December 8, 2019

Are you being selfish or “self-full?”

The other day one of my clients who’s an OB/Gyn physician opened our coaching call with a statement that made my jaw drop. She said,

“I’m focusing on being more selfish in all areas of my life. I have this fire in me. This is my time.”

I wanted to jump for joy.

I almost shouted “Hallelujah!”

Having given up so much of herself for her demanding career, as well as for her family, she was so far to the left of selfish, that this proclamation was a much-needed course correction.

I know this will be a game-changer for her and help her avoid physician burnout.

Even if she goes overboard with focusing on herself, she will never be a selfish person. She will be a healthier, happier, and more empowered version of herself.

This isn’t just true for her.

I believe this is true for many of you.

If you’re like so many physicians, you’ve likely given up a lot of yourself to be doctor, to provide for your family, and to fulfill society’s expectations.

And if you’re like a lot of physicians, when you start thinking about doing more for yourself, you begin to feel selfish. Guilty even.

We’re told not to be selfish. Patients come first. Check your needs at the door. Their health is more important than yours. Their satisfaction is worth measuring, not yours.

So you put your head down and keep toiling way.

At least no one can fault you for being selfless.

No one says, “Oh you terrible, awful person, you do so much for others and never think of yourself. Why you’re even worse than Mother Teresa. Shame on you!”

No, that doesn’t happen.

We need something to describe the healthy balance between the polarity of selfishness and selflessness.

We need a word (for starters).

How about SELF-FULL?

I can’t remember where I first heard this word “self-full” but for me it conjures the image of someone who’s not depleted (tank is at least half-full) and who has a healthy, balanced relationship to self and others.

In contrast, when someone is selfish, there’s a lack of connection to the needs of others and an overindulgence in self.

When someone is selfless, there’s a lack of connection to self which leads to the denial of one’s own needs and wants, in service of giving all to others.

When you’re self-full, you’re able to honor and respect your own needs and wants AND also be in service to others.  

Sure.. that sounds great, you say.

But how’s that possible if you’re a physician working in this system that often doesn’t even pay lip service to your needs?

When was last time your employer surveyed your satisfaction levels?

Waiting for the system to be more attuned to your well-being could mean certain burnout or a desperate leap out of medicine.

So how do you take care of your own needs and desires in a system that wants you to provide healthcare but turns a blind eye to your own health and well-being?

The first step is to let go of any guilt associated with making your own needs and wants a priority. We all need adequate sleep, exercise, healthy food, connection, and meaning in our lives.

But with the kind of demanding lifestyle we’re used to from training, it’s often hard for us to prioritize our needs without feeling guilty. We may have to think of how we would treat a friend or family member, instead of ourselves.

Many of you work long hours and make sure your kids have activities to go to and sports to play, but you don’t have very much personal time. You also may be reluctant to decrease your work hours least there be any less money for the family.

The things that you are working hard for to give your family are often at arm’s length for you.

Below are some of the things that can be hard to do if you’re not used to making yourself more of a priority:

  • Taking time to exercise
  • Scheduling a regular date night
  • Hardwiring time in your calendar just for you
  • Allowing yourself time for hobbies and friends
  • Going on a retreat/get-a-way
  • Cutting back your hours at work
  • Saying no to things when you may disappoint people
  • Asking others for help and to do more

When you start making yourself and your own needs more of a priority, be careful not to compare yourself with others.

Some people need a lot of downtime. Others like to be working or occupied.
One person may get enough exercise from yoga. Someone else may need to run 10 miles.
One physician may be quite happy seeing patients while their friend from residency is enjoying working for the FDA.

If feelings of guilt start to creep in when you think about what you want, do a means test and try to pinpoint what specifically you would be guilty of for wanting x, y, or z.

To be guilty is to have done something wrong. You are innocent until proven guilty.

And if the verdict is guilty, ask to see the judge’s credentials.

Remember, this is your time too. Find that fire within you to make yourself and your life a priority.

And if you already have, I’d love to hear how this mindset is changing your life.

Be back soon!

My client mentioned above gave me permission to share her quote with you. 


  1. Hi Heather,

    I came across this blog and was curious if you had any clients who made the decision to quit medicine in the early years of residency, i.e intern year?

    I am currently making the decision to put myself first. I have experienced burnout, developed an autoimmune disease and dealt with the hospital closure of my residency program, all in one year.

    I feel like I’m on my own making this decision. No one can understand why all those years and loans from medical school that I would make such a decision to transition. And in their minds, it is such a prestigious field, etc etc. I feel like a disappointment.

    If you do have residents who quit medicine, how did their journey turnout? I know it’s not an easy decision

    • Hi Jessica, thanks so much for reaching out. I’m so sorry to hear about how rough your internship has been and that your health has been affected and the residency program has closed. This sounds really tough. You are making a very important decision and it is key to be able to hear your own voice and take your time. Some of my clients have been residents deciding whether or not to continue. I have seen both paths work out. From what I have seen, it is not easy to forge a new direction after leaving residency. It takes a lot of soul-searching, networking and hard work. But there is also the opportunity cost of continuing residency to consider, especially if it is adversely affecting your health. I recently worked with a resident who had to leave for several years due to health reasons but she was able to go back. And yes, I do know of a number of residents who left and are doing very well and are happy with their choice. This also includes medical school graduates.

      It’s good to remember too that most people never go to medical school and they have very happy and productive lives and careers. There are many options. What you do if you decide not to continue residency will be informed by your interests, talents, personality, and skill set. I have seen some residents who are trying to make this decision reach out on the Physician Nonclinical Career Hunter’s Facebook group. You can ask to speak with those who have been in a similar situation and decided to stay and those who decided to leave. One resident I know did this and he had a lot of people willing to speak with him. There are going to be people who will plain out tell you to stay. And others who will tell you what they think you should do. But focus more on those who share their own journey as a way to gather information and know that you will the decision that is right for you.

      Please keep in touch and let me know how things are going for you. You will be able to figure this out. All my best, Heather

    • Trusandra Taylor says:


      Hats off to you for “putting yourself first” and addressing your burnout. Don’t be discouraged because of your previous experience and continue to focus upon your health and well-being. Despite your challenges, there are many resources for your support to help and guide you through this process. You have not failed and don’t feel disappointed. You have taken the first step by reaching out. Stay in touch with Heather and Doctors Crossing.


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