From OB/GYN to self-compassion: a physician’s tale of transformation

An excerpt from The Birth of Joy: A Female Physician’s Healing Journey through Childhood Trauma, Midlife Burnout, and the Rediscovery of Passion and Purpose.

As an OB/GYN, I had found my calling. I loved delivering babies, performing surgery, and the long-term relationships I built with my patients. But I became irritable, angry, and resentful. My life became my work–at the expense of my family and myself. My work was my identity. My pager would buzz and my heart would pound. I felt like I was always running away from the charging tiger. But this adrenaline rush was not occasional; it was all the time. I was miserable, and I felt like I was the only one struggling. I was burned out. And I didn’t even know it. I just knew that I felt awful.

For too many physicians, the story stops here. They quit their jobs, their profession, and sometimes their lives. Women physicians are at particular risk. When they come home from work, they start their second shift—the work at home. What is it about becoming a physician that leads us to self-sacrifice and then to guilt and shame over not holding it all together? How and why do we hide our misery from those around us until it’s too late? What self-destructive behaviors do we use to cope?

As humans, we learn our ways of thinking, our habits, and our work ethic in our youth. Our parents mold our minds until we can take over for ourselves. On the medical career track, we go from our parents’ care to college, then to medical school, and then to residency without really having much autonomy or freedom of thought. In his book, Solving for Why, Mark Shrime calls this the “moving sidewalk.” Following this straight-lined path reinforces a fixed mindset and sets us up for a fall when the going gets tough.

So how can we save ourselves from discontent, self-sabotage, and physical and mental illness, and rise with self-compassion, good health, inspiration, fulfillment, and joy?

I have spent many years trying to figure this out for myself. And the answers I’ve discovered are in the pages of this book. My answers have come in many forms, with the help of self-reflection and evaluation of my past, and with the help of friends, family, therapists, and coaches. My quest for answers has led me to a deep understanding of how experiences and relationships in childhood affected my thoughts, choices, and behaviors. In these pages, I honestly describe my experiences so that you may recognize that the “perfect” childhood is often far from perfect.

I hesitated to use the word “trauma” regarding my past. From the outside, I had an easy and privileged life. After reading Besser van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, and Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal, both about how early life traumas can affect the body and mind, I realized that not everyone has to experience “big T” trauma to see the ramifications later in life. “Little t” traumas can be just as damaging. At sixty, I have finally come to understand what happened to me.

When I was a child, my parents divorced, and I lived with my mother, a clinical psychologist. She mixed praise and rewards with a lot of yelling. She expected perfection. She remarried and re-divorced. She threatened suicide. She threatened to send me to live with my father. She criticized my body. She criticized my choices in men and my parenting. She demanded attention and communication from me that I could not provide.

Yet I always felt like I was the problem. I could never please her. We became estranged. She never got to know my kids and they never had a grandmother. I was angry at her for many years, which persisted even after her death.

What I can promise you, dear reader, is that you will likely recognize some of the same themes in your upbringing, training, and career path that I had, and that you may develop some insight into your own negative thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. I hope you find understanding, self-compassion, and inspiration, along with the courage to revisit your past so that you too can heal your wounds and choose a new path forward—from past resentment, fear, and anger toward acceptance, self-compassion, and transformation. You do not need to stay stuck in an unfulfilled life.

You may think, like I did, that the path to your dream medical career is a straight line. If I had stayed on that straight line, I would still be miserable. Don’t let this be you. Your path can have twists, turns, and forks in the road, leading in directions that you may never have dreamed of. And this does not mean you need to leave medicine. It means you need to figure out what called you there.

It’s time to take bold action and start exploring what your life could be. Why not take some time away from your current hamster wheel to rest your body and mind? Give yourself some mental space to brainstorm. What are your core desires and your core values? What are your options? Use your imagination to envision your future—five years, ten years, twenty years down the road. Don’t be ashamed to tell someone you are struggling. A therapist, a coach, a close friend, or a colleague can help you clarify your next steps.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” I took that step, and so can you.

And before you know it, you will be on your way to finding your purpose and joy.

Beverly Joyce is an obstetrician-gynecologist and physician coach. She is the author of The Birth of Joy: A Female Physician’s Healing Journey through Childhood Trauma, Midlife Burnout, and the Rediscovery of Passion and Purpose.

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