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I am who I am, and not what I do: Redefining self-identity to combat physician burnout

“What do you do?” This is often the question used to spark a conversation in a new acquaintance, to get to know who they are. But aren’t you more than what you do for a job? And isn’t it more interesting to know what a person is passionate about, not necessarily what they spend their 9 to 5 doing? I think this common question highlights the fact that our identities often are interwoven into our job titles. But is this really healthy? Is it truly the whole story of who we are? And, more importantly, in our example as physicians, do our patients really want us to simply be a doctor? It is more interesting and more reassuring, I think, to know that the clinician in front of you is more than a man or woman in a white coat. He or she is a fellow human being, faced with varied challenges, passions and heartaches in life. The physician in front of you is human and truly “gets” you and what you are going through in this journey called life. If the physician in front of you did not really relate to you and your life struggles, how could you trust the advice they give?

One powerful tool that I have started using in my life has been to redefine my identity in the last several years. I am learning to define myself as more than simply a family physician. For example, I want to be strong, hardworking, caring and compassionate. And taking this journey of redefining myself has personally helped me to combat a foe that many physicians, I believe, know all too well: burnout. I think the reason so many clinicians face burnout is tied to our tendency to wrap our self-identities so tightly into “what we do” rather than who we truly are.

I believe physician burnout also stems from the fact that physicians work in a profession with such high and unforgiving stakes. We must make decisions that impact the health and sometimes survival of our patients, who look to us for guidance and support. An incorrect decision could be detrimental.

Many of us in the caring profession of being a doctor also are naturally prone to be “Type A.” It is hard to turn that “need for perfection” button off, even when we try. How many weekends or vacations have you spent worrying about a patient or decision? Or how many of you (gasp) are guilty of opening your computer or email client on your phone to work when you are supposed to be “off?” Are you ever truly off in such a demanding profession?

I recently read a children’s book with my children, “Little Miss Busy,” by Roger Hargreaves, that I think humorously paints a picture of a hardworking person. Miss Busy awakens at 3 a.m. each morning, and works tirelessly to clean her house, twice, before going to bed at midnight each evening. That is, until she unfortunately becomes ill. She is faced with advice from several friends. The advice ultimately boils down to the fact she needs to relax. How many of you out there have struggled with the skill of relaxing? I certainly have.

My own journey toward self-improvement has taken place over the last few years, as I have combated burnout. This journey has led me to embrace my outside interests with greater fervor. I am more than my job, and it is crucial that I make my outside interests a priority. This includes how I value my relationships, particularly with my family, and my hobbies. This is still a work in progress, but I am learning to reshape my identity and feelings of self-worth away from work, and instead have focused on how I can be a better version of me.

I think one powerful way to combat physician burnout is learning how to see yourself as more than a physician. Life is rich, varied and surprising. Sure, life is full of a lot of pain and disease (physicians can certainly attest to that). But there also is tremendous beauty as well, even in the hard things. Often, I find I am too focused on the wrong parts of life to see that – the daily task list in front of me, the eight-hour shift that I need to complete today, the huge pile of laundry I must complete, a workout for the day that I want to cross off of my training plan.

It is nice to see what you have done, and to get recognized for it, be it a medal, a certificate, or a diploma. But in the grand scheme of things, do these really matter? Instead, I have strived to shift my focus to building aspects of myself that I want (to be a supportive wife, to be a caring mother, to be strong, to be patient, to be kind). With this shift in focus, I feel I am able to steel myself against the aspects of physician burnout that can be so unhealthy – busy and long hours, a need for perfection, and not taking time to relax. I hope that any of you out there struggling with physician burnout can take something from my story that may help you, too. Redefining myself as more than a physician is an ongoing process, but one that I believe will lead to a healthier, happier and more complete me.


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