The Delicate Art of Handling Your Physician Identity
I have at least 6 clients at present who are coming to grips with what it means to separate from their deeply ingrained identity as a physician. And while each person’s situation is unique, I have spotted some themes worth sharing. My observations may just help you with any professional transition you might be struggling with.
Note that I have chosen to merely report on my observations rather than judge any one good or bad.
1. A physician identity is a security blanket.
Who had parents that heaved sighs of relief the day you announced your intention to become a doctor?
Mine were somewhat mystified, as there had been no physicians in my immediate family, but they were proud, and thankful that I would have lifelong security (even if, as my mom warned, no man would marry me!).
Medicine has been considered a stable profession with predictably secure incomes. But like all blankies, it has gotten worn and ragged over time for many physicians … and as physician wrote to me “It may be time for me to leave medicine entirely, but I never thought I would have to re-invent myself at this age”.
2. A physician identity creates expectations.
While medicine offers security, it comes tagged with the expectations of our families, patients and communities.
Even today, 12 years after leaving clinical practice, I feel a twinge of guilt when confronted by reproachful former patients I bump into, who were upset with me for leaving. I was NOT supposed to abandon them!
And, how do we untangle our own expectations from those of the people around us, when we say we want out, but can’t own up to having taken advantage of a physician identity that has met our own “ego needs”?
3. A physician identity promotes status.
Despite how it seems to many disillusioned doctors, the medical profession is still held in significant esteem.
While we may gripe that no-one says “thank you” any more, and that we are unappreciated for our dedication, my bet is that there is a recognizable (maybe non-verbal) moment of respect when you tell someone at a cocktail party what it is you do. People immediately make (usually) positive assumptions about us!
4. A physician identity is a comfortable trap.
Along with the security and the status of being a doctor come the trappings of an upper middle class (a big generalization – I know – but probably mostly true).
We get used to nice vacations, comfy homes, fine dining, and being able to pay our bills each month.
It is terrifying to picture giving all that up for a new career or business, and having to take on debt and struggle like a resident or new practitioner again.
5. A physician identity is a brand.
A brand is a promise to meet the expectations of our customers – in our case, that we will commit to the good of society and the welfare of our own communities, that we will help out — often at the expense of our own well-being, and that we will always be there to provide the much-needed services.
What happens when the brand gets stale or tired, and needs to be re-invented?
6. A physician identity is only one of our many identities.
Fortunately, most of you know this already. You’re also spouses, parents, children, siblings, president of the PTA or congregation, athletic champions, pianists, and sculptors.
Now may be the time to remind yourself that you are bigger and broader and deeper than the label “Dr.”
7. A physician identity can be relinquished.
Because of #6, it is possible to let go of your physician identity. You will not be left in a void (which is what most of us fear – that we will somehow just disappear and become invisible). There are too many other parts of you yearning for fuller expression.
And there are too many other ways to continue making a difference — often even more than clinical practice permitted – for you to be mired in loss.
Getting unstuck and letting go of your physician identity are NOT rapid processes.
They involve self-awareness, reflection, honest conversations with respected others, and the desire to expand your identity rather than contract it.
They demands gentleness, humility and courage. You can’t rip the doctor out of you.
And remember, once a doctor, always a doctor – even if you eventually become a self-described “recovering physician”!