The Physician Philosopher Podcast

What Stops Doctors From Making a Change

Whenever a doctor comes into the Alpha Coaching Experience (or ACE as we call it) it is almost always for one of two reasons.

Physician Disability Insurance

They are either:

(1) burned out (or burning out) in medicine and want help figuring out how to create a life they actually love. They want to figure out how to look forward to (or at least tolerate) their next shift, instead of sitting in their car dreading each time they pull into the parking garage.

Or (2) they are thinking about making a career transition of some kind and want help figuring out how to take that next step. They’ve often tried to find a new job, go part-time, or started a side-gig of some kind and it didn’t offer the satisfaction, happiness, or contentment they were looking for. 

This naturally begs the question, though. Why are so many intelligent, educated, and hard-working physicians struggling? They say they want to stop physician burnout. Why don’t they just take themselves out of their current situation and find something better?

The answer is fear.  

So, in this episode, I wanted to discuss some of the common fears that I see among our physician clients in ACE and others who reach out to me through email and social media. And what you can do to overcome those fears.

My Own Fear

Before this episode turns into the pot calling the kettle black, I want to share that I am not an exception to the various fears that I’ve seen in other doctors. Perfectionism in healthcare workers is a widespread issue.

In fact, battling some of the fears we will discuss is still a daily or weekly struggle for me. In particular, the fear of failure. Yet, I’ve learned how to co-exist with these fears, instead of letting them paralyze me. 

This is why 2 Timothy 1:7 has quickly become one of my favorite Biblical verses. I shared it at the beginning of the show. It states that the spirit that God gave us is not one of fear, but of strength, love, and self-control.  

While you may not prescribe to the same religious tradition as I do, I think that there is a lot to learn from the principles taught in this verse. We do not have to live in a state of fear, and there is a lot to learn about how strength, love, and self-control can help us fight against the common fears doctors have when looking to create a career and life they actually love.

So, let’s talk about some of the common fears that doctors experience and how we can overcome them and help stop physician burnout.

Fear of Failure

When I started as an entrepreneur, like many doctors I was a perfectionist. Like I said before, perfectionism in healthcare workers is common. And the idea of failure was paralyzing to me. This is, by far and away, the most common fear among doctors.

For me, it manifested as questions.  What if I tried to create a business and failed?  If I went part-time to try and make this business work, would I derail my career as an academic doc? Would people judge me and throw it in my face?  Would people think less of me?  What about the judgment I’d surely face?

In coaching, we always make our clients answer their questions when they ask them.  In this case, if I was being honest, answering most of these questions caused a singular paralyzing fear. The fear of failure.

…but I’m supposed to be a strong doctor.  I’m not supposed to be afraid of anything, right?

This reminds me a bit of the song “Like Toy Soldiers” by Eminem where he talks about being a strong soldier even though he holds the weight of the whole world on his shoulders.

Too many doctors have this idea that we have to be perfect. Coupling this with the common narrative in medicine that “asking for help is a sign of weakness”… sets us up to fail either way.  We either fail by never trying or by never seeking the help we need to help us figure it out.  

Even if we know that perfection is logically impossible, our brains constantly tell us that if we make a mistake or fail, then WE are a failure. 

Overgeneralizing Failure

When we take any single instance in our life and make it determine who we are, we are falling into a cognitive distortion or thought error called “Overgeneralization.”

This is the thought error that tells us that a single moment or set of moments defines who and what we are.  

So, for example, if you have a bad patient outcome and find yourself believing that this means you are a “bad doctor,” you are falling into the trap of overgeneralization.  

When it comes to the fear of failure, the reason many of us fear it so much is because of what we make that failure mean. When we overgeneralize failures to mean that WE are a failure, of course our brains are going to tell us to do anything and everything we can to avoid it. Right?

Redefining Failure

The best way to overcome the fear of failure is to redefine exactly what we make failure mean.  This comes in a two-part method.

First, we have to define failure.  

 Was it really a failure when you had a bad patient outcome or got that “bad” online review?  What if I told you that it wasn’t a failure at all? What if your patient had poorly controlled diabetes, an infection when they presented to you, obesity, and smoked? When your patient experiences a poorly healing surgical wound, is that really a failure?

It turns out that WE are the ones who get to define what a failure is in the first place. Are you looking at the facts when it comes to your perceived failure? Or is this simply what you are making it mean?

Learn to find some self-compassion in your failure. Learn to love yourself, just like you’d love someone else. If we are being honest, I bet if you told your story to someone else, they wouldn’t treat you nearly as harshly as you are treating yourself.

Viewing Failure as an Opportunity, Not an Obstacle

The second part to this is what we get to define what failure means, even when we decide to define something a failure. In entrepreneurship there is a saying that “you either get what you want or you get the lesson you need.”  

What if you avoided the thought error of overgeneralization and, instead, you decided to view this “failure” as an opportunity to learn? What if you reframed this into a personal retrospective debrief where you asked yourself the quintessential three questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What could be improved?
  3. How will I handle this next time so that it doesn’t happen again?

Failure Can Be The Best Teacher

And, truthfully, this is the most important lesson that entrepreneurship has taught me: Learn to love failure. 

Failure is not final. In fact, failure is usually a sign that I am on the right path.  Sounds strange, right?

Except it shouldn’t.  

What if you viewed failure the same way when you were a kid? Every time you tried to stand up at first, you fell. What if you made that mean you’d never succeed? What about the first time you went to walk and fell? It is the same thing, isn’t it?

What about the first time you gave a public speech? Operated on a patient as an attending physician?  

If you look back on these firsts, you likely cringe a little bit when you see how far you’ve come.  Just like I cringe a little bit when I go back and listen to my first podcasts or read my first blog posts. They were horrifically bad.

Yet, I kept crawling til I could stand. And then I stood til I could walk. And I kept walking until I could run. Failure after failure, I slowly learned how to do what seemed impossible at first.  

Doctors can do the same when it comes to figuring out their next step in their journey. Yet, while you can do it alone, you don’t have to do it by yourself. 

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