I’ve been wanting to write more about burnout and develop my life-coaching business to help physicians in burnout for a year now, but I keep starting and stopping, never getting too far, really.
“Mel, you were burned out, life coaching helped you out of burnout, you got further training to be a coach and now you want to help other physicians out of burnout through coaching. You’re an expert, you got this topic down. Let’s go, chop chop, come on now.”
My inner dialogue was trying to pep talk me into doing what I said I wanted to do by convincing myself that burnout is: 1) simple 2) something I had figured out 3) something I was done with and 4) something I was helping others with.
But the pep talk didn’t work and it seemed impossible to gain momentum in writing about or coaching others in burnout.
And then, in typical Mel fashion, I’d beat myself up for not being able to do such.
“Anyone can write and coach around a simple topic that they experienced, moved through, are done with, are helping others with and naturally now have figured out, what’s wrong with you?!? Go!”
And so I would spin in such a cycle.
That pep talk didn’t work because I didn’t believe it. I’d then beat myself up because I thought I deserved it for not doing that thing which I said I was going to do. It’s very interesting, this cycle of self-deceit and self-flagellation. Looking back over my life, I’ve had similar patterns recurring…forever.
In not doing that thing which I was trying to cajole myself into doing and subsequently taking a beating for such, I would further lower my sense of efficacy and decrease my trust in myself—clearly I either don’t really know what I want or I know what I want but don’t have the capacity to do it. I’m either perpetually confused, feeble, or both.
And such is the pattern I found myself in the past year, but am just now getting on to myself.
A year ago I had excitedly set out to tackle this problem of burnout once and for all for physicians. I’m not sure if this is naively grandiose or bold and viable, but it doesn’t matter. My story became such: I’m a physician burnout expert and I have to save all the physicians from burnout. It’s my responsibility to get my program and blog and website and coaching just right so no one suffers in burnout anymore. Hurry up, they need you and are waiting for you.
For some, this story might be motivating? For me, telling myself such led me to putting crazy pressure on myself, and I immediately crumbled under the pressure.
But I wouldn’t admit that to myself.
Just like when I previously felt burnout in my doctor career, I told myself “you’re fine. Keep pushing. Stop being such a baby. You know you only have first world and privileged problems which aren’t REALLY problems.”
And so the past year went by with me working hard (while still working full-time as a physician) writing and creating and re-writing and re-creating while not producing much and recognizing that something wasn’t right, but defaulting back to my old patterns of self-deceit and self-flagellation.
And then I found myself insidiously sliding into familiar territory: burnout. I found myself more cynical and pessimistic. I found myself feeling emotionally weary. I found myself feeling more and more impotent and dazed in my life, perpetuating my belief that I most be incompetent and inadequate after all, yet all the while checking out from the discomfort of such by telling myself everything was fine. By telling myself I’m a burnout expert, now go do something about it already. And so I kept “working.”
If you’ve read this far I imagine you either like watching train wrecks or are as interested in human psychology and behavior as I am.
This whole experience is pretty painful.
But I’m also fascinated by it all. I can step back and see, wow, I’m creating this undesirable life experience for myself. Why do I do this to myself?
What if when I felt the pressure I put on myself to be a “perfect” burnout coach I was able to admit that to myself and explore that, instead of creating these layers of pain on top of it?
What if I was able to admit to myself at the beginning that I was scared: scared of failure in this new life venture, scared of letting people down, scared of letting myself down?
The truth is, I DO know a lot about burnout. I know I can help people with burnout. I know I can create tools to help treat and prevent burnout. I get excited thinking about this.
And going through this past year, as covertly unpleasant as it was, I’m practicing accepting, embracing even, that this is my journey.
I want to fight that notion. My default is “but it shouldn’t have been this way. I shouldn’t have wasted a year. I should have myself figured out by now. I certainly shouldn’t have tipped back into feeling burnout. What a failure—a burnout coach feeling burned out again. Some coach I am.”
Perhaps all that is true. Perhaps. No doubt one can argue for such.
