Fear of failure and why I haven’t left medicine yet

We’re delighted to introduce our newest guest writer, Medicine for the Soul, a fellow career-questioning doctor and writer who is at the beginning of the transition journey. Love this article? Check out the blog for more.

It’s been a number of years since I realised that medicine isn’t the profession for me. This process has been destructive, and at times I’ve felt like my life has been falling down around me. Even though I’ve known for a long time that I want to change careers, and really feel unhappy in my job, I haven’t been able to quit.

So I asked myself a question I’d never contemplated before: what it would take for me to finally turn my back on medicine? 

What was holding me back? 

Despite my doubts, I’ve always managed to convince myself that medicine wasn’t all that bad. But then I realised something really scary: that I’ve already reached my rock bottom. At the end of 2020, I had an emotional breakdown where I couldn’t eat, sleep or function in my relationships. Yet, I still turned up to work the next day. 

If that breakdown wasn’t enough to have me throwing in the towel, what would be enough? How extreme does my unhappiness have to be before I let myself make a change?

fear failure

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Never quit

An overachiever since a young age, I have never been one to quit. My upbringing and childhood was marked by effort and finishing what I started. 

For example, I clearly remember colouring in enchanted fairies as a girl. At first, I always coloured in their faces and nails and then moved on. 

My mother, however, was horrified by this. She sat me down and said, “you need to finish everything you start or you’ll never do anything. You cannot colour another fairy until you finish a whole page”.

So I dutifully sat there and coloured in the whole page. I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I made myself. It became this new muscle that I exercised, of pushing myself to always finish and to never give up even if I had zero enjoyment. 

This toxic skill followed me throughout my whole life. I became an artistic gymnast, who would practice the same skill repeatedly until it was mastered. My mother wanted me to sing in a choir, so I did, even though I had no musical interest or ability. I was told to complete two years, and then I could leave. 

I even completed the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, not because I had a particular passion for it, but because I couldn’t just stop at bronze. One of the seven day hikes was particularly gruelling, and I became really unwell during it. I had fevers and rigors for days, but I kept hiking. By taking regular paracetamol and pushing through I completed the seven days. Never stopping to think that what I was doing was not healthy. In the end I was always rewarded for my efforts. 

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve come to recognise that sometimes quitting is actually a good thing. It’s a very novel concept to me, and I am still trying to wrap my head around it. 

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

What would make leaving medicine feel acceptable to me?

One of my fears in continuing medicine is to have another mental breakdown. Yet, I know in my heart that I would still continue working. 

On deep reflection, I realise that currently the only thing that would push me to quit is another job that I can slide into and be successful in. I secretly hope for a new opportunity to magically fall into my lap, that will give me a “legitimate excuse” to leave, so that I can tell the world and myself that I am not a failure or quitter; I am just transitioning into another successful career. 

But the reason why this dream is unrealistic is because new careers don’t just happen. They take trial and error, and they take time. Medicine is a job that consumes a large portion of your life, which makes it difficult to cultivate a new profession. To truly leave and try something else, I need to give myself the time to develop my new path in life. And perhaps, for me personally, the only way to give myself that opportunity is to quit.

This is very scary to me. I’m scared to make a mistake, and I’m afraid to fail. One of my biggest fears is leaving medicine and ending up having to come back, with my tail between my legs.

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

My fear of failure is greater than my desire for a happy and healthy life

A revelation that shocked me was realising how great my fear of failure really is. I realised that I would rather fight through another emotional breakdown, than face the possibility of failing. 

When rephrased, you could say that my fear of failure is greater than my desire for a happy and healthy life.

Writing this down, and saying it aloud deeply saddened me. I can’t believe I’ve pushed so far down this track of never giving up and always achieving that I make my wellbeing such a low priority. My ability to always finish is steely strong, yet my ability to love myself and show myself compassion is weak and lacking. Looking back on that little girl who loved to colour in fairies, I feel mournful about how I treated her as she grew up – always self critical and hard on myself, and never believing that I deserved happiness and health. I put my fear of being perceived as a failure above all else.  

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Why am I so afraid of failing?

Of course I can see the origins of this fear. It stems from early childhood where failure and quitting was seen as something punishable. But, I am an adult now, why am I still so scared?

Firstly, I have never failed before. Looking back on my life I’ve realised that I’ve never truly failed at anything. For me an 80% in high school was akin to failure, and maybe not placing in the top three in a gymnastics competition. Yet, I never really spectacularly failed at something. My ‘failure muscle’ is weak. The prospect of making the leap out of medicine and falling short is scary to me. I might fall, and have others see me fall. 

Secondly, my self worth is linked to my success. During my youth, I internalised the belief that my value was completely connected to how well I did in school, sports and creative pursuits. Being a high performer is who I am, and I have always thought that my likeability was due to how well I did. I was the ‘golden child’, who always did what they were asked, studied and worked hard. Quitting a high profile job willingly would appear to be madness to my family and friends. Maybe they would see me as a bit of a ‘loser’ now. Who knows? Maybe I would see myself like that too?

Working on myself

I know now why I’m still pushing through a job that I dislike. The main reason is fear, and in particular, a fear of failing. Now it’s time for me to actually do something about it. It’s time for action.

As a promise to myself, I am going to work on my self esteem, and learn that I am worth love no matter my mistakes and successes. I am determined to become more comfortable with failing. Failure, just like everything else, is a skill, and one that requires the grit to pick yourself up when you go down, the courage to try again, and the self-love to allow you to believe in yourself.

This change won’t be overnight, but I know, with time, I’ll choose love over fear. 

Medicine for the Soul
A questioning doctor, looking for more

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “Fear of failure and why I haven’t left medicine yet”

  1. Thank you so much for this beautiful and eloquent article. This is word-for-word exactly what I’m feeling. Wishing you the best of luck – I’m sure if we do take that leap of faith, it will be the kindest thing we’ve done for ourselves in a long time 🙂

    1. Hi Jasmine, thank you for your heart felt words. The idea that what was written has helped you in any little way makes me so happy. Best of luck to you too, and I hope we both make decisions that are right for us this year.

  2. I’m a 3rd year med students who’s contemplating quitting. Thank you so much for making me feel less alone! You perfectly articulated all the emotions I’ve been feeling, including the basing of my self-worth on how well I did in school, and the fear of quitting only to fail again at another career. I still have no idea what the right choice is, but this has made me feel much better about my doubts.

    1. Hello and thank you for your kind words. The beginning is self awareness and self reflection. You’re definitely not alone! Be kind to yourself, it’s okay not to know. I’m still figuring things out and I think that’s just part of the journey that is life

  3. I’m not a doctor or a medical student. I am a pre med graduate that is having second thoughts on entering med school. I can relate to this so much. I am too have a great fear of failure and fear for the judgement of others. At this point, everyone expects me to continue to medicine, I was able to convince myself at that too. But…I know that I have to consider my well being too and how demanding the profession is. At the end of the day, my well being and feelings would be more important, we are not robots after all. I am an expert of self deception after all hehe. I’m still undecided but, this made me feel better.

    1. Hi Israel, thank you for your comment. It’s so tricky living past this great fear of failing. I discovered failing was akin to death for me, which really shocked me. I wrote a reply to this post after a few years of self-work, if you wanted to check it out. I still don’t have all the answers, I don’t think anyone will. All we can do is listen to our intuition and know that whatever choice we make through that isn’t a failure. It’s honouring ourselves.

      https://drtooni.com/guest-post-fear-of-failure/ this is my response…

      Wishing you all the best in your journey!

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