Episode 73

The Secret Formula of Life, Part II: Vanquishing the Villain Voices

Emotional Intelligence: The Secret of Success See All Episodes »

As we learned on the last episode, everyone has voices in their heads that influence their day-to-day life—for the better and the worse. Once we become aware of those voices and can identify who is speaking at any given time, that’s when we can begin to implement the secret formula of life… in other words, find success, happiness, and fulfillment!

Today, we welcome back Amy VanDeWater of Glue Veterinary Coaching for the second installment in our series on emotional intelligence, a.k.a. our ability to be aware of and manage our emotions and the emotions of others. She believes EQ is a superpower that can have a massive impact on our lives, and the sooner we learn to wield that power, the sooner we can achieve our heroic quest to find happiness, success, and fulfillment.

In this episode, Amy defines the second tenet of EQ: Self-management. Along with self-awareness, this is the cornerstone of the secret formula of life. Once we have achieved self-awareness, we can use the formula to begin reprogramming our brain’s default responses and gradually improve our experience. With a little bit of work, this can be the key to fulfillment, both professionally and personally!

Episode Guest


Amy VanDeWater

With 35+ years of experience in the field, Amy is the founder of Glue Veterinary Coaching, where she brings a real-world approach to helping veterinary teams and managers maximize their impact and fulfillment. Learn More »

Photo by Dmitry on Unsplash


Krysten Bennett: So just a quick recap for our listeners. Last time, we talked about the first EQ skill of self awareness, and today we’re moving on to self-management. Amy, can you explain to us what that is?

Amy VanDeWater: Yeah. So this is what I refer to as the secret formula of life. It is part of the second core skill of EQ, which is self-management. The actual definition of self-management is being able to proactively manage our response to something, instead of reacting. We all react, every day: What often ends up happening is someone says or does something that we don’t like, and then we just have this explosive mouth diarrhea, where we say all of the things that are coming from our feelings. So that’s a reaction, and we do it all the time. We do it all day, right? And maybe it doesn’t even come out of your mouth. Maybe it’s just in your head, you’re having that reaction, which is just as exhausting from an energy standpoint. So with EQ, and specifically with self-management and using this formula, we’re able to actually respond in a way that’s going to help us move things forward in a way that’s easier and more pleasant for us and the other person that we’re interacting with. When I talk about this with veterinary teams, we discuss it in terms of, if there’s intention behind it. So we are experiencing something or someone that’s very challenging, and then, instead of just jumping in with that immediate reaction, we kind of hit pause for a moment. And we say, “Okay, how do I want to, how do I choose to respond? And so that is part of that formula and the steps that we go through to choose to make a response or have a response that is going to have a positive impact on us and other people.

KB: Okay, now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we can get into the reason we reached out to you in the first place, and that is your secret formula of life, which is something we’ve been teasing in this and the previous episode. I have to admit though, it sounds too good to be true. So I’m just gonna come right out and ask you, is there really a secret formula to life and does it involve math?

AV: There is absolutely! I promise you there is no math involved, especially not common core math. That would be disastrous. The formula involves only letters. So as long as you’re comfortable with letters, we’re good to go.

Mia Cunningham: So, Amy, as we know, life can get complicated, and I’m sure that we could all use just a little bit of help. So what problems does your secret formula actually solve for us?

AV: So when I do this in real life with real people, the first skill that we talk about is self-awareness, because we can’t start managing the voices in our heads until we can understand and anticipate them. That’s what we’ve got to figure out first. Then the next step that just builds on that is self-management. And so the way that I like to discuss self-management is using the secret formula of life, which is actually a form of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). It’s the original version of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which a lot of people know about nowadays, right? They’ve been to any therapist or talked to someone who’s been to a therapist. It’s a really common approach to better managing the things that we experience in life.

So the reason why I talk about it in the forms of REBT is because there’s a formula with it. When we’re talking about anything that’s about changing our brain, that’s neuroplasticity: How do we rewire our brain from running down paths that we have run down over and over and over for 40 years? If you automatically respond to change as a Marge—which is like me, that’s where my brain instinctively goes, then I’ve got this super clear Marge path in my brain, and that my brain goes, “Oh, we got to change, where should we go?” And it goes right down the Marge path, right? So what we’re doing with the secret formula of life is starting to clear off new paths, giving our brain a different option—a different option that actually feels better and causes us less of that change in physiology that feels like a threat, where our whole nervous system is responding with this intense response to a stressor. So, that’s really what we’re doing with the secret formula. But the reason I love it is because it, step by step, take us through the process to form those new neural pathways.

