Doctors Aren’t Superheroes, We’re Human

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Our profession often sends the message that we are invincible heroes.

Here’s my vulnerable and honest admission: I lapped that up. There was something so seductive about denying pesky human requirements, like sleep, regular exercise, and time to decompress. I liked being needed more than I liked having needs.

I sublimated mine under my superhero cape right up until the time I hit a kryptonite wall. There was no specific event or red flag. I simply ran out of the energy needed to push myself so hard, like a tire with a slow leak that finally deflates.

I am not saying it was my fault that I burned out. Professional burnout is caused by ongoing excessive stress in the workplace and system issues. However, my actions — buying into that superhuman persona and not accessing help when I needed it — made it worse.

After I left clinical practice, the burnout symptoms faded, but the experience left its mark. It changed me. What I now know is that it changed me for the better.

Burnout humbled me and brought me face-to-face with the truth I’d been denying for so long: I am human, not a superhero. As inconvenient as it may be sometimes, I have human limitations, needs, and feelings. I need help sometimes.

When I left practice, work that allowed me to acknowledge and meet my human needs was top on my priority list. I sometimes slip back into denying I’m human but aspire each day to make progress in keeping my priorities straight. This is a good thing.

If I knew back in training and practice what I know now, I would have looked for the support and mentoring that would have helped me to forge a path in clinical medicine. But I saw help as an admission of weakness. I felt too much shame and guilt to even consider asking for any.

While I regret that I didn’t access help before leaving practice, I am grateful to have learned an important lesson early and had the chance to course-correct my life. I’m a happier, more balanced person because of it.

I am awed by my physician colleagues who have known all along to put their human needs first — the old oxygen-mask-on-the-plane analogy. Thank you for the example you set for our profession.

Over time, perhaps there will be a new message that we all embrace: We are humans first and inspiring, gifted healers second.

Diane W. Shannon, MD, MPH, is an internal medicine physician and physician coach and can be reached at her self-titled site, Diane W. Shannon.

This post appeared on KevinMD.

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