Maybe you got into it for service to humanity. Maybe you got into it because, whatever your modality, it saved you at some point in your life and you need to share that experience with others. Maybe the drive comes from an unknowable place. It doesn’t matter though, because you’re here now. You’re a healer.
You’re an artist too. If that word rubs you the wrong way with its specificity let’s try ’ You are a creative’. You use your knowledge and innovation to trigger a change in your patient’s body. They, like patrons of the arts, can then do whatever they want with your treatment. But you made it. You created that trigger. That’s why you’re an artist.
As such, you can fall victim to all of the same pitfalls artists can. You run into the fear of ever starting a project. You fight against learning or implementing a new modality for fear of mistakes. You struggle with putting together your treatment plans and diagnoses . To see the whole picture in 60 or 90 minutes and cut it down to a soap note, or a descriptive sentence? That’s poetry. You struggle sometimes with just allowing yourself to go, and let your clinical experience and knowledge drive your decisions.
You face burnout, disappointment and failure every day and you have the responsibility to keep showing up for your patients.
Sometimes we take our work waaaaaay too seriously
Don’t get me wrong. We need to take parts of our work seriously. When working in the medical field we run the risk of harming patients - it’s a scary fact of our work. We need to take our record keeping seriously. We need to stay on top of our soap notes and patient files and keep our accounting up to date.
But you know what we need to stop taking so seriously? The idea we should take on our patients burdens.
Gilbert discusses two interesting archetypes in the creative world: the Martyr and the Trickster. The Martyr is the one we think of as the Tortured Artist (a variant of which is the Starving Artist). This creative, in the artistic world, is the one who is destroyed by their art. They believe that their art must come from a place of pain and suffering.
Martyrdom in health care comes from a place of “I must give so much of myself that there is nothing left.” Martyrdom leads to burnout. Burnout means that you’re not giving the same quality of care that you gave at the beginning of your career. That is the opposite of what should be happening. Your quality of care should increase with clinical experience and further study. No one wants to burn out, but martyrs force the issue.
Tricksters approach life with curiosity. They’re the type to gamify everything, go on spontaneous explorations, make mistakes and get back up. They’re light, they’re happy and they’re a little scary. People are scared of the Trickster though because they usually pop up as Loki or Coyote. They feel a bit like villains.
The Trickster isn’t the devil of the story, though. Usually the trickster is the one who shows you that “you had the power all along!” That’s our job as healers. We’re partners and facilitators. We aren’t noble benefactors dispensing magic treatments. We show our patients and their bodies the first step, giving them the momentum to continue the journey.
’Help’ is defined as ’making it easier for someone to do something.’ ’Serve’ simply means ’to perform duties for others’. It’s not our job to be martyrs for our patients. It’s not our job to give so much of ourselves we have nothing left for other patients, our families or for our own bodies, minds and spirits. It’s our job to help and serve.
We get too involved with our work
Another issue of creatives Gilbert addresses is our definition of success. Every practitioner has gotten tied up in the outcome of a patient case that did not end well. The patient was displeased with your work and left. You made them worse. You didn’t make them better fast enough. This is analogous to putting your heart and soul into a short story or a painting, putting it out into the world and getting neutral or negative feedback.
It can be really easy to beat ourselves up over these outcomes, especially if we’re playing a Martyr instead of a Trickster. To the Trickster it’s a game. “Lost this level, how can I replay it next time?” To the Martyr it’s a matter of life and death, “I’ve failed my patient. They’ll never come back. Why am I even doing this? I have no talent.”
As healing creatives it’s easier on us because there is a certain amount of Input A results in Outcome B. But there’s also a bit of luck tied up in how the patient will react. Is the patient too stressed to relax on the table? What did they eat today and how will that affect your treatment? What if they ate some bad clams for lunch and their subsequent illness after their treatment gets blamed solely on you? You just can’t know.
Success is temperamental. Gilbert finds success relies on 3 factors “talent, luck and discipline” only one of which we can control - discipline. She suggests we work with it and devote ourselves to discipline. We can easily control how much research we do in a day or what continuing education credits we can pursue. We can practice treatment strategy, study anatomy and physiology and work on our differential diagnosis.
We can work, every day, on becoming better practitioners. If we define our success as our interest and the daily pursuit of improvement, then we are successful. By turning our gaze inward we become less reliant on external support, like patient outcomes. We prevent burnout by becoming self-confident.
There is no way to guarantee a patient outcome. However, if we continually better ourselves as practitioners we significantly increase the chance.
While I was in school I read that most massage therapists in the US these days burnout in just 18 months. I read last week in an acupuncture facebook group that most acupuncturists aren’t practicing after 5 years. Yuck.
Burnout can happen for a lot of reasons. Problems with body mechanics are huge for massage therapists. Not understanding business is huge for both massage therapists and acupuncturists. And don’t forget giving too much of yourself without taking care of yourself! Pouring from an empty cup is a problem for all types of health care practitioners - doctors, nurses, chiropractors, physical therapists. If you are in a position of service you risk burnout.
When Gilbert discusses persistence she goes on for 50 pages about the importance of sticking to it -staying with your creativity and working with it. But she ends with an anecdote that struck me as the best possible advice, the moral of which was sometimes it’s best to walk away.
If you find yourself stressing too much about patients and you can’t let it go when you leave your office for the day. Or you sit in your car and cry before you head into the office. If you are so stressed at work you’ve noticed you’re having a negative impact on your patients and no amount of vacation, yoga, meditation or any self-care seems to help then you need to stop.
Walk away from the practice. Refer your patients to practitioners you trust and find a temp job in an office or work at Home Depot. Maybe brush up on some skills or go back to school. Do something drastically different and give yourself a break.
Maybe one day you’ll have the strength to get back into it. You’ll have maintained your licensure or certifications, you’ll take some tests and get back into the driver’s seat. I can guarantee you that after that break you’ll be better and brighter than ever.
Maybe you won’t. And that’s ok too. Because for however long you were in this game, you made the world a better and healthier place.
This is just the tip of the iceberg
There were so many more awesome tidbits I couldn’t include that you have to read yourself. My copy is bristling with post-it notes and I have plans to go back and read it next year. It has grown my perspective and I feel as though I’ve been a better practitioner since I finished it.I’m more positive and involved than I’ve ever been and I don’t feel quite so worn out at the end of the day.
Related links and posts:
Check out Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast 'Magic Lessons' here
Find more of her awesome stuff on her website
For more on Tortured and Starving artists in healthcare:
The Starving Artist and the Dirt Poor Healer
The Most Insidious Mindset of Heart Centered Communities
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Have you read Big Magic? What are your thoughts?