake of our patients. We deal with emotional blackmail and other verbal abuse because we want to help pets, even if their families are the ones hurting us the most. But, as Bob Dylan wrote, “the times they are a changin’.” While veterinarians will always be steadfastly devoted to animal healthcare, we’re increasingly standing up for ourselves and no longer tolerating bad behavior from pet parents. We’re showing these abusive clients to the door, wishing them the best in their search for another veterinarian who can meet their unique needs and demands. Why? In the words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Emotional Blackmail & Mental Health

Not every veterinarian can brush off the emotional blackmailing of some pet parents. I definitely see these owner outbursts negatively affect my younger colleagues just as they did me early in my career. The fact is words can hurt. They can hurt just as much as physical abuse. Verbal abuse like emotional blackmail erodes a veterinarian’s self-esteem until one potentially feels inadequate as a clinician. The feeling of inadequacy wears on one’s soul and can negatively affect mental health. Even if a pet parent doesn’t mean to inflict verbal wounds, the damage is done!

I’m reminded of a poignant lyric from the song, “Every Rose Has
It’s Thorn”, originally performed by the 80s band, Poison:

 “Like a knife that cuts you, the wound heals but the scar remains.

Veterinarians are figuratively covered in scars left by the cutting words of some pet parents. For too many colleagues – young and seasoned alike – the wounds and scars prove too much. There is an epidemic of suicide in the veterinary profession, one about which I’ve previously written here. There are several factors influencing a veterinarian’s decision to die by suicide. One of them is undeniably emotional blackmail and verbal abuse inflicted by some pet parents. I know that truth may be hard to hear, but it is – nevertheless – a documented fact. Veterinarians would much prefer to partner with collaborative families to help ensure pets receive the best possible healthcare. 

Despite damaging verbal abuse from some pet parents, most veterinarians keep doing what they love doing – caring for animals and helping their families. I still remember standing up in the now demolished James Law Auditorium at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, raising my right hand and reciting the Veterinarian’s Oath. I cried. That oath means something.

Veterinarians are increasingly aware of the epidemic of suicide in our profession. We’re not shying away from discussing it. We’re being transparent about this issue. Perhaps, most importantly, we’re starting to stand up for ourselves. We’re advocating for our mental health while still helping our patients and their families to the best of our abilities. We’re speaking up and out about the various factors negatively affecting a veterinarian’s mental health, including client factors. Enough is enough!

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So, to the owner who asked my colleagues, “How do you sleep at night?”, I say, “typically on my stomach covered by a dream-inducing gravity blanket so I wake up refreshed and ready to help my next patient!”

To read more about suicide in the veterinary profession, please read this article published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.

Wishing you wet-nosed kisses,

CriticalCareDVM

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