One of the greatest challenges I face is convincing my patients to make their own wellbeing a priority. Women are especially resistant—they pride themselves on being able to prioritize the wellbeing of others. Focusing on themselves feels self-centered and uncomfortable. It only clicks when they recognize that they will be better at everything they do, including becoming a better mother and wife, when they pay attention to their own needs.
At 25, I was a medical student, working my tail off, studying non-stop and rarely sleeping. Among my fellow med school colleagues, there was glory in pulling an all-nighter. The circles under our respective eyes were badges of honor—symbols of hard work and commitment. Following graduation from medical school and the start of our internships, the lack of sleep and stress intensified. Doctors often invoke military terms to describe their internship year: “boot camp” and being “in the trenches” sum it up precisely as working all-night became second nature. The culture of working ourselves to the bone was so pervasive that we were wary of anyone who didn’t look haggard or worn down. By definition, a successful intern was sleep-deprived, stressed out and fueled by a diet of Coke and cold pizza.
As we worked all day and night taking care of patients, it never even occurred to us to consider our own wellbeing. Moreover, we had no idea that paying attention to our well-being would benefit patients. The irony of self-neglect in the name of patient care only became apparent to me years later when I began studying Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Of course, the glorification of self-sacrifice isn’t confined to medicine. It is everywhere—in teaching, politics, law, business, journalism, and many service-related fields. As a psychiatrist, I meet a lot of people who are burned out. It often presents as depression or anxiety, and self-neglect is often at the heart of it.
The bottom line is this: make your wellbeing a priority. You won’t do anyone any good when you’re stuck in bed sick or worse.