After several years of full-time clinical practice where I was treating nearly one hundred ambulatory patients weekly in an outpatient community clinic, I gradually developed the feeling of exhaustion and unease. This was unusual for me as I’ve always considered myself a very energetic, optimistic person. Despite getting sometimes over eight hours of sleep, regular exercise, healthy nutrition and all the things we recommend to our patients to stay well, I was not feeling better. The doctor in me could only ask, “Is this hypothyroidism? Anemia? Some kind of infection or a new rheumatologic condition? Perhaps, chronic fatigue syndrome?” My medical mind stirred a panic within, so I made an appointment with my PCP to get checked out. “All your labs are normal!” is what she tells me after reviewing the myriad of objective data. “So, there’s nothing wrong with me?” Of course, I reviewed the labs myself, and yes, everything normal—not a single lab value out of range. And so, as many of my patients frequently ask me, “If all my labs are normal, then why do I feel this way?” Only in retrospect, do I know this answer.
I am grateful for my physician friend who at the time brought to my attention the concept of mindfulness self-compassion which is based on the solid research by Dr. Kristin Neff (see recommended articles). My caring friend who is also a brilliant doctor suggested a workshop by Dr. Neff that I could easily attend as it was near my home. Participating in that event and personally meeting Kristin Neff would have a profound impact on my life. Not only, was I introduced to the power of stillness and quieting my mind by meditation, but for the first time, I was taught by another respected doctor and world expert that being kind and gentle to myself would have lasting benefits to my wellbeing and health! I also learned the power of speaking lovingly to myself the way my caring and loving friend talks to me when I am feeling down or being hard on myself. Doing so brought tremendous peace and calm to my mind and body.
Learning to become more compassionate towards myself required practice. I followed Dr. Neff's advice to enroll in an 8-week mindfulness self-compassion course. When I started experimenting with this, I found it was very difficult to quiet my mind—automatically I’d start to think about my To-Do lists, clinic notes to finish, patients I was worried about, things that my kids needed, chores to be done at home. It was exceedingly difficult for me to stop thinking of others! I really had to train my mind to focus on myself—what do I need right now in this moment to feel safe? To feel calm? To feel happy? To feel like I am good enough? With more and more practice, I experienced greater ease at slowing my thoughts and finding more stillness and centeredness with my mind and body.
When my fatigue and exhaustion became less, I truly became a believer in the power of mindfulness and meditation. I try now, whenever possible to find at least 3-5 minutes to myself where I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, feel the warmth of my hand on my heart and tell myself “May I know that it is wise to value myself and put myself first. May I accept myself just as I am right now. May I be filled with loving kindness.” What a change from my previous self-talk before my discovery of self-compassion!
I may still have tough days where I feel drained, but these days are less frequent because of my self-compassion practice. What I now know for sure, is that treating myself with compassion, kindness and love has allowed me to be a kinder doctor and a more grounded person.