When I was in medical school, I remember watching a lot of relatively young women leave medicine. There were generally mid-30s to 40s, with young children, several with a spouse also in medicine. They were generally popular preceptors for medical students, particularly female medical students who had looked up to them as “having it all.” But then they left.
I remember thinking, “not me.” Thinking that I would “never do that.” Thinking that I would be “tougher.”
I had no idea what was going on. But I judged them. And some part of me coded their actions as “failure.”
Now having reached that stage of life, in my early 40s, 2 kids, spouse in medicine, and having left my practice last year, I get it. I’ve gotten it for years really, but I fought with it, because it seemed like failure.
But there is so much here that needs to be unpacked. And we are so used to hiding our lived experiences from others that it’s worth unpacking here.
Medicine is a culture of perfectionism, which is really a shield for shame. We strive to do better, be smarter, be respected, be liked, and avoid shame at all costs. Most of us had some of this before we started training, and our training only made it worse. Throw parenting in, where we might toss out a few casual quips about how hard it is, but never really let on how much we struggle at home.
And those judgments that we carry, about what you have seen others do (or not do), and what you made their decisions mean, can keep us trapped.
If you had a colleague leave medicine, choose to stay home with their children, pursue a new career, or start a business right now, what would you think? What would you make it mean about them? What would you make it mean about you to keep going?
For years, I watched colleagues leave, and I used it in all kinds of ways. I was the one who was going to keep going. I was more committed to the mission. I was going to make it work (gritting my teeth). I wasn’t going to abandon ship. There was all kinds of judgment there. And I was steeping myself in it.
So when I made the decision to leave, it was a challenge. First, I secretly looked for other jobs. Then I chose to get another board certification so that I could do something that I could judge as “worthwhile,” and I did this secretly. And once I achieved that certification, only then could I quit and tell people my plan. But it was all fear and judgment. Fear of being judged. And all the while, judging myself it I dared to leave without a “something” to leave for.
I couldn’t see this at the time. But I see it now. And I have learned to reflect on that experience with kindness and compassion. How trapped did I feel that I felt that these actions were necessary? How afraid was I to leave something that didn’t suit me anymore, without a “plan.”
My judgment was very real. And I don’t love how it reflects on me that this was my story, but again, I have learned to see myself with kindness. I needed treatment for PTSD. I needed to feel safe (and I didn’t). I needed room to breathe.
To err [and to judge] is human; to forgive [yourself] divine.