Burnout is common to teaching violin and practicing medicine

by Lisa Chu, MD

I went to medical school and know something about what it’s like to work in clinical environments.

I’ve recently started reading blogs and articles about “physician burnout” and I can’t help but notice that there’s a lot of blame being placed on “the system”. Doesn’t this kind of storytelling just reinforce that physicians are victims? I’d like to see physicians adopt a way of thinking that will enable them to create the desired changes in their own lifestyles, levels of satisfaction, and ultimately patient care.

In 2001, I made the choice to graduate from medical school but not pursue a residency. I benefited countless patients by making this decision. The key realization I made as a third-year medical student on my Vascular Surgery rotation, was, “I don’t have to do a residency.” So much of my suffering up until that point was based on the single erroneous thought, “I have to do a residency!” I also thought, “I don’t want to live this way! But I have to! These are my only choices!”

Well, none of those thoughts was true.

After graduating from medical school without a job, I ended up starting as an unpaid intern at a venture capital firm, getting hired six weeks later, and eventually getting promoted to partner. I then moved to California to follow my dream of creating my own violin school, and now am a life coach, helping people untangle their minds from the kinds of thoughts that lead to feelings of helplessness, burnout, and stress.

I’ve also lived through burnout myself. As a violin teacher, I acted like I had been trained to do as a “caring” professional. I invested heavily in each student’s outcome, identifying very closely their success with my own sense of competence, self-worth, and professional identity. At the end of each day, the only thing I had energy left to do was to tell stories of all the people who I believed were “not responding” to the intense efforts I had put in, only to get up the next morning and do it again. I saw myself as a victim of other people, and I had no knowledge of self-care. And this, my friends, was supposedly me “following my dream”!

It was my body that finally gave me the gift of forcing me to slow down. What began as mild neck and shoulder pain escalated to debilitating back pain. This was not part of my dream. And it made me look at my life with new eyes.

Over a period of a year, I regained my own sense of well-being, joy, and clarity, through a gradual process of deep self-care, self-reflection, and formal training as a healer and coach. I learned that our thoughts create our reality. No circumstance – no matter how unbearable it seems – can ever be the cause of our burnout or suffering. It is our thoughts about the circumstance that create our suffering.

The theme of my story is that I didn’t look to a system to reform. I found a way to reform myself, by listening to my body and seeking training from people who were already exemplifying the qualities of life I wanted. I pieced these together, and I pursued them proactively through a training process just as disciplined as any medical residency. The difference was, I was training myself to be who I wanted to be.

Thanks to this process, I now have a new career AND most importantly a new way of life that I know I am responsible for creating every day, through practice and continued learning.

Now, I’m no longer attached to stories of blame, rantings about the economy, or lack of options. I know now that freedom is available inside each and every one of us. It is just one thought away.

Lisa Chu is the creator of The Music Within Us violin program.

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