Bitterness is cancer – it eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.Maya Angelou
At a recent holiday party, I was talking to a close friend who works at Ivory Tower U, in my field, where I trained. In addition to being a close friend (we introduced him to his wife, in fact), I have always considered him to be my best source for substantive information and idle gossip of the goings on in my old department. I secretly considered him a potential future employer, too, for some theoretical next chapter in my career.
I knew from recent conversations that he was increasingly unhappy with his practice, but I figured it was the usual doctor bitching. Few of us docs in our 50’s are “rainbows and unicorns” happy about our jobs.
On this particular occasion, however, he informed me that he had reached the end of the line, and he was plotting his mid-50’s escape.
In addition to being a world class and renowned expert in his field, he had been such a great ambassador for his department in the past. Now, there was nothing left but loathing.
The negativity, in both his voice and facial expressions, was powerful, overwhelming and unexpected… but familiar at the same time. Where had I seen such turnabout resentment before?
Oh, yeah, that was me a couple years ago.
A Bitter Pill
Bitterness is an emotion that is increasingly found in ourselves and in our medical colleagues, in this era of endless acronyms that hold sway, our individual and collective lack of control, and a society that has largely turned on its healers. One can easily understand the waves of resentment that build among physicians.
In fact, pick your poison:
Insurance company denials
Increasing documentation requirements
“Publish or perish”
Medical malpractice threats
Large student loan burdens
(Name your “bitter pill” that I have failed to include)
We all deal with one or more of these, daily, and sometimes multiple factors at once.
It is a wonder, at times, that anyone chooses to continue to work in a medical career. “Will the last Doc left please turn out the lights?”
Bitterness is not productive
Bitterness is a reaction, usually to multiple assaults over time, and is not the least bit productive. (See Maya Angelou quote above.) It is usually pretty obvious when you are bitter, and people around you will sense your bitterness.
Resentment reflects poorly on you and adds to the negativity of the work environment, a vicious cycle that can contribute even more to your bitterness.
And that’s not good for anyone.
Bitterness is not burnout, but they are certainly first cousins and may co-exist. The bitter doctor will not be focused more on his/her own issues, not those of the patient or the organization. No one benefits from burnout, least of all the aggrieved.
The Hospital will not love you back
When I was in an earlier bitter stage, I felt that my Hospital did not appreciate me, that I had given it my blood, sweat, and tears for 20 years, and I was not treated with the same level of loyalty and value.
I felt like a scorned lover.
A wise partner, one had a previous life in the US Army prior to going to medical school, recognized this and told me that they had a saying in the Army: “The Army will not love you back.”
And the same is true of the Hospital. The Hospital will not love you back.
Is Money the Cure?
Both my bitter friend and I are financially independent (FI). In other words, we do not have to work, but we work because we want to work. If bitterness is creeping into your professional life, it is time to flex the FI muscle and find or create a work life that does not leave that bitter taste in your mouth.
There are other potential cures, too.
You cannot often choose your immediate circumstances, but you can certainly choose to respond to them. If there are tangible things that are inciting this sense of bitterness, perhaps you can strip some of these away, and maybe the bitterness will be assuaged.
My friend gave notice this week that he will part company with his current position. He has found a new amalgamation of part time jobs and roles that will allow him to work on his terms and on clinical work, research and teaching projects that he values the most.
The politics and negativity of the unloving Ivory Tower will no longer be in his life, and the bitterness will fade.
There are multiple lessons here, from the experience of myself and my colleague.
- Bitterness is a common reaction to the numerous, cumulative disappointments of the medical career.
- As a wasted negative emotion, bitterness has no redeeming value.
- It is poison to the people around you (at work and at home).
- Maintaining an emotional distance, an arm’s length relationship, with your employer, your department, your Hospital (system), and or your University (if applicable) may help stave off bitterness.
I am no longer bitter.
It is a temporary state, when expectations are unmet and often unrealistic. It usually occurs when the individual has made too great an emotional investment in his or her career.
I no longer love my Hospital or practice, though I certainly have great fondness for many of the people. I am primarily doing the work I enjoy, mostly on my terms, which we should all strive to do over time.
Vagabond: I always love your posts. So, it was with great honor that I post this one. Your view on balancing expectations and reality is key here. Being a doctor who has bordered on burnout (or bitterness) over the last six months, what you are preaching is very real.
Thanks for being a living example of what balance looks like and how to achieve it.