Doctors being too nice leads to their burnout


It came out of nowhere. One of those life lessons that I didn’t know I needed to learn. Until I did. There I was, at a weekend business retreat, hobnobbing with a group of women executives. Feeling only slightly out of my element. Trying to blend in.

There was a break in the meeting. And what happened next made me rethink how I approached everything.

Several of us walked to the ladies’ room, chatting over the communal sinks, checking our hair and lipstick.

That’s when it happened. A woman I had just met looked up at me, as I was applying my lipstick. “Can I borrow your lipstick for a minute? I forgot mine.” Dumbfounded at such a request, I silently handed over my lipstick to this stranger, who proceed to use it, return it to me, and make her exit. I looked down at the tarnished lipstick. Shook my head. And tossed it in the trash.

A simple thing, but it rattled me for the rest of the day. What was it about me that made that woman think it would be alright to ask such a personal favor? Does she not know I’m a doctor and a germaphobe? What if she has a cold? A sore throat? Herpes?

Then it struck me. Boundaries. I didn’t have mine in place. Especially not at a function where I was trying to fit into the crowd. I realized I needed to get front and center on my boundaries. That doing so had nothing to do with not being “nice.”

As a doctor, I set my boundaries fairly well. I know which surgeries are my specialty and which I need to refer. I know how many patients I can see in a day without the wait for each patient being enormous. This hasn’t come easy in the knowing. But it’s maintained my buffer against burnout. And it’s one of the ways I empower myself.

What do you do in the name of being “nice”?

If you’re at all like me, you find yourself doing the priority shuffle. When a request comes in, and you already had plans to attend your niece’s soccer game, do you cave and add on that work item instead? Or do you regroup and put your work assignment on your list behind your family priorities? Are you letting the priority of perfection burn you out?

In a way, it all comes down to values, doesn’t it? Are you morphing your values or maintaining them as you go about your day?




If you lose sight of these three things along the way, in the name of not being “nice enough,” you lose sight of yourself.

You lose sight of the person you know you are, when you’re by yourself, and no one is watching.

You lose sight of the person you were born to be. Every day.

So, when it comes to being nice or being authentic, wonderful boundary-in-place you, pick you!

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker, and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.

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