KB: Awesome. Okay, so now that we know what this top secret formula does, do we need to get top secret clearance to hear what the actual formula is? Or can you go ahead and share that with us?

AV: Oh, absolutely. So it’s A plus B equals C, divided by D, which is less than E.

KB: We’ll include the formula in the show notes for all those listeners who, like me, are visual learners. But I’ve got to admit, that sounds a lot like math to me. Can you explain what the letters stand for and break it down for us with some examples?

AV: So the letter A stands for activating event, which is anything that happens to you, anything you experience. It can be something someone said; it can be your uncomfortable chair; it can be anything that has a negative impact on you in the moment.

B is the belief, and the belief is equal to what the voices are saying in your head at that moment. So if I had a little too much time with Vicky the victim—like, she pops into my head a lot when I’m feeling tired and overworked and stressed, and I get all into this whole “oh, everything’s so hard for me; it’s so much harder for me than it is for anybody else.”

A perfect example of an activating event and then the belief that follows would be if I am traveling and, you know, trains, planes, automobiles all day long, and I finally get to the hotel and I’m exhausted, and I’m carrying all my stuff in, and then my key doesn’t work. That’s Trigger getting me with the pokey thing. And immediately it’s like I just drop into a puddle of “woe is me; I can’t believe this happening.” And then I’ve got Marge angry at whoever messed up the key. And nobody messed up the key! They did the key the way the keys was to happen, and I probably put it next to my phone, right? But then that whole string of the voices, you know, going on, and then Evie the energy vampire being like, “Oh, and you’re gonna have to walk all the way back down there. Are you going to leave your stuff here?” And then Wendy the worrier’s like, “Oh, no, don’t leave your stuff here. If you leave your stuff here, you’re not going to have it, and someone’s going to steal it. What are you gonna do? Oh my god.”

So do you see what happens? Just talking about it, I can feel all that energy going out. So that’s what’s really happening when we get in that belief place where we’re listening to any of what I think of as the villain voices, right? They’re loud in there. Like, they got all the things to say. And if you just let them keep talking, they’re gonna tell you why this is the worst thing in the world and whose fault it is and all of that. And so that’s where we are with belief.

Then the next letter is C, which is the consequence. So when we think about the consequence, what we’re looking at is: okay, what is this costing me? So in the case of, let’s say, someone is interacting at a practice with a rude client, the obvious first consequence is, if we’re listening to Marge in our head or whoever who’s going on about how rude that was, and who do they think they are? And you know what a jerk and all those things. The consequence there is energy, number one—what I think of as the energy dog bones. So we are spending energy from our daily energy budget on this person who was rude. Is that where we want to invest ourselves?

That’s a big consequence, but then there’s always these deeper consequences. In the case of a rude client, whether someone’s in the exam room or at the front desk or on the phone, it doesn’t matter. The next person that you talk to, you’re gonna put on that happy face, right? And you’re going to do the things, you’re going to say, “Oh, welcome to blah-blah-blah,” and try and be that warm, welcoming presence. But the reality is, if you are listening to Marge in your head at that point, your effort to be kind and welcoming cannot land in the way you intend, because people are wired to feel it when it’s fake. We think we’re getting away with it. But people are wired—and they might not even be able to verbalize it—but you are going to interact in a slightly different way with that next person that you talk to. And depending on what the initial activating event is, it could be that, for the rest of the day, you’re going to be interacting with people differently.

It’s like we’re giving away our power. We’ve got these tiny, tiny little chunks of time with these clients, right? It’s such a tiny little blip over the course of a year. And if we aren’t able to shut down those voices in that moment, the consequence becomes, what is our ability to actually practice and provide the best care when we can’t talk to someone effectively about something really important for them? If we’re listening to Vicky the victim, who says “They’re not even listening to you. Look at them, their eyes are glazed over, they’re not listening to you. Why do you keep talking? I mean, this is kind of worthless. Why should we even be trying? This guy isn’t listening to me at all.” You see how that is? And so you cannot be engaged in that conversation in that way. The obvious consequence is almost always going to be energy that you’re giving up that you can’t take home with you now. And then there’s always that deeper consequence where, in this case, we are handcuffing ourselves to the level of care we can provide for the people that are coming in next. So that’s the consequence.

