In summer 2022, Doximity ran our Women in Medicine essay contest. We are happy to announce this as the runner-up.
“It’ll all be better when…” is the first sign of burnout. When you feel this way, take a break.
Medicine sets up a linear pathway for advancement. Some of us take steps intercepted by life events, personal challenge, or spiritual discovery. Others, like you, will take the pathway in a sequence, one after the other, until the end result is achieved. There are pros and cons to this methodology. The benefits? A clear set of steps that build on each other. Once you complete the step in front of you, there is another to begin. There are forks in the road that do require discernment and choice, but they all motivate forward motion toward the end goal of becoming a physician. But: If you are not careful, you will be swept up in the momentum of this stepwise process, always focused on the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’ll all be better when this exam is done. Then I can rest,” leads to…
“It’ll all be better when my boards are done. Then I’ll get to be on rotations!”
Clerkships are a blur of excitement and learning, with some frustrations and setbacks. And then, without a break, you think, “It’ll all be better when I am done with the required rotations so I can focus on where I will specialize.”
Then residency applications begin, and you must prepare for the competitive Match process.
“It’ll all be better when I’m finally a doctor, and I can write the orders myself!”
Then you’re an intern, shaking in your shoes, troubling over whether acetaminophen or stool softener orders are written correctly.
“It’ll all be better when intern year is over and I can finally be a senior resident, so I can lead the team, and get settled in my practice.”
But then, as a senior resident, you feel the burden of responsibility, the complexity of office and hospital systems amidst continuing to refine your physician craft.
“It’ll all be better when I graduate from residency, and I can finally be in charge of my own schedule.”
When you step into your first job, you will realize that you have studied, prepared, and longed to become the best physician you can be. But you have not learned to rest. You never learned to detect the signs of when your body and mind needed extra care in order to move forward. You became skilled at working toward the light at the end of the tunnel without fully enjoying the brightness of the light you inhabit right now.
“It’ll all be better when I am on maternity leave and I can enjoy my time off with my baby.”
And then you realize that motherhood is the most important and hardest job you’ll ever do, and maternity leave is not time off. Always working toward the light at the end of the tunnel makes it more difficult to enjoy the present moment. You realize, as a pensive new mother, that your baby needs you to be present in the moment, just as your patients do every day.
The light at the end of the tunnel is an optical illusion. The linear and sequential pathway of medicine makes it seem like there is something better in the future, once you clear the hurdles around you today. But the truth is, the light is on you now, and the process of clearing each obstacle is teaching you what you need to sustain yourself as a healer as much as it is teaching you the skills required to be a physician.
About three years into practice, you will have an epiphany. Instead of making your daily goal to complete the necessary tasks to move to the next step, you will pledge instead to approach each day with your full presence – body, mind, and spirit. My best advice to you is to start doing this now. Try making your goal at the end of each day to rest with the knowledge that you have brought your full self to every task, every patient, every person, and every relationship in your life. Make your goal not simply to accomplish tasks in pursuit of a mysterious light, but to fully experience the present moment in all its scintillating intensity. Analyze what tests you, what motivates you, what triggers you, what frightens you, what nourishes you, what angers you, and what strengthens you. If you pay attention to the challenges you most enjoy working on, you will never need the light to provide you with affirmation. You will find joy in the challenge itself, and the work will itself nourish you, more than the optical illusion of something perceived to be better in the future.
My advice – you dear, earnest young woman, future spouse to a loving partner and mother to two beautiful children, you soon-to-be osteopathic family doctor, eventual physician and public health leader, and dog mommy, too – is that you will work hard and you will achieve your dreams and more. Work does not take the place of life, and life does not balance out work. Embrace the moment and the light that is on you now, because it will allow you to see yourself clearly, and blend all of the facets of yourself together. Above all else, it will help you embrace your humanity, and being more human will make you a better doctor.
As soon as you hear your questioning inner voice saying “It’ll all be better when,” take it as a signal that you need to rest. Rest now and enjoy it, and see it as essential to providing you with the fortitude you need to move on when it is time.
Anne C. Jones, DO, MPH is assistant professor of family medicine and director of student affairs at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Sewell, NJ and core faculty at the Inspira Family Medicine Residency in Mullica Hill, NJ. In her spare time, she enjoys being with her family, her husband, two kids, and her dog.
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