Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pressure to Fit In

I’ve spent the week living with complete strangers in the middle of nowhere. It was a very new experience for me, but it gave me lots of time to listen to kathas and do some reflections (especially thinking about how much I love Prince George!). I decided to write about my struggle with finding my place in medical school.

When I first got into medicine, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was confident that I was going into the right career, but I didn’t feel that I was on the same page as the other students. Many were true type A personalities, and the expectation was that I had the same mindset as them. I’d never been in school with so many competitive people. All top students crammed into one class. They were quick to deny their competitiveness and jealousy, because they knew these were perceived as bad qualities, but the reality was different. I was afraid I would be perceived as the weak link and get stepped on. In small group discussions where we were supposed to talk about our feelings and our lives, I’d often feel like an outsider. It was as if everything I said was getting misinterpreted. People struggled to relate to the most simple things like family being very important to me, and missing them because they had moved away. I couldn’t understand why people were unable to see me as I am, and what I was doing wrong. Since I was living alone and didn’t have any time for friends outside medicine, I was pretty isolated. The only people that would see me in the day were people that didn’t understand who I am, and what I’m about.

When I started working in the hospital as part of my training, it felt more and more like I was being forced into a box that I simply didn’t fit into. For example, my life is not just about work. I know I won’t reach God living at my job 24/7. Of course I knew I would have to make sacrifices for my training, and I was willing to do that because the certainty I was in the right career deepend with each patient interaction. What I didn’t realize was that this was a LIFE-LONG expectation that I put my work before anything else; that for the rest of my life I’m supposed to put my loved ones and my spiritual life behind my job. This is what everyone else had done and was what I was supposed to do too. Frequently, I was told that whatever I was required to do was in my best interest even if it was harmful to me. I was told that going to work while I was sick was necessary because it was all for MY benefit. I remember in particular one night staying up to study until 2 am and showing up at work 7 am. I was told that I am not making an effort in my studying and I am not working hard enough. Here I was, having given up basic necessities like sleep and health, and I was told I was lazy. I was stuck in an environment where people not only didn’t see me for who I am but didn’t value me. The more I worked, the more I realized that who I am conflicts with who I am training to be. I wanted to be a well-balanced, compassionate, caring doctor who takes the time to listen. My training valued emotional detachment, fast work and ego. Each day felt like a rejection of me, and I started to think that maybe I don’t belong.

I started spending a significant portion of time in my training trying to shake people’s false images of who I am and who I am assumed to be. I tried to prove myself. I tried to show I wasn’t sheltered, reserved, just a pretty face. It seemed that no matter what I did, people still came in saying things like “your English is pretty good, where are you from.” (This individual, who had literally just met me said my parents must be dictators and when I would be married I would be a slave to my husband’s parents because that’s just how it is). I tried to fight the assumptions and stereotypes, the racism, the sexism, but I got tired of the constant battle. It drove me crazy to feel like the only person who saw the injustices I saw when a doctor didn’t think that mental illness existed, or thought that certain groups of people in society don’t deserve the care that others do. I started to feel like I was wrong about everything. Wrong for refusing to become a robotic workaholic, wrong for caring too much. It seemed like I simply saw the world wrong, like I was walking around in a blue shirt but everyone was saying it was red. Too many times I got sucked into the trap of doubting myself and focusing on what others thought of me.

I’ve realized that when we focus on proving things to other people- even if it’s your boss, it makes your life about other people. This applies even to when you are trying to “prove them wrong.” This is my example of when that went wrong for me. I spent a long time considering a particular specialty and a few months ago I realized my heart lies in family medicine. I couldn’t admit it though. I had been told by so many times that as a woman, I MUST become a family doctor, not a specialist. It made me angry, and I wanted to prove them wrong and show them that as a female minority, yes I can successfully do whatever I want and be a specialist. You can’t stop me. But I didn’t want to do a specialty anymore. If I ruined my own life trying to prove other people wrong, I would be miserable forever for nothing. It’s not my lens that needs to be changed, it’s theirs and its not my responsibility to fix it! When other people don’t recognize you for who you are, when they don’t acknowledge your story, when they twist your story, at the end of the day it isn’t you. It took me a really long time to be able to understand this properly and realize that if they aren’t able to listen and relate, it’s because they are lacking the skills to be able to do that, not because there is something wrong with me.

So what did I take away from my experiences? Keep fighting and don’t give up. Find people who support you in achieving that. It has taken me a really long time to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay if I don’t share the same ideals as my colleagues and if I don’t fit into the culture of medicine. I don’t value the same things they do, and I don’t like the culture of medicine. I want to work to change that. At the end of the day I’m trying to re-focus on my own story, and not veer into the wrong direction because everyone else is telling me to. It is extremely difficult to resist that pressure just like it’s hard for a person whose friends and family all drink alcohol, not to take a drink. Environment influences us strongly, so if you are being told you are something you aren’t, its hard not to believe it. What’s really helped me the most has just been finding the right sangat. That in itself was hard and it took two years. The first time I met someone who just “got me” it was really comforting. I felt so blessed. I didn’t have to keep explaining myself and what I’ve been through. I was believed. Getting through this has been about finding people who remind me what real compassion and empathy means, and what it means to be a Sikh. People who share my values, and remind me what’s right and wrong. It's a rare couple of people who have been able to play this role in my life, the type of people who can take my anxiety and stress about what other people have said about me and remind me how to re-channel my energy. In Gurbani it says “If you wish to swim across the water, then consult those who know how to swim.” I just think to myself, are the people that are telling me to stop caring so much, that I don’t belong in medicine, people who know how to swim? Do I desire to be like them? No. I don’t need someone who is drowning to teach me how to swim. So it’s really helped me to have people reminding me of what’s real and important in life, and how not to lose the qualities that make me who I am under the pressure of my environment. We've all experienced pressure to change ourselves, and it can be really hard to resist. Next time I get caught up in the cascade of thoughts trying to prove myself, I’m going to use the tools I have in my toolbox to remind myself of what’s true and what is false: simran, Gurbani, and Sangat with people who are on that path. 

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