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What I’ve learned in a 10-year career about worthiness

March 31, 2021

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I’ve been thinking a lot about worthiness. People talk about this in self-development circles, and I find it an interesting topic to explore when it comes to medical professionals like doctors. We are drawn to this service profession for different reasons. Some reasons are as unique as we are, while others are common. But my guess is when it comes to feeling worthy, you might be doing it wrong. I was. You see in medicine, many docs suffer from an arrival fallacy. We think we’ll be happy when we complete med school. Then, if that doesn’t happen, we’ll be happy when we finally get out of training. But sometimes the goalpost keeps moving, stymying our happiness. I think we do this with worthiness too. Here’s what I’ve figured out about worthiness in my medical career so far. 

Selecting for those who want to prove worthiness

Medicine selects a lot of high achievers, and there are plenty of reasons to achieve. For me, it was looking for the best way to ensure a secure position in the world, where I’d always be needed. Being able to help people in my work was an obvious bonus– I could learn to help people with my skills, giving my work a greater sense of purpose. I thought a medical career would impart a sense of social and financial security. In times of COVID-19, we learned just how insecure our positions can be. Nonetheless, I suspect medicine selects for competitive, driven folks, some of whom wish to prove themselves. And we think, when we become doctors, we’ll have arrived. We’ll be unquestionably worthy.  

Training is like cutting your teeth… on a meat tenderizer

Then, we go into training where we are beaten down a bit. We are corrected by everyone from our senior resident to the cleaning crew. I’m not exaggerating; it can be emotionally taxing. Meanwhile, we are just trying to keep up with the amount of information we must absorb and retain. Many of us don’t feel worthy at this stage. I certainly questioned my worthiness in the setting of my own training program. It was a competitive, grueling ride, and I often considered myself the dumbest one in my class. It’s an occupational hazard of surrounding yourself by smarties I guess. 

I shipped off to fellowship and on to my first job. After caring for some of the sickest transplant patients in the world, I felt like I could handle almost anything. Maybe I felt worthy. I felt grateful to land in a position at all, after a long job search in a tough job market. I felt lucky they took a chance on me. Now, it was my mission to prove my worthiness, in a new environment, with new rules.

Women’s worthiness in traditionally male spaces

Personally, I’ve noticed this worthiness question lurks under the surface. It’s sort of always there, affecting my interactions and my experience. I wonder if it’s an unexamined question for women like me, especially in male-dominated fields like mine. We have to prove we belong here: that we are just as dedicated as the guys. That we won’t take too much maternity leave. That we can be trusted and won’t have untoward complications. When we do hard things, it can tax our worthiness meter. 

Finding my worthiness

I’m working on finding my worthiness seven years after medical training. On the one hand, I know I have a tremendous worth. I save lives for heaven’s sake. And I make my bosses and the hospital plenty of money while I’m at it. I’m worth… millions or priceless or whatever. But I’ve seen physicians tie their self-worth to other people’s metrics, or other people’s expectations, and I think that’s a problem.

I lost two physician co-workers to suicide last year. Just at my institution. For one of them– the clearly intentional suicide– I wonder if his sense of worth and purpose were TOO wrapped up in his identity as a surgeon, and as he circled the final lap, preparing to hand off leadership of the program he’d built, he lost his reason to live. I think about him all the time. I wonder if our sense of self-worth makes us vulnerable to that biochemically-driven, clinical depression that can take us into a deep hole, beyond where rational explanations can save us. 

Why worthiness?

My foray into worthiness has come from delving into the semi-spiritual. Some believe we can create our biggest dreams by believing in our innate worthiness: we have a divine right to realize whatever we could imagine. It might sound far-fetched, but you can do this by believing in your worthiness. So it’s a concept worth at least exploring, whether it gets you that dream life or not. In my view, it’s worth just feeling… worth it. 

It means not questioning yourself all the time

As our kids run around the park, I chat with a gorgeous young mom, who tells me about about her days as a stay-at-home wife. Practicing my worthiness makes me more open to conversations like these. I don’t ruminate about how she cooks her kids 3 meals a day, and I could never do that. Her experience interests me. Here at the park, we are just moms. And there’s no one best way to be a mom- whether you stay at home or work outside of it.

I decided if you’re at the park having fun until dusk, you’re a good mom, and that is all. There are no organic snacks on my person; in fact, my kid is ravenous and eating all of hers. Just being with our new friends is fun. In the past, I might have ruined the moment with my sense of unworthiness. She’s a trophy wife, and no one would ever consider me that. In the past, I sometimes felt like being a doctor was my whole identity, especially when meeting someone new. I’d worry they would treat me differently, or pepper me with questions about their family’s ailments. This time, we chat about our vaccine status, and she asks, “Are you a doctor?”

I nod. “What kind?” 

“A radiologist.” 

My new friend asks what life was like in the hospital through the pandemic. Then, we move on to another topic. I am just myself, and she’s good company. I’m flexing my worthiness with all the people, and it’s a work in progress. 

You’re worth it

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  1. Firstly I’m sorry to hear about the co-physicians, my condolences. This post is really opening because it made me do some introspection. I think with the field of medicine and life in general we get so wrapped up in our careers it becomes or identity. One of the first questions people ask is when we meet them is what do you do.
    I think it’s important to nourish it hobbies and interests since those are key parts of who we are and not lose them especially in medicine.
    Overall I think entering medicine we all strive to prove to ourselves and others that we are capable to achieving this feat. I can’t clearly answer on my behalf but I definitely have people I want to make proud as well as leave the world better than I found out. Hoping medicine helps me to do this!

    • Tired Superheroine says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments! I agree, we are so wrapped up in what we are doing that it becomes who we are, and this is understandable. Especially in medicine for so many reasons. And it’s supported by our culture! in medicine and at large! I know you will have a great impact. Keep sharing your enthusiasm here and on Twitter, it’s appreciated.

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