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Running Towards Gratitude: A Physician's Journey of Self-Acceptance

May 22, 2024 4:13 PM | Judy Pfeiffer (Administrator)

I was very unhappy with my life when I applied to medical school. My decision to pursue a career in medicine was borne out of a desire to fix myself in equal measure with a desire to help others. I had a naïve notion that becoming a physician, with the high income and prestige I believed would follow, would remedy my discontent.

Upon realizing my goal, I quickly learned the pitfalls of conflating my career with my identity. I took it very personally when patients had bad outcomes. I viewed my professional weaknesses as personal defects. My self-esteem declined, and I developed problems with addictive substances and even contemplated suicide during my residency training.

My state's Physicians Health Program offered a crucial lifeline to help me address and resolve problems with substance use and self-harm. However, discovering a sense of purpose outside the workplace did not come easily. My job as a physician eventually acquired a sense of drudgery, and I aspired to nothing. This malaise bled into my day-to-day life at home, too.

I discovered distance running during this period in my life. I embarked on a journey from a sedentary lifestyle to one that involved continuous training and running six full marathons over three years. The immediate benefit was that my work stressors suddenly seemed small when measured against the challenge of running 26.2 miles. I learned I was capable of more than I realized. Yet, the most valuable reward was the acquisition of self-acceptance and gratitude.

Every marathon that I ran was a physical ordeal and a desperate struggle to make it to the finish line within the 6-hour course cut-off time. As much as I tried to improve, I needed to accept that my best effort involved finishing close to last every time. My most effective tool for coping with pain and exhaustion during a race was to remind myself to be grateful that my family would be waiting for me at the finish line.

I no longer try to run marathons; my body appreciates that kindness. However, I still carry the self-acceptance and gratitude that I learned during those years into the workplace. When I receive constructive feedback about my job performance, I acknowledge opportunities to improve and accept my limitations. When I find myself dissatisfied working as a physician, I find it helpful to remind myself to be grateful that I have such a privileged job in the first place.

Working as a physician might one day feel too much like the ordeal of running a marathon. If that day comes, I know I can treat my mind and body with enough kindness to step back from that, too. Being a physician is my job, but it is not core to my identity. The most essential things in my life today exist outside of the workplace. For that, I am grateful.


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