The Abusive Client

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I have a love-hate relationship with the closed veterinary groups on social media. I get annoyed by the negativity and complaining that often creeps into posts, and the passive aggressive (and sometimes not so passive!) squabbles that pop up all too often has made me delete the offending app from my phone on more than one occasion. Call it ‘technological social distancing’. But it’s the sincere requests for help and the overwhelming amount of caring responses that always draw me back in. A few days ago a member posted a question about how to deal with an abusive client. Not your run-of-the-mill dissatisfied client who lets off some steam and then disappears – we’re talking about the ones who keep harassing you days and weeks after the inciting event is over. These are the ones where the threats and insults have you spending much more time worrying about them than you’d like, and that can leave lasting scars in your trust in humanity. I went through a similar situation recently, with the corpse of that entire interaction still lying in a very shallow grave in my subconscious. What follows is my response to that post on how I keep myself emotionally and mentally safe in similar situations. I hope it helped, and while I hope you don’t need this advice too often during your career,  perhaps it will be of some use to you one day. 

The others have covered the practical matters very well: ie, once you’ve covered the practical issues, tried your best to reach a amicable agreement, checked what the worst outcome could be and made provisions for that ‘worst case scenario’, then I’d cut all direct communication as the others suggested. For me that means blocking their phone number and email, because even just seeing something pop up from them will upset me all over. I direct them to the Vet Board and encourage them to make a formal complaint, and tell them that any further correspondence will need to be through the board via our lawyers.

Then you’re left with the emotional fallout: those lovely conversations that you have in your head at 3 in the morning when your subconscious goes over and over what you said, what you should have said, and what you’d like to say. I struggle with this – I hate conflict, and I hate it when I let someone down, so whenever I have REAL conflict in my life I tend to seriously ruminate over it. Here are a few things I’ve learnt in recent years that has helped me in similar situations:

1. Learn to identify where my thoughts go. It’s so easy to slip into negative thought loops without even realising it. For me this means some form of mindfulness training and meditation.

2. Recognise what my mind is trying to do: it’s trying to protect future me by replaying the situation so I can learn from it. Useful in moderation, toxic when done in excess. So once I’ve given it a reasonable amount of thought and I’m happy that I’ve learnt what I needed to learn I’ll tell myself (out loud!): “Thanks brain, I know you’re trying to help me, but I think we’ve got this covered. Now let’s move along.” 

3. Ask myself: “Is anything that this person is saying true?“ Am I /was I dishonest or wilfully trying to deceive? Am I a bad person? If the answer is yes, then I need to grow, and I’ll focus on what I need to do to achieve that growth. If the answer is no…

4. Ask myself: “Do I WANT to be this upset about this?” Because as much as the other person is the trigger for my emotions – my response and my emotions are 100% mine. Once I’ve established that ‘this is not how I want to feel today, nor where I want to spend my energy or what I want allocate my attention to”, then it’s much easier to go – ‘you know what, F… this, I’m moving on.’

5. Ask myself: “Did I really think my life would be without problems?” I’m prone to indulging in pity-parties: “I don’t deserve this, why me…”, but the reality is that life is a series of problems that need to be solved, so when a biggie comes my way I need to distance myself from feelings of ‘the world is out to get me’ and see it as just another problem to solve.

Good luck. The good news is that a week or a month or a year from now you’ll laugh at how upset this made you.

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