Did you take any time off during your medical training? Perhaps to give yourself a break and reflect on the meaning of life?
I went straight through mine. Even though I would see and hear about others taking breaks, I never thought I needed it. I was 100% focused on becoming a doctor ever since I was young. Every completed year of school and training was a milestone marking my way to the light at the end of the tunnel. And every milestone I passed made it that much harder for me to give up. I was terrified to start over. There are times, however, when I wonder how different things would have looked had I taken time off. Would I have given up on medicine to pursue a different career instead?
Despite a rewarding career as a primary care physician, I have long felt like something was missing, and that I was here to do more. In my frenzy, I realized I missed some important lessons that, thankfully, I have learned since. I hope my experiences provide some insight and perspective to other clinicians, whether you are still entrenched in medical training or living life as an attending (new or seasoned).
First, more money does not lead to safety or security. My sense of safety and security came from within, from personal reflection on my situation and circumstances. At first, I was so excited to finally get a “real” paycheck, but soon thereafter, I realized I was still worried about many things. You can feel content on a meager PGY salary or feel like you are lacking even after making six figures. Do not select a specialty based on the amount of money you expect to make. You will be a hamster on a wheel, chasing endlessly and being forced into golden handcuffs. Focus on what you love instead. Your “why” will keep you going, especially when things get rough.
Second, pain is critical and not something to fear. Being an optimist, I always wanted things to be positive and view the glass as half full. I was afraid of pain and failure because of how I thought it would make me feel. However, I have since learned that pain is simply an alert or notification to pay attention to. Think about when you touch a hot stove and feel pain. The pain notifies you that something can be potentially harmful, and so you withdraw immediately. You don’t keep your hand on the stove for hours to feel more pain. As soon as you notice and acknowledge the pain, you can process and release it. “Difficult” emotions only linger when we don’t allow ourselves to feel them, which intensifies and makes them worse. When you are unafraid to feel any feeling, positive or negative, you will be all in and live a truly extraordinary life.
Third, “there” is not necessarily better than “here.” We like to think the grass is always greener, but it’s often not the case. I know residency and overnight shifts aren’t easy. When I was feeling stuck as a primary care physician, I thought leaving work was the perfect solution. But I didn’t want to run away as an escape. I learned how to love my job and was so grateful to serve as a physician for many years. And then I made the decision to leave later on because I wanted to.
Do you rush to change your circumstances — hospital policies, your work hours, people you work with — so you can feel better about something? When you are continuously replaying your past or worrying about the future, you are not living in the present. But the present is all you have. It’s when life is actually happening. In order to enjoy life, you have to actually show up, be aware of the here and now.
Fourth, patient satisfaction surveys, attendings, and administration cannot make you feel inferior. It’s your interpretation of their behaviors that makes you feel a certain way. I remember getting pimped so hard as a third-year student that I was bawling and bitter for days. Remember that we cannot control others. Life happens, and it’s messy. Other people will always have their own reactions, just like you have yours. If you notice yourself getting upset and triggered by something, pause and acknowledge it. Get curious about it. It is a wonderful opportunity for self-understanding, because triggers are simply messages or signals that something similar has happened in the past, and they direct you to the areas that need more healing and love. It takes courage to look within, but if you don’t heal the wounds, the hurt will only keep coming back, louder and louder. Learn to practice self-compassion and be your own best friend. Trust that it’s possible to heal and work through the past. You are stronger and better because of, not in spite of, your past.
Fifth, you are completely worthy, enough, and amazing as you are. Yes, even as a med student on the first day of your ward rotations, because you are a living, breathing human being. You are not more or less valuable because of the letters behind your name. We are all born worthy. You do not have to prove anything to anyone. Sure, it is gratifying to serve as a physician, but true validation comes from within. Know that even without a medical degree or long white coat, you are enough. Medical training (and clinical practice in a pandemic especially) can be demoralizing. Please don’t forget that your worth is completely dependent on you. When you believe and trust yourself, you have your own back and know that you can handle anything that comes your way. There is nothing to prove.
Through mindfulness practices, I have learned to be present without judgment and to recognize that I have full responsibility and control over how I feel, even if something unexpected happens. This means there are no problems, only opportunities and solutions. May you live with ease throughout it all.
What lessons have helped you in your path through medicine? Share your experiences in the comment section.
Cindy Tsai, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine physician, mindfulness teacher, and integrative life coach with a mission to empower high-performing women to look within and quiet their inner critic to confidently live their best life. Connect with Cindy on social media and find out more at www.cindytsaimd.com.
Illustration by April Brust