But perhaps other versions are true. Perhaps it should’ve been this way. Perhaps I do have myself figured out. Or perhaps I don’t and I shouldn’t. Perhaps I should’ve tipped back into feeling burned out. Perhaps I didn’t fail. Or perhaps I did, and that’s okay. Some coach I AM!!
Which is true?
I’m such a stickler for Truth. Show me the proof, the facts. I love this about me.
But as with all our traits, they live within a dichotomy, and there is a cost to being so heavily evidence-driven.
We all tend to think our thoughts are Truth, but perhaps even more so those of us who hang the hats of our lives and careers on evidence. Most of our thoughts are subjective stories, not objective truth, yet I so quickly forget that because I have so much evidence for whatever it is I’m thinking at the time, and that evidence is GOLD, irrefutable (or so I think, so it must be true).
Google “President Trump is the best” and “President Trump is the worst.” You’ll find “evidence” for both. The same happens in our brains, yet just like you’ll only google one of those Trump queries depending on how you already feel about him, your brain will only naturally seek evidence for that which supports how you’re already thinking and feeling about yourself.
It’s not that our brains our wrong, giving us misinformation or deluding us. Rather, our brains will construct stories to confirm how we already think and feel. It’s just doing it’s job, trying to be efficient.
My brain’s default seems to be finding evidence for the story “There’s something wrong with you.” It’ll google that allllll day long and find evidence for such. Ouch.
I’ve been aware of this tendency of mine, but hadn’t realized how it had applied here.
I thought I just had an underlying belief that I must avoid failure at all costs.
But that’s not the whole story, if that’s even the story at all. I had a goal to have a coaching program out in the world by now and I don’t. I failed. This doesn’t feel great. But it’s not horrible. And it’s not nearly as painful and paralyzing as the spin cycle I put myself through this year.
It’s really more the fear of the anticipation of failure, or perhaps fear of the unknown, that I’ve been avoiding all along. I (subconsciously, until recently) thought there was something wrong with me for feeling afraid and as such had to avoid that feeling. I did some serious mental gymnastics and behavior modifications to avoid feeling afraid.
That’s so good to know about myself. It only took a year to figure it out.
Some day I’m going to be so grateful for this year, the lessons in it and the life trajectory recalibration it lead to. I’m not there yet.
But I can say I am learning to have a deeper love and compassion for myself and all the humans. Life is hard. This is some tough shit we’re contending with in our brains and our emotions.
I could checkout and stick with my status quo. I don’t have to be a life coach. I don’t have to create a business. I don’t have to put my voice out there. I can stay put right where I am, nothing wrong with that. But I don’t want to, I want more. I used to think this drive for more meant I was ungrateful for what I have (and it’s wrong of me to be ungrateful, enter self-punishment), but I don’t believe that at all anymore. I am crazy grateful. But the field of positive psychology studies what it takes to have well-being, not just the absence of disease, and personal growth comes up time and again as an important component of well-being.
Within my lens of “there’s something wrong with you” I tend to interpret things being difficult as me obviously doing it wrong, or being on the wrong path. Neither is true.
It turns out, personal growth is difficult. Like building muscle and bone, it takes tearing down the old to build the new.
Identifying and tearing down some well-grooved stories, identities and beliefs that no longer serve us well to make room for more useful ones is tough work, but perhaps that’s what makes it worth it. That, and what we get to experience on the other side of doing such: a more intimate, authentic, loving and compassionate relationship with self and the potential for a life that will blow our current beliefs of what is possible out of the water. Achievements and accomplishments? They may be on the other side of growth, but aren’t necessary for the sense of well-being that comes with the process of personal growth.
Wherever we are on our life journey right now—a smooth spot or struggling, content or restless, or somewhere in between—perhaps we can practice accepting and embracing it. Perhaps it’s exactly where we’re supposed to be. Perhaps, if we’re willing to take a closer look inward, we’ll find some scary and profound truths that will show us more of ourselves—who we think we are, who we wish we were, who we wish we weren’t, who we think it’s impossible to become, who we might have the potential to become. Perhaps we can love it all. And perhaps from there, from that place of self-acceptance, we can face ourselves head on. That’s all we’re ever up against, anyway.