This post was written by our regular guest columnist, Freehearted Medic, a fellow career-questioning doctor and writer who is at the beginning of their transition journey. Love this article? Check out the Freehearted Medic blog for more.
Lately, I’ve been feeling lost. Actually, I’ve been feeling lost for quite a few years now. This sentiment began in my third year of medical school, when I began to dislike almost every day and ask myself why I was doing what I did.
When I chose to apply for medical school, I was 17. Initially I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals, but I was met by a lot of disapproval by my family. In their opinion, it was a waste of intelligence to be a vet when you could be a doctor. I was told repeatedly that vets only euthanize animals, and that I’d spend most of my time with a gloved hand up a cow’s rear. Little did they know about the many gloved PR exams you have to do in medicine.
Eventually I internalised this rhetoric, and decided that I did want to be a doctor. I wanted to help people, I enjoyed giving and I figured it made sense to who I was as a person. The warm approval of people around me when I said I wanted to be a doctor gave me a sense of satisfaction. It made me feel good and gave me validation. And in my head, I had a glamourised version of what it meant to be a doctor. Growing up, I would watch shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER, and I would picture medicine as fast-paced and full of good looking, successful doctors who get paid amazingly.
But I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for. It’s actually very hard to know what the day to day of being a doctor actually entails. You only start to realise once you’re in the middle of a long degree, by which point, you feel like you’re in too deep to change your mind.
my medical school experience
By the age of 20, I was sad, anxious and would cry on the drive to and from my clinical placement. I hated being a medical student. The humiliation from superiors, always feeling like I was in the way, and missing out on social events took a toll. My sensitive, introverted nature was really tested by the culture of bullying and the mockery of any kind of perceived failure. Even missing a cannula that would cause pain to a patient would upset me. Let alone dealing with death, illness and mental health issues of so many people daily. As an empath, I absorbed everyone else’s feelings and carried them home with me.
In my third year of medical school I desperately needed a break from it all, so I deferred my fourth year and travelled through South America for six months. I spent my time enjoying myself, but ultimately was escaping from my reality. There was not much thought about what I should do next, or what work was really meant for me. After a year in South America I decided to go back and finish my degree. I figured, how bad could medicine really be?
My last two years of medical school were a bit better than my third. Mainly because my mental strength had improved, and I could better manage negative interactions with people (both colleagues and patients).
However, I kept putting off the inevitable – working as a doctor. I declined my internship job and travelled yet again. It was an amazing year that happened to be the last year you could travel internationally before COVID-19 hit. The decision to not work was one of my best ones yet, but again, I purely enjoyed myself and didn’t spend time contemplating why I kept avoiding reality. I even carried around a medical textbook about how to deal with being on call the whole trip. I barely looked at it while I was away. It was just a weight in my bag and on my mind – a reminder of what I was going to return to.
Finally, in 2020 I began to work as a doctor. My university colleagues were already in their third year of work, while I was a new intern. Facing reality was tough and I knew deep down (since the year 2015) that I didn’t enjoy being a doctor. In my years off I had kept hoping that things would magically feel better when I returned. They did not.
This was the hardest thing for me to come to terms with – despite all of my efforts and years dedicated to this career, I realised I did not have a passion for medicine. The countless hours of overtime, mean seniors, feeling exploited by administration and the hospital, unappreciation, poor patient management due to skeleton staff, and the realities of death and dying were all factors. I’ve stopped caring so much to protect myself, which isn’t who I am at all. My medical career has been years of feeling completely overwhelmed.
One of my biggest wake up calls was when I asked for a week off due to my mental health failing after an unexpected patient death. My response was an email by administration saying no, and a suicide hotline number. When I called the number a doctor answered, and advised me to see a psychologist but to not mention the words ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ because it would stop me from getting income protection. These responses shocked and angered me. After all of the effort I’d put in, I was being treated with zero compassion.
Working the past two years in a career that I don’t find joy in has made me finally face my reality. I’ve been avoiding the question for far too long, why do I do what I do?
When you’re questioning your career choice and whether being a doctor is right for you, I believe one of the first things you can start to do is look inwards and search for what your why is. I truly think that once you have a why, people start to believe in you and be inspired by you. This is obvious even in everyday conversations – when I speak about medicine I’m flat and bored, but when I speak about something I am actually interested in I become alive, and am just more fun to be around.
When you begin to question
So I have this internal knowledge that I don’t enjoy medicine. It’s a visceral feeling that I can’t ignore or suppress. Mindfulness, counselling, all the positive thinking in the world can’t make me like it.
I’ve come very close to quitting, but I keep pushing on. Now instead of blindly running away or forcing myself to do something, I’ve started to dig deep. What do I like to do? What makes me feel alive? And why do I live my life the way I do? I’ve also realised that I deserve to enjoy my life and that I deserve better.
The Golden Circle
During my months of self reflection I stumbled upon this Ted Talk by Simon Sinek. He speaks about what makes organisations and leaders particularly inspiring. He concluded that they all start with the WHY.
There is the what, the how and the why with every idea.
The what is easy, for example when someone asks what you do, you respond, “I’m a doctor”.
How do you do it? Well that’s also simple, you show up to work, do your patient rounds, write notes, answer pagers, pop in cannulas, etc. It becomes a bit of a boring task list.
But, the big question that’s harder to answer is why do you do it?
Getting into medical school they always ask you, why do you want to be a doctor? (Money is never a reason why, money is a product). Maybe you had a rehearsed answer back then, maybe you really did have a why. Recently I was asked by a senior why I wanted to be a doctor and I couldn’t answer. There was no why for me, I was just doing.
Though Sinek is talking about companies, I believe his speech can be applied to how you live your life. I’d spent so many years living in the what and the how. First, a medical student, then a junior doctor. But I never stopped to question myself about why I was doing it. I’ve been a bit of a drag, just switching off my brain and finishing tasks rather than dreaming bigger and finding what actually inspires me.
Finding your higher purpose
So what is my why? Finishing my residency has been one of the greatest tests of endurance in my life (and there are still four months to go). My reasoning for a long time was that I had to and that I needed the paycheck. It made me feel trapped. This stagnant way of living left no room for growth, just self pity.
Then I realised that there is a reason why I am continuing. It’s to finally learn my lesson. I have had a life where I lived for others, always people pleasing and trying not to upset family members. But now, I’m working on myself, learning how to make life choices without the influence of other people’s opinions, and building up stronger boundaries. Being a junior doctor is a huge mental test – you have to learn how to say no, to both patients and colleagues. In the beginning I was terrified to rock the boat, but day by day I’m growing stronger. I’m learning where to invest my energy, where to let things go, and how to not take things personally. It’s a intensive course of self knowledge and every day at work I’m testing myself. When things go wrong I get better and better at handling it.
Now a patient’s family member yelling at me doesn’t even upset me, whereas before I would have dwelled on it for days. I’m getting better at standing up for myself to seniors and administration, and I’m starting to break from my people pleasing behaviour. I can finally live with myself if my choices upset someone, because you can’t always make everyone happy.
Basically, I’m finishing this residency as I know no life path will bring me happiness if I don’t work on this aspect of myself first. It is no longer just a job – it’s a veritable boot camp of self improvement – and that makes all the difference. I’m staying for the present because this job is now part of my why: to learn how to live for myself.
A questioning doctor, looking for more