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Your Human Brain is Wired for Story (and the stories aren’t always true….)

burnout people-pleasing Apr 27, 2024

Our brains are beautiful, amazing and complex organs. At this point in your life, your brain is also full of knowledge; perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of facts, data, and problem-solving capacities.

And, as much as we like to think that we are rational, data-driven, evidence-based-science-loving creatures, our brains, like all other humans, create stories.

And not all of the stories are true.

And not all of the stories are good for you.

We create stories to serve our biological need for survival. We need to connect signals with danger (rustling sound in the bushes might equal a snake which is dangerous; therefore my brain triggers an alarm when I hear a rustling sound in the bushes so that I don’t die from a venomous snake bite). We need too to have stories/systems that drive other behaviors associated with survival; we get dopamine when we find ripe berries, rewarding the behavior of eating the berries, so that we don’t die of starvation for example.

It's completely natural and normal that our brains do this, and they do it very well, creating stories and explanations to keep us safe, to keep us alive.

But most of our current “threats” aren’t snakes or starvation. Our current “threats” are work deadlines/schedules, diagnosing (or missing) disease, patient satisfaction scores, making it all “look easy.” And these same “threats” still operate in our human brains, using the same circuitry of dopamine, or fear/danger/alarm, and therefore we still create stories.

                I can’t keep patients waiting while I finish the note, everyone will be mad at me

                If I don’t address every concern they will complain about me

                I don’t have time to exercise because I have to clean the house/drive the kids/volunteer at school/make dinner every night

Most of us have a lot of story in our brains about things needing to happen in a certain way, needing to meet other’s expectations, needing to fix other people’s feelings (or not disappoint them, etc). When we operate in this way, accepting these stories as true, we get stuck in cycles of overworking, often leading to burnout, frustration, resentment and overwhelm. Ask me how I know…

I spent a lot of years arguing for my stories; about what I had to do in order to “do things right” for my patients, my family, etc. I didn’t see anything as a choice, I just accepted it all as fact, and struggled and struggled to keep up. It’s an unwinnable game.

Instead now, I check in.

I identify “what’s the story” in my head about what is needed.

And then I ask myself, “is that true?”

This process happens much faster now than it did in the past, and it’s only because I practice it. But I share it so that you too can start to use this powerful tool; check in with yourself on the stories you are currently choosing to believe. Over time, we start to see other possibilities, other options, see what is fact that we could all agree on (patient was scheduled for 20 minute appointment at 10 AM, checked in on EMR at 10:16 AM) vs fiction (I can’t believe they are late, they don’t even care!).

And don’t misunderstand and gaslight yourself. It’s possible that this patient doesn’t care, and doesn’t think they need to be on time, and that IS a problem if you are trying to stick to a schedule. But if we believe the story without questioning it (“They don’t even care!”), the story colors our decision making about what we do next. And probably not in a good way.

To take a deeper dive, check out next week’s podcast, Episode 114 of "Ending Physician Overwhelm", which airs Tuesday, April 30th, “What is the Story in your Head?”

Hi There!

I'm Megan. I'm a Physician and a Life Coach and a Mom. I created this blog to help other Physicians and Physician-Moms learn more about why they feel exhausted, burned-out and overwhelmed, and how to start to make changes. I hope that you enjoy what you read, and that it helps you along your journey. And hey, if you want to talk about coaching with me, I'm here for that too! I offer a free 1:1 call to see if we are a good fit. Click the button below to register today.

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