Dear Dr. Brandt,
It is part of our profession that we will never stop trying to be perfect and – just as true – that we will always fall short. As a student, it tends to be about the tests you are taking and the feeling that you will never study enough.
As a resident, it’s the feeling that you don’t know enough to make the decisions you are being asked to make. As a practicing physician, you will at times stay awake at night worrying about your decisions, even when you know you did the best you could. All of this sounds like a huge downside to the profession we’ve chosen, but it’s actually a blessing. One of the core personality traits of physicians is that they care. In a way, all of the stress about not doing well enough happens only because you have empathy and compassion for your patients.
Although it’s hard to believe at the beginning, with time you will realize that the feeling of having “failed” is actually a gift. You’ll discover that “mistakes” and, more importantly, “near misses” become your most valuable teachers. What’s important is that you grasp the opportunity to learn from falling short, rather than beating yourself up.
“Failing” at a task (or test) is different than being a “failure.” When you have moments you feel you could have done better, use it as motivation to study a little more, go back to the textbook, look up one more article, or review all the facts again. William Osler, in his famous book to medical students (Osler’s Aequanimitas) talked about keeping a journal of mistakes: “Begin early to make a threefold category – clear cases, doubtful cases, mistakes. And learn to play the game fair, no self-deception, no shrinking from the truth… It is only by getting your cases grouped in this way that you can make any real progress in your post-collegiate education; only in this way can you gain wisdom with experience. “
So, to answer your question about how to deal with the downfalls along the way — start by revisiting your motivation. Remember why you started down this path in the first place. If you are trying your best to do the right thing, and are humble about the fact that you are human (and will therefore fall short) you can end every day with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. That being said, make sure that you work with focus — that when you study or work it is with dedication to the patients and families who are trusting you with some of the most precious decisions of their life. When you fall short, use it as motivation to learn. But, in this process, make sure you are taking care of yourself by taking time for good nutrition, exercise, social interactions and spiritual growth. The worst thing you can do when you feel inadequate is to just work more and more. This leads inevitably to compassion fatigue, which makes you less effective (and will make you suffer).
Compassion fatigue is a common diagnosis for care-givers; it happens to every medical student, resident or physician at some point in time. Just like any other diagnosis, the next step is treatment. In a nutshell, the treatment is self-care.
Mary L. Brandt is Professor and Vice Chair, Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine and blogs at Wellness Rounds.
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