Physician Thriving: Simple is Good
By Hilary McClafferty, MD, FAAP
We are in uncharted waters. Uncertainty is our constant, viral transmission is accelerating, and it feels like the world is on fire. Trying to capture and convey the sheer scope of emotion and complexity of this time is daunting.
For example, in the past 48 hours I have talked with three health care professionals in tears, quite simply overwhelmed by thinking about their responsibilities. Fine, strong, capable professionals brought to their knees by the exhausting wave of work, childcare, teaching, grocery acquisition, caring for a parent, a special needs child, a spouse on medication, who is a transplant recipient, who has been laid off, who needs to see their specialist, by wondering if there will be sufficient PPE next week, and the week after that, and one after that. People who will show up to work, to care for others when they are truly needed at home, because that is what they do.
We feel for them, we are them. What we are facing collectively is a pressure so amplified that suddenly what came before, when just one of every two of us was so burned out that we were ready to leave medicine, seems quite manageable in retrospect. This is different, beyond burnout, beyond resilience, beyond the unrealistic endurance drilled into us in training. This feels more like a war, when your choices and actions have actual life or death consequences.
When faltering or showing weakness will let the side down, where fear cannot be allowed to stop one from doing your job, your duty, fulfilling your oath and promise. This feels like sacrifice with one’s eyes wide open, knowing that going in to work is the right thing to do, despite our worry, or our dismay over a politicized public health crisis and in hope that the colleague next to us is taking the risk as seriously.
When we are in this moment, with coping skills stretched to capacity, the stream of thoughts and judgments about whether or not we are doing a ‘good enough’ job in our lives can seem never-ending. Are we being careful enough at work? Are the kids getting behind, losing skills, missing out on their first day of kindergarten? Will they be damaged by missing a traditional high-school graduation, by online classes, by not seeing their friends in person? How many playdates can be missed before lasting social setback occurs? Am I insufficient if I can’t be home on the weekend, or the national holiday because of work? Am I scaring my family too much by self-isolating to minimize germ spread? Or am I exposing them by being too lax, because I don’t want to scare them? And on, and on.
When I see this occurring in others it is much easier to recognize than when I am doing it myself. The self-flagellation, the doubt, the judgment. It is in times like these that we need to remind each other to ‘circle the wagons’, to pause, to rest, to connect and pool resources. If there was ever a time to employ mindfulness and bring intentionality to our actions, it is now.
How we were before is over. Things that seemed important then are less relevant. Now we need to let go of unnecessary things, and ideas, and beliefs, and behaviors. You simply do not have the capacity. Give yourself a break. You are doing a good job, you are, in fact, doing a great job in extraordinarily difficult times. The approach needed is this: when you come to a metaphorical fork in the road, make the choice that will simplify your life. What is the easiest thing that will accomplish your objective? Do that. Let the overachiever in you off the hook. Then resist the impulse to second guess, doubt, and criticize yourself. Right now, simple is good. Simple is enough.
Society is collectively being challenged to new levels of resourcefulness, collaboration, and problem solving. Another key principle in simplifying your life is realizing that you are not required to have all the answers. This pandemic is a group exercise and every single person, including children who are old enough, are required to adapt and evolve to meet the moment. Rather than trying to fix things for others as you were trained to do, shift your approach to a shared problem-solving model in your work and in your family circle. This is a time to invite others to step up. Significant growth opportunities exist among the ongoing challenges. Allow others the chance to contribute. Reinforce the guiding principle that simple is good. It is enough.
This pandemic shall eventually pass, and when we are taking stock afterwards, I hope you will emerge stronger and wiser. I hope that you are able to say you were able to maintain your health and physical fitness during the chaos. That you resisted the feeling of overwhelm most of the time. That you were kind to yourself, ate healthy food, prioritized restorative sleep, scaled back to life’s simple basics. I hope you will find a sliver of silver lining hidden somewhere in this collective, lifechanging experience, and are able to tell yourself that you gave enough, did enough, and are, indeed, enough.
Hilary McClafferty, MD, FAAP, is board certified in pediatrics, pediatric emergency medicine, and integrative medicine. She writes and speaks nationally on physician wellbeing, resiliency, and whole physician wellness. She is a member of the International Coach Federation, certified physician coach, certified in Positive Psychology and Well-Being Coaching, and author of two books: Mind-Body Medicine in Clinical Practice and Integrative Pediatrics: Art, Science, and Clinical Application. She practices pediatric emergency medicine and is host of the popular podcast Physician Thriving www.physicianthriving.org.