Take care of you so that you can make a difference for others

A few years ago, after doing the work and mom thing for five-plus years, I noticed I was becoming increasingly cynical. I was, more often than not, in a bad mood — and I felt exhausted. One day I sat down and asked myself: “What the hell is going on with you?” I realized that I was working all day, only to come home (when I wasn’t working nights) to work some more: cook dinner, clean the house, help with homework, get stuff ready for the following day, crawl into bed and then do it all over again the next day.

I felt frustrated with work and was tired of dealing with the business of medicine. I found myself navigating a sea of clicks and typewritten notes in our electronic medical record system on a daily basis, juggling more demands as the hospital tried to squeeze out more from us. I went through mindless computer courses so that the administration could say its staff was trained on cultural competence, gender sensitivity, sexual harassment, and the latest EMR update. I felt used and abused, unappreciated and stuck. I was feeling burned out.

How do you approach it?

Once I realized I had a problem and needed to tackle it, I started looking for solutions. For me, leaving medicine was not an option. I still enjoyed caring for patients. So, what could I do?

I learned how to say no.

At work, I was offered a more administrative position to do, in addition to my regular workload. I knew it would look nice on my CV, but it was not something that I would enjoy.

As women, we tend to feel like we must say yes to whatever is asked from us. I, however, was feeling fed up. I listened to everything, mulled it over and came back the following week. I asked two questions, point blank: Will you give me protected time to be able to carry out this new responsibility and will there be additional compensation? It was interesting to see the discomfort in the room when I asked this. Clearly, this was not the expected answer. When the answer to both was no, then, I decidedly said, “Oh, OK, I’m not interested, but thanks for considering me.” I stepped out before anyone had a chance to argue.

Something interesting happens as you get older and more experienced. You become less afraid to speak up; you feel more comfortable in you and, if you happen to be burned out on top of that, you could care less about others perception. So, it came to be that I passed up on an opportunity, which may have been great career-wise, to put myself first.

I learned to delegate the household duties.

Cleaning went to others, if I was coming home late, cooking went out the window, organizing the house during the week was put on hold for the weekend. I opened up time to just be there for homework duties and family bonding. This took a burden away. I learned to look up at the ceiling when I walked in the house because to me a messy home is not compatible with everyday life. It was also a great exercise on letting go, for the person that needs to get things done yesterday.

I took on more.

I know this may make no sense, but hear me out. When I took away all those things that were not fulfilling and just adding stress, I was able to open up space to do the things that I did find motivating.

I loved writing, health, wellness, and evidence-based medicine and I saw a way to help others by putting these together. I began blogging and eventually started putting writing out in my own blog. It gave me a creative outlet that I really enjoyed.

I also joined the leadership, as editorial director, of a female-led non-profit organization helping out in another area that I was passionate about: my post-hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was ideal for me because I was vehement about female empowerment. Also, I could actually help make an impact on the recovery and well-being of the kids back home — and I could write. All things that I found meaningful.

By taking on the things that moved, fulfilled and motivated me, I found new meaning in daily things and slowly started squashing burnout’s ugly head.

I rejoined my tribe.

It’s hard to move forward or get anything done without the support and encouragement. My oldest friends were all over the globe and hard to talk to on a regular basis. Then, we started a group chat, where we could talk about whatever was on our mind or bothering us in real time. I could be in the middle of a meeting, going through something, and I could quietly send out a message and get real-time support! For me, that was huge. Just hearing from them every day made me feel connected to a larger purpose.

I also joined groups of like-minded female physician moms who were juggling all of the same life demands that I was. Reading their battles made me realize that I was not alone. Their daily stories inspired and motivated me. It kept me marching forward.

In the end, as I have read more about burnout in the last few years, I realized that I had unknowingly done what most psychology resources recommend for dealing with burnout:

  • Reframe your work – by finding balance and value in what you do
  • Reevaluate your priorities – by setting boundaries and nourishing your creative side
  • Make time for self-care – by making time to exercise, eat well and spend time with friends and family

Take care of you so that you can make a difference for others.

Michelle Ramirez is a pediatric intensive care physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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