So D is disputation. This is where the magic happens. So you know, with the B, with the belief, what we’re doing is really self-awareness. We’re listening for the voices in our head. With the C, by recognizing what those consequences are, we’re convincing ourselves that this is no good. The way that I’m responding—like, all Marge or whatever you’re doing—that this is not good for me, and it’s not good for other people. It’s worth me making the effort, right? Because we’ve got to convince our brain here that this is worth it.

And so with disputation, you have two options and two options only: You can either figure out an action that you can take to try and improve the situation, or you can figure out a way to accept it. That is it. Because here’s what happens—and you’re never going to look at a house fly the same after I share this example with you. In fact, I hope you picture the house fly that slams his little body against the window in your house, I hope you’re seeing my face on it. Because here’s what we do. We get in this spot where we are stuck in complaining, right? Complaining is just like when you’ve got a fly in your house or on your windshield or whatever. And they are slamming their little fly head over and over and over into the glass. Are they ever gonna get through there? No, they’re not, but they’re going to keep slamming their body against it over and over and over and over, until finally they’re left on the little window ledge with their little legs sticking up in the air. That’s it for them. They’re done.

So when we get stuck in that spot of just complaining about the things that we don’t like in our life, we are the fly. We are the fly, just banging our head over and over into something that is never going to change if we don’t do something about it. Imagine how much energy that takes. We just sit in that complaining space. So, the only options with disputation are either figure out an action that can possibly make things better, or figure out a way to accept it. That is it. Everything else, you’re just a common housefly.

E is the evolution. E is, you do the disputation, you either take an action to attempt to make it better or you find a way to truly accept it—not accept it and keep complaining, right, because that’s not evolving. It’s truly saying, “This is just part of it. This is part of the gig.” Right? Or, “This is part of being married: My husband forgetting to handle the trash every single day, and so the raccoons get it every single night.” That’s part of being married. I don’t know why he can’t change it, but I can’t change it for him. I’m not taking the garbage out. So I’m not going to take that possible action. Or I could take the garbage and put it all in the front seat of his truck. That’s a possible action. But is that moving me closer to a place where this is gonna feel better? I mean, I’ll feel real good in the moment, but not long term. It’s not a long-term solution, so it’s not a good possible action. And I don’t want to take over the garbage; I’m not going to take that action.

So I am choosing to not take any of the possible actions. All I’m left with is figuring out a way to accept it. We’ve been married 25 years now, and before I learned EQ, I spent about 15 of them, like, swearing at my husband every morning when I found the garbage on the front deck. Like, literally, every day saying, “What kind of human being does this every single day over and over?” All the bad things. But now that I figured out I want to accept it, and I accepted it by remembering that he is an amazing dad. He is incredibly supportive. And the reason why he forgets is that he works super hard. He does hard labor. He’s a house painter, and he does hard labor. And when he comes home and sits down in his happy little red chair and he kicks his little feet back and starts watching his dumb reality TV shows, he’s not getting back up. He’s done. And that’s why he forgets it. Right? And so I’m okay with that. Now he actually sends me pictures of the garbage disasters, so that I can include them in my presentations when I talk about self-management. We’re in a place now where I’ll text him in the morning if I get out there first and I’ll be like, “Dude, you are in big trouble. Raw chicken in between the deck boards. Good luck!” We actually laugh about it now. And that’s all I did. It was just self-awareness and self-management. Does that make sense?

KB: Oh my gosh, so much sense. Like, can we do a separate podcast on marriage advice?

AV: It’s so funny that you say that, because I have had numerous times after doing a workshop with a group, and they’ll say, “You need to have people invite their spouses.” But you know, I am so not qualified for anything in that realm. But it is a testament, and I think that is such a powerful story, because it shows how the choices are ours. It’s our choice. I’m not a victim to a husband that forgets to take the garbage to the garage every night. To look at myself that way when I’ve got this great guy, he’s super annoying, but this great guy who’s a great parent and an incredibly supportive spouse… who cares? And there’s that empowerment in that. That I think is just so juicy. It’s so powerful.

KB: Speaking of juicy, did he clean up the raw chicken?

