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Getting the monkeys off your back - how not to take everything on

Posted in 1. Mental health resources @ Apr 26th 2017 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Make Headway
Getting The Monkeys Off Your Back How Not To Take Everything On

If you work in a veterinary practice, you'll know how diffcult it is to NOT take everything on....

There is a lovely little video on dvm360 (Not my circus, not my monkeys) where they use the analogy of loading more and more monkeys on your back as you go through your day.

The monkeys on your back represent the problems and struggles we face, along with those that we take on from people with whom we interact – things which may impact their ability to look after their pets or to work or to keep the home fires burning.

The video neatly represents the tendency that we people in the veterinary industry can have, to take everybody’s problems on as our own. Over time, the weight of the monkeys and the associated responsibility can drag us down and contribute to burnout - a big problem for our industry.

How do we stop loading the monkeys on our back and still do our job?

So what is the solution? Clearly, we want to have less monkeys sitting on our back. But how do we do this and remain the compassionate and helpful veterinary professionals that we aspire to be?

In my mind, the first step is always to look at the underlying motivation and ask yourself the questions – why do I do it? What drives me to take on everybody’s problems?

So what drives us to take on everybody's problems?

I asked myself these questions and came up with four reasons which could explain why we take on too much.

1. Problem solving has become an automatic reflex

Have you ever been in one of those conversations where you are telling your friend or partner about  a challenging discussion with a particular client - and all you want is some recognition of the fact that it was a tough situation that you handled well and all they want to do is to brainstorm the situation for you and point out what you could have done better?

As trained problem solvers, we can start to see the world as a series of problems that we personally need to solve. Believe it or not, some people simply want to be heard and acknowledged. So when somebody is telling you about their problems, try asking yourself, “is this a problem I need to solve or would it be helpful for me to simply listen, empathise with the person and ask them what I can do to help?”

2. Being busy and getting things done makes you feel validated and valued

As we progress from school through university/TAFE to work, we receive recognition and praise for the things we do well - our ATAR score, which training institution we went to, whether we got honours, awards, further qualifications, how quickly we can do a procedure etc.  This can write some deep neural pathways in us which link externally recognized achievements with our sense of self-worth – to the extent that we can feel as if we are unworthy if we are not achieving and doing all the time.

We may feel that if it is in our power, then we should do it. We strive and strive to meet other peoples’ expectations and to prove to them (and us) that we are worthy.  Rerouting our neural pathways and changing this way of interacting with the world takes a bit of work! Revisiting your values and then choosing to do things that are important to you whilst looking after yourself and keeping fuel in the tank is a good place to start.

3. You optimistically believe that you can work at maximal capacity at all times.

This is my personal favourite. At the beginning of your working day, when your fuel tank is full and you feel rested and full of energy, you think, yeah I can do that and yeah I can take that on – too easy. You plough on in, excited about the animals whose health you will improve and the clients and colleagues you will help. And on the very best of days, those 1 in a 100 days where everything goes totally to plan, you held your tongue at the right angle, the planets were aligned, and there were no distractions or interruptions or tasks that were a little harder than originally anticipated, you actually can do all that you hoped for.

On the other 99/100 days, normal life prevails , and there are backwards as well as forwards steps! The fuel level in your tank drops, you start getting cranky and wish that you had taken on a few less monkeys.

When we leave no room for the normal delays and distractions, we are likely to end our day with an uncompleted list and a sense of failure. Yuk! We feel much better about ourselves if we have realistic expectations of what we will achieve and then do it within the boundaries of our work day and with fuel left in the tank.  

4. You believe you are the best person for the job

Yep – you may well be great at managing difficult clients or doing orthopaedic surgery or working up complex cases. BUT you are only one person and can only do so many things. AND, nobody else will ever get better at these things if you don’t take the time to empower, train and support them to grow their skills. Delegating takes longer in the short term but it saves time in the longer term and, no matter how good you are, you need a team. So why don’t you help develop the people around you so that you can concentrate on the stuff that you love doing and that is important to you. Just because you can do and do it well, doesn’t mean you should do it!

What do you think?

Do you recognize your motivation for taking on too much or are your reasons something different again? Often we behave automatically, choosing to do things that really are not good for us long term. If we can recognize our behavioural patterns and work to change them, then we have the potential to reduce the number and weight of those monkeys. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

About Cathy

Cathy is a coach and well-being consultant/educator with Make Headway.  Prior to this, she worked as a veterinarian, trainer and manager in private, university and corporate practices for 25 years.  Please visit her site at to make an enquiry about coaching or to find out more.


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