When you start to question your career choice it can throw you into emotional turmoil. You may look into the past with regret, at the present with distaste and the future with fear. Maybe you only know one thing for certain, that you aren’t enjoying what you are doing every day. Everything else may seem woefully in the dark, and difficult to make light of. The unknown can be scary, and fear may raise its ugly head.

Fear – a necessary emotion

Fear is a primal human emotion that was born out of necessity. In the end, humans are animals. Yes, we are a complex and sophisticated society, but before that we were struggling to survive. To make it to where we are now we had to combat the elements, illness, predatory animals, hunger, rogue aggressive bands of people. Fear was that voice in the back of your head telling you to stay alert, to help you live.

As a whole, most people don’t face this day to day. Now we can buy food at a supermarket, we go to a job that gives us money to rent shelter, there is law enforcement and a welfare system to dissuade aggressive human behaviour. All in all, we are a ‘civilised society’.

So where does fear fit in this current climate?

Though humans have changed from their primitive ancestors, we still carry those original emotions. Fear exists within most people, a fearless person is likely a scary breed that we avoid.

Now fear may project onto other things, like opening up in a relationship, jumping off a diving board, or changing jobs.

Maybe your greatest fear is to fail, to ‘lose it all’ or make a mistake.

Unfortunately, we can sometimes let fear take over and make our decisions for us. This is when things become disadvantageous, what once kept us alive may be stopping us from actually living.

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Facing fear

There are countless self help books that teach us to face our fears. ‘Conquer your fear’, ‘victory over fear’, ‘fight your fear and win’. It portrays a constant struggle between you and fear.

I prefer to see it in a different way. Fear is a universal feeling that every human has felt, and it can negatively affect your life. But it’s not about ‘fighting it’.

But in my experience, anytime I have fought against my fear, it has won because it fights back harder. It just digs in, and it shows me who’s boss—which it is. And, the only way that I’ve ever been able to “conquer” fear has been to allow it to exist and to come with a much softer energy and to see it for what it is, which is not really a terrorist monster, but an orphaned child, a small little part of you that just is so fearful.

Elizabeth Gilbert

As lovely Elizabeth Gilbert says, fear is a small part of you. Your fear isn’t some external boogey man to conquer, it is actually within you and part of you.

When you realise that your fear is you, you can turn inwards and speak to it. Ask yourself why you’re feeling this fear, and accept that you are feeling it.

Like the Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’, where they realise the importance of sadness, you don’t need to hide or ignore a particular emotion. Love it, accept it, understand it is necessary sometimes, and work with it. However, you don’t need to let it take charge and make your decisions.

Accept that fear will always be there, but let it take a backseat. You’re the one driving.

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Love is the answer – and why is it so hard to accept this as a doctor

As cliché as it sounds, love is the only true answer to fear. As medics we can be so jaded and cynical. We can start to see the bad in everything, and to protect ourselves we can become distant from compassion.

Trust me on this, you guys, in my own lived experience, here is what I have learned. The opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is compassion.

Elizabeth Gilbert

If we lived our lives with pure compassion we would not be able to make it a day in our job. We would absorb every person’s hardship and likely crawl home and collapse into a nervous and depressed heap. There comes a moment in every doctor’s life where they discover the need to emotionally distance themselves from their job.

If you were in a surgery and started to focus on the person who was opened up lying there, you’d likely freak out a little. No one focuses on that, instead you think ‘this is the appendix’, ‘this is the artery’, and break it down into anatomical parts and steps of the procedure.

When you have to certify a death, and listen to a dead man’s chest for 3 minutes while their family watch on, you distance yourself. You don’t focus on who that person was, on how they are no longer living, and on how sad their family is. You instead think ‘okay no response, no heart beat, no breathing, no pupil reflex, time of death’.

At first you may feel it all, but with time you learn that’s impossible. It can be especially hard for empaths, I know because I am one of them. I think that’s why I have struggled so much in my career as a doctor. For me it can be especially hard to put up emotional barriers.

Yet, when we start to question our career as a doctor the only antidote to the overwhelming fear and uncertainty is self love.

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Self love and compassion

It can be so scary to question your whole life. Often a career in medicine means you have been on this path for most of your existence. Some have started as a child, being tutored to get the marks to be accepted into medical school. As teenagers you may have prepared for interviews, and sat multiple exams to begin your exciting profession as a doctor.

Medical school is another 5-7 years of study and dedication. On becoming a doctor you may enjoy it at first, but then begin to develop feelings of dissatisfaction.

When you actually voice or think the words of ‘I don’t like this’ you may be totally freaked out.

You might think that you ‘should like this’ or ‘need to like this’. It can be really psychologically difficult. Sometimes your whole identity can be shaken. Weren’t you a doctor? Wasn’t that who you are?

The future may seem hopeless, what else could you possibly do?

What else are you good at?

The future is untold. But it’s untold to everyone, even doctors. Maybe the path of a medic is slightly more paved out, and well trodden. But no one really knows. It’s natural to be afraid, and changing professions can seem impossible.

Your worry may be doing all the talking, because at the root of all these thoughts is the ancient emotion – fear.

How can we overcome this? The only way is self love and compassion.

“Yes it is scary, no we have no idea what will happen, but that is okay and I love myself. All of myself, including my fear.”

Learn to love yourself so much that your number one priority is your health. The physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing that everyone deserves. Being a doctor is a noble profession, but remember, in the end it is ‘just a job’. Maybe it’s time to prioritise your wellbeing over anything else.

Sometimes compassion and love can shine much needed light onto a seemingly dark situation.

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Feature Photo by Christopher Beloch on Unsplash