AV: Oh, yes. He would not dare not clean it up. I mean, that’s where I’m gonna draw the line! Luckily, he not only is a house painter, but also does power washing. So he has access at his fingertips to a power washer. But it is difficult to get coffee grounds out of the deck boards. So I’ve just learned to kind of live with that. It’s just what it is. And it’s kind of funny. And gross and mostly funny. I don’t really want people to come to my door anyways, so I’m not worried about whether it’s welcoming or not.

KB: That’s even better than one of those sarcastic “go away” doormats. Somebody gets close enough, and they smell it, and they’re gone.

AV: Super passive-aggressive. I love it. No, we’d love for you to visit; you just have to walk through, you know, the lepto-infested deck from the raccoons that have been peeing on it. Love it.

KB: Okay, so, we’re not on a marriage podcast. We’re on a veterinary podcast. So let’s reel it back in and talk a little bit about why self-awareness and self-management are so important within a veterinary context. What are some of those tangible benefits that veterinary professionals can see?

AV: For sure. You know, the first half of EQ, the first two foundational areas, which are self-awareness and self-management, that’s all about you, right? It’s all about what’s happening inside your head. And it’s all about how you are managing your experiences each day and your responses. The next two parts of EQ are social awareness and relationship management.

Social awareness is then where we shift focus into: What is this person feeling right now? What do they need to hear from me in order to be moved to take action? Can they hear me right now? Or are they so deeply in—they’ve got their own voices that are talking in this very emotional, heavy spot—that there’s no point in me trying to use logic or reason in that moment, because they can’t hear me? So they got to know that I understand first, and that I can empathize first. So that’s all social awareness.

And then relationship management is where we very intentionally build connections with people using all the other emotional intelligence skills that we have. Those connections are so valuable, because that’s how we earn trust, is through genuine connections with people. And that trust is then how we earn influence, and there is nothing more important in a veterinary practice—for team members, the vets, it doesn’t matter who you are in the practice—than to have earned influence when it comes to the level of care people are choosing to provide for their pets. Where they say to you, “What should I do?” And you tell them what they should do, and then they do it, because they are connected to you and they trust you. You see the power in that?

So my point in saying all that is that, without the first two skill areas of self-awareness and self-management, we can’t do the other stuff effectively, until we can really do a good job managing all the voices in our heads and managing so we can have responses to things. Anyone that has worked in the veterinary field for any period of time knows that there are very challenging aspects to this work. I mean, I could rattle off a thousand of them right now. If someone who works in the field is feeling depleted by their work, they’re not feeling fulfilled. They’re feeling depleted and exhausted and they go home an empty shell, where they’ve got nothing left to give to themselves, or to anyone else. That to me is a tragedy. Because this work is filled with so many potential rainbows, but you have to be in a headspace to be able to look for them, because no one’s going to point them out for you.

When you’re able to be self-aware, and then manage which voice you’re hanging out with and using the secret formula to rework how you experience things—like being pretty calm about something versus getting super angry—and realizing there’s probably some ways that I could address this, but it’s not really worth it. So I’m just gonna accept that it’s part of the gig. This is just part of the gig, and I’m not gonna get upset about it. Can you see how radically that changes the experience?

We have epic levels of burnout right now, and with epic levels of burnout come epic levels of turnover. We are losing amazing people in this field. And it’s because they don’t know how to manage their experience. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s stuff that you need to learn. It’s skills. That’s why I’m so passionate about sharing that message and teaching people so they don’t have to wait till they’re 35 to learn it like I did. We’ve got so many young people that come into the field and they’re in their late teens, early 20s. Imagine if they were empowered with these skills before they let their work eat them alive.

That, to me, is the most exciting thing and why I am so passionate about what I do, because we need these compassionate, these incredibly empathetic people that care so much to stay in this field. And they can’t do it without the skills. Well, they can but there’ll be horribly miserable the whole time. So we don’t want that, because that’s no fun, right? That, to me, is what that power is with EQ.

And then the side benefit is, it all works exactly the same in your personal life. So when we’re teaching these skills and discussing these ideas and mindset and how we communicate more effectively, it applies exactly to how we parent and how we partner and you know what kind of neighbor we are and all the things. All the things! And that’s why I think of it as a superpower.

KB: Okay, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode. So that’s all for today. Next time we’ll wrap up our discussion about the secret formula with some advice on implementing it in your life and how you can help others raise their EQ. We hope you’ll join us next time.