Have you ever made a mistake? I have- plenty of them. As a mom, a daughter, a wife, a friend and even as a physician- I have screwed up. Of all of my mistakes, though, it's my doctoring mistakes that weigh the heaviest on my soul; not to mention, that have potentially had the greatest negative impact on the lives of others. These mistakes aren't trivial. In fact, these mistakes have, at times, robbed my patients and their families of peace of mind, safety & security, quality & years of life, and have even left some really amazing people, whom I have loved and cared deeply for, with unfathomable hurt, grief, and loss. It's this unconscionable pain that is so hard to reconcile. I sometimes find myself feeling sadness, guilt, or shame in regard to these mistakes, and I don't know what to do with it. After all, my pain is nothing compared to those on the receiving end of my mistakes. Right?
I've asked myself, "Is this simply the cross I must bear?
The suffering I must endure due to my missteps and shortcomings?"
I've wrestled with these questions for years and I've been back and forth with my answer. Today, my answer is "yes, and no". You see, despite years of doctoring, helping, and serving many people in very positive ways, there are a few mistakes that really stick with me- that I will never forget. Nor do I care to forget. The cross that I am choosing to bear is the acknowledgement that as a human being, I will mess up, and I must always seek to acknowledge my mistakes so that I can continue to improve and learn. This cross, or burden, is an important reminder to remain diligent, focused, and attentive- willing to learn & grow, especially in places where I've previously made mistakes. This is important, especially in healthcare, so that mistakes are less likely to be repeated and fewer mistakes will be made in the future.
The portion of my suffering that I believe does not belong nailed to my cross is the burden of shame. Shame is that sense that because of a mistake that I made, I am somehow flawed and unworthy as a human being- let alone as a physician. This shame is neither helpful nor productive. In fact, the shame that I have carried at times has only served to further burden my soul- sending me into a tailspin of self-doubt, regret, and resentment. And, because shame is so difficult to talk about in our society, I've found myself alone in my suffering- at times, numbing myself (with food, drink, or social media, etc.), isolating myself, and working harder to prove my worth. And the irony is that these tactics do nothing to improve my skills or worth, and, in fact, set me up for further mistakes or, worse yet, death, sometimes at my own hands. Suicide is highly prevalent among physicians, and I believe that it is very often linked to this shame phenomenon.
I will forever be grateful that I have, by the grace of God, survived my life as a physician- so far, anyway; and I haven't fallen victim to suicide or substance abuse. However, I know that there are plenty of really good physicians out there who are suffering with shame and isolation. Many are self-medicating to dull the pain, and some are even contemplating suicide right this very minute. These faulty coping mechanisms are further complicating our shame and putting us at high risk for hurting ourselves and/or others. We simply must do more as individuals and as healthcare systems to counter this culture of shame.
If you were to ask me what I would do to change the healthcare culture in a positive way, I would tell you this-all physicians need a mandatory course called "Being a Human Physician-101". This course would be very different than most other courses that physicians are required to take. The primary difference would be that rather than teaching physicians the correct way to do things- providing the "how to avoid mistakes" algorithm- it would be 100% about leading first with who you want to be, as a human being and as a physician. When we lead from this place- this place that highlights and values each of our unique and special reasons for being on this planet- the actions that follow are so much more powerful, meaningful, and sustainable. In fact, even when we make mistakes, we still have the ability to be on purpose and be empowered to learn and grow. On the flip side, when we lead with doing things "right" as the be all, end all; we have very little to fall back on when we inevitably make a human error.
These concepts are not new and I did not come up with them on my own. In fact, in the business world, many people are talking about the value of leading with one's BEING. It's just that in today's healthcare system, we aren't there yet. We still put primary emphasis on DOING things a certain way, and that often leaves little room for a discussion of who we want to BE. It's not to say that we should not continually hold ourselves to higher standards for care delivery, and I'm certainly not arguing for accepting mediocrity, especially when we know better. I am simply arguing for accepting and welcoming our humanness- our imperfections. It's about seeing our mistakes as simply information and as a launchpad for growth and learning. In addition, it's an invitation to practice compassion for ourselves and others, rather than just doing more and more, often rendering ourselves beat up and burned out.
So, in the name of being a Human Physician, I encourage each of you to ask yourself and/or a colleague these two questions:
1) What is your purpose on this planet and are
you living on purpose in all that you do?
2) How do you want to show up in your own
strength and power?
As you answer these questions, I suspect that you will naturally begin to formulate a plan for what you would like to do, in order to be more on purpose and personally empowered. I would encourage you to take note of how your action choices differ when they are preceded by an attentiveness to your purpose and to who you want to be. The other thing you will notice is that you will inevitably find yourself taking action that's full of energy and meaning. This is what is referred to as THRIVING-a state of being that is contagious and even, dare I say, fun!
So, go for it! And, take a friend with you! In fact, can you afford not make this shift from DOING more to BEING more?