How Do We Stop, When the Person We Are Competing Against is Ourselves?

I’ve talked a lot previously about the fact that we should only really compete with ourselves. We are all different as are our lives and therefore it makes sense that all of our success criteria will be different too. It’s too tempting to bench mark against others and find yourself wanting. This can be a great driver but it is also something that I for one find difficult some days as I don’t know if it can be turned on and off.

Three years ago today I ended up in a cast from shoulder to wrist. I fell out of a lift at work and protected my work laptop and phone and failed somewhat to protect myself. I’d never broken anything before and so was convinced I’d just sprained something (despite not being able to straighten my arm). I therefore took ibuprofen and paracetamol, went to three more meetings and told everyone I’d be back on Monday – this was a Friday morning. On Saturday morning I was forced to admit that maybe there was something wrong and finally went to A & E (after checking my emails). There I was told I broken my elbow and that I’d have a fracture clinic appointment in the week. I shrugged and said well it’s only and elbow and so worked from home as that didn’t mean I couldn’t type……..right. I finally turned up at fracture clinic and I had broken not only my elbow but also my wrist and then put a full arm cast on me and signed me off sick for 6 weeks. I’d never had a sick note before, I hyperventilated in the appointment and burst into tears saying that they couldn’t do it. They pointed out they could, insisted I took codeine for the pain and put me in the hands of my friend to take me home. What’s my point? My point is that that I don’t know when to stop. I was told by multiple people I should have gone to A & E on the day. I was told by many more to go home and not go to meetings? My husband was adamant that I was in pain and shouldn’t work prior to the fracture clinic as I had a broken arm. I made my wrist much worse and heal out of alignment because I typed on it for almost a week because I couldn’t stop.

So how do we stop when the person who is driving us to continue is ourselves?

I posted last week about the fact that I am often not that well, in fact today I am writing this post in bed as I just feel pretty rough. I’m used to needing to push through because if I didn’t I wouldn’t ever achieve anything very much. What’s probably worse is that I think I’m a fundamentally lazy person. Honestly if I could I would lie on a chaise longue in a library all day reading books and drinking tea. As I’m painfully aware of this aspect of my personality I do try (although my hubby may point out not always successfully) to counter it by being pro-active about doing things. The combination of these two mean that I don’t often know when it’s OK to take my foot off the gas and rest and when I need to knuckle down and push on.

There are times when this is useful

There are times when not knowing when to stop is actually useful. Pre-pandemic I used to run, badly. I’m not good at it, I’m not fast. What I am is stubborn. I continue to put one foot in front of the other no matter what. I’ve finished marathons and half marathons with blood up to calves and enormous holes in my feet but I get into a zone where I just put one foot in front of the other and the pain doesn’t matter so much.

When it comes to working in healthcare I find the same thing happens mentally as well as physically, you just keep going. No matter what the warning signs in terms of burn out of physical health, you keep going because that’s what we do. My auto immune condition entered a whole new phase when I was doing my PhD and I’d just finished a half marathon (whilst in my 3rd year of PhD) when my husband noticed I’d lost a patch of my hair. None of it stopped me. I still submitted my PhD a year early so I could do FRCPath and complete my consultant training.

I succeeded because I just pushed on, because of the habit of putting one foot in front of another. At the time finishing was everything, now I wonder if there were more sensible ways and if I should have listened to those around me, but I was on mile 9 (which I hate) and I just wanted to get the equivalent of mile 13.

Medicine and healthcare are hard places to break the habit

I work in an amazing organisation, filled with the most amazing people. They are all also super smart and world leading experts. I’ve worked there for almost 18 years, I trained there, I’ve grown into an adult there. Being surrounded by people that smart, that successful becomes an embedded driver in itself. You want to succeed for yourself but you also want to succeed for them. As someone who thrives on doing things differently I wanted to follow my own path, break glass ceilings and set the way. To do that however you have to succeed, you have to tick the boxes that people think you can’t tick and so you have to find the drive to continue even when it feels impossible.

As a Healthcare Scientist there is track that needs completing in order to reach the consultant end point I was determined to achieve, for me it was supposed to look something like this:

  • Masters (years 1 – 3)
  • State registration (year 4)
  • Membership of the Royal College of Pathologists (year 4)
  • PhD (years 5 – 10)
  • Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (year 11)

Even though I’ve talked about not benchmarking against others the need to complete these goals become embedded in your psyche. You become very focussed on the track that you are on, in the same way that I run, you get into the zone and take one step at a time. Sometimes however when you are in that zone it’s hard to hear the voices that say you could do it differently, that you could take a break between stages, that you could take that afternoon off to refresh. In my case it was hard because I was on fixed term contracts for the first 13 years of my career, until after I had my PhD and FRCPath. There was therefore a ticking clock in my brain that if I didn’t demonstrate enough commitment, get enough done, that I would lose my job and a career I loved. Not only was I competing against myself but I was competing against time.

So how do we stop?

All of this drive has definitely had its benefits, as I said there are times when this self-competition is really helpful. I would not have managed to get a consultant post or tick all the boxes that needed ticking without it. The issue is that how do you stop when it is no longer useful or even harmful?

I’m still working on this one but here are some things that I’ve found useful. The first one being is to listen to the balancing voices. There’s a lot of good in social media but it’s sometimes easy to only hear the things that re-enforce the fact that we should be working harder and doing more. There are other voices out there however that should make you stop and think about whether you can stop and take a break or just do it in a different way altogether, try and pay as much attention to these as the ones that drive you to keep doing what you’re doing.

Think more about who you are listening to when getting face to face advice. The day I broke my arm at least 3 people told me to go to A and E. I knew something wasn’t right but I listened to others that re-enforced my inner voice to keep going. It was my friends and family who were the ones that said to stop, the ones who prioritise me over Dr Cloutman-Green. Do yourself a favour and listen to these people more. Their priority is you, not the roster, not the deadlines and not the work. Amplify their voices in your mind rather than listening to others.

Finally I’m trying to become my own critical friend. If I was giving advice to someone on the situation I find myself in, would I tell them to push on or would I tell them to stop and rest so they can come back stronger? This is definitely a skill and I am definitely at amateur level right now, but I am working on giving myself permission, permission to leave on time, permission to eat lunch and permission to do things I enjoy that have nothing to do with work. I know some of you out there are so much better than I am at this, and as I said, I am a work in progress. I’m trying to remember therefore to enjoy the learning and the journey. Life after all is just a ride.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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