It hasn’t always been this way.
For years, I worked at the typical high-achiever pace, like many striving to become a doctor. Upon entering medical school, I set challenging expectations of myself — graduate at the top of my class, study a relentless number of hours, score at least one standard deviation above the mean for boards (two would be better). It was an exciting time fueled by the desire for learning.
Creating high standards, sometimes impossible standards, continued into residency. There was always more — more patients to see, more diagnoses to consider, and more comprehensive plans to create. That’s when I first remember an undercurrent forming of worry and feeling like my work was never enough. As I advanced in training, there was a doubt of knowledge and concern for missing something that would harm a patient. This marked the birth of two coping mechanisms to manage the worry: over-thinking and over-working.
As I sit here now, it all makes sense.
The intensity, drive, and hustle that helped me be a successful student and resident are exactly what led to my least favorite place to be — stuck in my head. With time and increasing responsibility, over-thinking and over-working consumed more and more of my life. There was no off-switch. The disruptions were constant and impacted life outside of work. Turning off, letting go, or putting down the worry wasn’t role-modeled or discussed. I believed that functioning this way helped me to be a better doctor.
Sadly, the further I advanced as a physician, the harder it was to ask or find help. No other doctors appeared to be struggling. I continued to repeat the same pattern of long hours and referencing multiple sources or consultants “just to be sure.”
Living with worry and in a distracted way was normal. I was listening less to people around me, and more to the fear, doubt, and uncertainty in my mind. At home, I was physically present but mentally in a fog. All the while accumulating more guilt and shame because I was supposed to be better and smarter than this.
The self-imposed pressure for perfection intensified after residency. I was stuck in my head with frequent reminders that I’m the one with the license. I’m the one who chose this field. I remember thinking one day that I spent two decades to become something/someone that I thought would have all the answers. Instead, there were more questions, more uncertainty, and more fear of what I didn’t know or could be missing.
It’s no surprise that I hit an emotional brick wall professionally. Working longer hours shifted from a coping mechanism that helped me get by to making things worse. I thought leaving medicine was the only option, as I could no longer tolerate the emotional cost of functioning in this way.
Yet from every ending, there is a beginning.
Ironically, that brick wall is exactly what saved my career in medicine. It forced me to find a new direction, and learn skills unlike anything taught in medical training. It required me to see that I was both the problem and the solution.
Starting was the hardest and most important first step. Dismantling the complicated and highly reinforced mental structure took a few years. I worked with a coach to clear out and clean up my mindset. Although uncomfortable at times, there were enough little victories and reminders along the way that reinforced why this work was essential. Interestingly, doing this work has helped me be more thorough and effective as a physician with less effort.
More importantly, though, it has brought back the wife, mom, and woman that was missing for years.
Here is what helped me to get unstuck and reset my life:
1. Stop believing everything I think. Such a simple concept, yet foreign and challenging to apply. My mind had been telling me for years that every worry was essential and must be answered with the relentless pursuit of more knowledge. I believed every fear was real, and every possible negative outcome was waiting to occur in my patients. I justified and tolerated the distraction, extra hours, and incessant self-criticism.
I know now that all of it is truly optional. I learned how to doubt my doubt, and become comfortable with uncertainty. This shift was the equivalent of finding a light switch and turning it on. As I continued to work on my mindset, the light became brighter. I stopped hiding from the shame of what I wasn’t, and started valuing who and what I am.
2. My mind is a lot like a closet. Imagine if every single item you’ve ever owned was in your closet now. Thousands of items would clutter the space and limit what can be used. My mind was exactly like this – an accumulation of thoughts, emotions, arguments, restlessness, and coping patterns accumulated over a lifetime. It was crowded and noisy in there.
Although there are many ways to clean a closet, the basic premise is to clear out the old, outdated, and unused items that are taking up space. It requires acceptance ourselves physically and mentally, and willingness to let go. (Including letting go of the emotions that keep us attached to the clutter.)
The process I used to reset my life was similar. I had to acknowledge the old and outdated stuff cluttering my mind. I had to become honest with why I was holding on to practices and patterns, such as over-working and over-thinking, that were ineffective. Followed by letting them go. Clearing out the mental clutter opened space and time to start creating a new life.
3. “If you’re willing to feel everything, you can do anything” – Tony Robbins. Sorting through my mind clutter was a process of learning how to feel uncomfortable without fighting. It was a shift to see that I can feel any emotion. I no longer need coping mechanisms to manage uncertainty, doubt, or fear. There are so many tools available to figure everything out. All are easier to find, and more effective, when I’m not afraid.
Through sharing my journey with others, I realize that I was never alone. Many of us struggle and continue to get by without others taking notice. Many of us are surviving at a time of our life that we expected to be thriving. If you are stuck in your head and don’t like what you see, know that you can clear out the unwanted, ineffective, outdated, and toxic accumulation of mind chatter. You can create a radically different future. It’s only a matter of getting started.
This journey started off as unwanted and has become life-changing. The place I’m at now is filled with freedom, patience, and kindness. It starts from a place of trust, and truly reflects that the most important relationship is the one I have with myself. Everything follows from that.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com