After struggling with ‘professional anxiety’ the penny dropped that only I could be responsible for how I felt.
I decided that my overwhelming emotion when it came to my job, should be proud about what I do and not a constant fear of not being good enough… I have never been affected by anything like anxiety in any aspect of my life before and it was scary how dominating negative thoughts about my own ability became. Fostering good working relationships with my peers and many reflective chats made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It was reassuring to hear that people I admired and respected had struggled with varying things at one time or another and come out stronger on the other side.
I look at work differently now, believe in myself more and allow myself to be happy. Sometimes I have days where I’m right back where I was, but it’s less and less.
I read something once about how you should imagine life is a game in which you are juggling 5 balls: work, friends, family, health and integrity. The only ball you can drop is work, because it will bounce, if you drop the others they will shatter. I started to view my life in this way, yes, I had dropped the ball, but it would bounce. I was winning with the other balls and I had to catch the work ball before I dropped them all.
I was working with some very inspiring people and although they were all so different the one thing they had in common was that they were enthusiasts.
Roald Dahl said of his Uncle Oswald:
“I began to realise how important it is to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it, and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.”
As part of this process I wrote myself some words of advice…
You sat in your interviews for medical school and claimed to ‘want to help people’, whether your 18-year-old self truly knew what that meant is doubtful. In the years that you have been involved in healthcare you have seen almost the entire spectrum of human emotions. You will laugh, you will cry, you will feel anger towards people. You are exposed to some of the most beautiful gestures of selflessness. People will put their trust in you and know you are doing your best. You genuinely will improve people’s lives. If that’s not worth being enthusiastic about, I don’t know what else is.
Whether it is a project that you are passionate about, revising for an exam or perfecting a technique for a procedure. Find something in your day job to focus on. Not only will it make you better and improve your CV, but there is an enormous sense of satisfaction from task completion. I appreciate this may be hard in the busy jobs but be strict with yourself and stick to it. As we have to be committed to our jobs, our jobs have a commitment to us to make us better doctors.
As you come across the unfamiliar, instead of panicking that you don’t know, write it down and read it later. It takes very little time to learn a micro topic and even if you’ve had a terrible day, at least you’ll have something to show for it.
Most people know that by looking at what we did wrong we can prevent ourselves or others from repeating it. In medicine there is a pressure to be perfect. Very few of us are, we are all human and humans make mistakes. I think some lip service is paid to ‘no blame culture’ but in reality it is very taboo for junior doctors to admit they have done something wrong. Even admitting to yourself that ‘I messed up here’ is often the hardest thing but if you can adopt a personal ‘no blame culture’, not beat yourself up about it and use it to look at how you can avoid doing it again, you are already making a positive change. Also, don’t sweat the small stuff.
Don’t assume because you are the wrong fit for one job that you are a square peg in a world full of round holes. Just like in the big bad world, there is something for everyone in medicine. You can change roles, yes it might take you longer to climb the ladder but if you are going to commit so much of your life to something, it should make you happy. The added experiences will only serve to educate you further be it about medicine or your specific set of skills.
There is so much to fear in medicine. Fear of killing someone, fear of missing something, fear of being sued, fear of being bad at it, fear of people thinking you are bad at it. Awareness is helpful, fear is not. You can only do what you think is right at the time, and it might not always be. Our hierarchy makes talking about these fears difficult, but it shouldn’t be. Every single doctor has felt these fears at some point that I am sure of. Being open about our fears, won’t make them come true. Talk to your peers, they are just like you and they know how you feel.
We all have personality, that’s what creates the diversity in this world. Personalities are made up of lots of little strands. These strands or traits make us unique, some people will not like some of your traits, but others will love them.
The feeling of not being liked is hard to handle, even the thickest skin will not always protect you. It is useful to know our faults and annoying habits so we can be better colleagues, friends and even spouses but they shouldn’t define you. If you can keep perspective and think of all the people who love you and all your best traits, shouldering the negatives won’t seem so bad. We are all different and that’s ok.
It’s actually really easy to be kind. In medicine we are terrible at being kind to each other for some reason. If I’m honest, maybe I haven’t always been that kind and I am sorry for that. No-one is ever trying to be bad at their jobs or deliberately trying to annoy you. Most people are trying their best to do what they think is the right thing for their patient. Treat your peers and juniors like you would have wanted to be treated not how you were treated, break the cycle. Hold each other up and be better together.
Give credit and say thank you. Even count to 50 if you have to.
For me, this was the one thing that came easiest and was probably the most important. If you think about it there is a lot of humour in this job. Who would have thought that you would spend a significant proportion of your professional life discussing types of bowel content? People are really funny and they say bloody funny stuff so enjoy it. Doesn’t make you any less professional, might put the patient at ease, improves relationships with colleagues and makes you feel good.
Live to work, work to live – we are all different as to how we view that. What matters is that you find the right balance for yourself. However, I’m pretty sure nobody ever lay on their deathbed and said that they wished they’d worked more.
As much as it is important to be committed to our jobs and to go the extra mile when needed, it is more important to be committed to ourselves.
Being happy is surely the goal, and while professional success can contribute, it shouldn’t be the dominating factor. Have outside interests, mess around, spend time with your loved ones and let them know they are special. You only have to watch the news or look around an emergency department to see the fragility of life, so take your happiness seriously and do everything you can to maximise it.
I suppose the conclusion of this list was my way of fighting the demons that were making me feel like I couldn’t carry on in my job. I think we want to do the best by our patients but we don’t all have to go about it in the same way. Medicine is not a 9-5 job; it’s a commitment that dictates the rest of your life from the moment you start. Most of us don’t mind the hours, the study, the exhaustion, the missing of social events and family gatherings. What get us is the stress, the sniping, the feeling that nothing you do is enough, the insurmountable mountain of work. It shouldn’t be like that.
I don’t ever want to hate my job again, if I am going to spend time away from my little boys, I want it to be because I feel it’s worth it. If your work doesn’t make you happy, don’t settle, find your happy place. It might take some time to find but it’s there.
We all have many strengths and the united goal that we do want to help people, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t. I have learnt not to worry so much about how my performance is perceived by others but how I honestly think I’m doing. That doesn’t mean ignoring all feedback and ploughing on regardless but I want to be myself. I don’t want to change my personality to fit my job, I want to enjoy my job and feel like I fit within it.
Most of all, I want to be an enthusiast.
Lukewarm is no good.
Jamie WillsonMarch 22, 2017 at 9:53 am
I really enjoyed this and like the way you served it raw.
Life is actually a reasonably big deal and you might as well try and not have a shit one.
Amelia Smyth (@litlebigsister)March 23, 2017 at 9:45 am
Lauren, I said it already on twitter but I feel the need to say it again: thank you for encouraging enthusiasm! I feel sometimes as adults we feel the need to default to the ‘too cool’ approach – or lukewarm, as you put it – in too many aspects of our lives. But it’s too true what you say. We have the rare opportunity in healthcare to impact upon an individuals life in such a special, way we might as well get our nerd on and be passionate about how we do it! The remaining words of advice carry real warmth, and personality and were also greatly appreciated! I look forward to hearing from yourself, and the great Roald Dahl again.