Lost in the Woods

Photo by Tero Laakso

Photo by Tero Laakso

“Help! Please help me! I am lost in the woods and can’t find my way out.”

I hear this plaintive cry often. Maybe not those exact words, but pretty close. In unhappy doctor-speak, it can sound like, “I’m feeling trapped and overwhelmed. I don’t know what else I can do. This is all I know. I don’t want to have to take antidepressants to do my job. Help!”

Unfortunately, the clearly marked path that led to your becoming a physician comes to a screeching halt at clinical practice. The road map is gone and you don’t even know what to plug into the GPS. Out there, somewhere in the clearing, must be happy doctors. But the trees are so tall and dense, you can’t see beyond them.

This feeling doesn’t just apply to those wanting to leave medicine. You may want to be happier in practice, or have a blended career. Perhaps you have an entrepreneurial idea, or want to grow professionally. You can still feel lost in not knowing how to move beyond the status quo.

When we’re feeling stuck or trapped, it can be paralyzing. Our thinking becomes repetitive and circular. Round and round we go on the mental merry-go-round that is hardly an amusement park ride. What we need is something to SHIFT us – even just a little bit – so we can breathe easier and start to MOVE forward. Here are some steps that will create a shift in your thinking and actions.

Create the SHIFT

  1. Realize you are not really lost
  2. Find help
  3. Take one step at a time
  4. Focus on possibilities not problems
  5. Program a POWERFUL target into your GPS
  1. You are not really lost
    If you could rise above the trees, you would be able to see the forest is not as big as it feels. It’s just a grove. Walk 50 feet in any direction and you will find help. If your legs turn to rubber, take out your smart phone (you brought it with you) and fire it up. If you Google your problem, you will find people and resources to help you. Problems are always worse when we keep them hidden.
  1. Find help
    It’s not unusual for a doctor to tell me it took them several years to contact me for coaching. At first that puzzled me, until I had the “ah-hah” that I‘d done something similar. I needed some investment advice, but a combination of previous bad experiences, wanting to do it on my own, and not knowing whom I could trust, resulted in delay and inertia. Finally, there was a pivotal catalyst (as is often the case before we get into action) and I made the declaration, “Enough! This is not working and I’m going to make that call!” When you declare, “I am going to figure this out, no matter what!” your specific challenge becomes the priority it should be.
  1. Take one step at a time
    Once you make the commitment to address your challenge, don’t fall into the trap of having to see how it’s all going to work out before beginning. One of the biggest wet blankets you can throw on yourself is needing all the answers before barely taking the first step. If you try to do this, your mind will come in with all the reasons why you can’t do x, y or z. Avoid the tendency to want to rush to the “finish line.” The only real finish line is when we take our last breath. Rather, see each step as part of a precious unfolding of your life. This infinitely creative process, this artistic sculpting and shaping of you, is just as important as any destination.
  1. Focus on possibilities not problems
    When we’re feeling lost, trapped, or confused, we spend more time thinking about what’s wrong with our current circumstances, instead of imagining what’s possible.  Fear and uncertainty tend to fuel negative thinking. Write down your repetitive thoughts for one day. Put pluses by the positive ones and minuses by the negative ones. If negative thoughts predominate, it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. When we are low on hope, our faith in ourselves and life is greatly diminished. We have trouble seeing possibilities. A way out of this downward spiral is to look at all you have done and all that you are. There is no valid reason to doubt your ability to positively change things. You have probably already climbed several Mt. Everests – without oxygen. If you can’t figure out a better way for yourself, who can? Do not sell yourself short.
  1. Program a POWERFUL target into you GPS
    To find your way out of the woods, you will need to program a “do-or-die” kind of target statement into your GPS. As I said earlier, you don’t have to know the destination, or how you’ll get there. But you must identify a goal that rallies your spirit. You must make a powerful commitment to yourself. It could be something such as:

          I WILL find a better job
          I WILL find a way to be happier
          I WILL improve my relationship with X
         I WILL find a new way to use my gifts
         I WILL get on top of my finances
         I WILL make myself a priority
        I WILL get the help I need

I remember the day I asked myself if I was happy in my work. For a number of years, I had been so busy and preoccupied with running my practice, I never stopped to consider the question. It’s not something you tend to ask during school and training, so why even start? But I did ask, and the answer was a disturbing, “No!” There were many contributing factors, but they had nothing to do with not liking my patients. I made a strong commitment to myself that I was going to do everything I could to enjoy my practice. I did make significant changes in how I practiced, as well as in my personal life. Things got better. However, after a number of years, I asked the question again. I knew from my answer it was time for me to sell my practice. It wasn’t right for me, or for my patients, to not have my heart in what I was doing. I didn’t know what was next, but I told myself, “I am going to find a way to be happier in my work, no matter what. I WILL figure it out.”

And I did! It took a number of years and was not a linear path. But I found work I love where I feel I can make a difference and still help others. When I had my, “dark nights of the soul,” and questioned my decision, it was my strong commitment that kept me going.

Commitments are strengthened through the support of others. Feel free to contact me or comment on this blog. Share your commitment with a loved one or friend. Write your commitment down. Sign and date it. Plug it into your internal GPS and let it start working. You owe it to yourself.



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  1. Miriam Ragab, DO on March 18, 2015 at 11:22 am

    My goodness…it is as if I wrote this post myself…about my current self. What timing. I am in the middle of this mess and the trees are higher that I could have ever imagined. Everything written is exactly how I feel right now. I can plug a commitment into the GPS, but then somehow I would have to find the strength to turn the GPS on…to better days God willing…

    • Heather Fork on March 18, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Miriam, thank you for your reply! I am glad you had the strength to send this message. I appreciate hearing from you. Would you like us to send in a search and rescue team to find you? If you can, at least turn on your Personal Locator Beacon! All kidding aside, there is help if you would like it and there are always ways to work with any situation, even if it feels hopeless. If you want to contact me directly, my email is heatherfork@gmail.com. Wishing you better days ASAP.

  2. Alexis Gopal on March 19, 2015 at 10:04 am

    What a fabulous post! I so needed to hear this right now!

    • Heather Fork on March 19, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Thank you very much Alexis! I really appreciate your kind words and that you took the time to respond. I am happy to hear from you. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Heather

  3. Elizabeth on April 6, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    I agree with the above comments. I feel so lost and burnt out. I’m depressed and truly unhappy with where I am at right now, but I feel trapped by debt. Thank you for this post. I’m trying to force myself to focus on the positive and not drown in the circular negativity I feel I am stuck in. God, I SO need a break. Glad I am not alone.

    • Heather Fork on April 6, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      Good evening Elizabeth, thank you so much for reaching out and taking a step to not feeling so alone and stuck. MANY doctors are shouldering a lot of debt and feel very trapped by it. I was just re-reading Suze Orman’s book on Women and Money (2010). Whether Suze is your cup of tea or not, she does have a lot of great, practical advice for dealing with one’s finances. http://www.amazon.com/Women-Money-Owning-Control-Destiny/dp/0812981316. I find when things feel overwhelming, or there is something I am avoiding dealing with, it’s helpful to just set a very small goal,something very doable that doesn’t take long. And do that. And then set another very small goal, and get the satisfaction from the accomplishment. And keep setting small, attainable goals. Don’t worry about conquering the mountain, just take a few steps and put your stake in the ground. And then take a few more. Just keep moving, and the action will bring in some new energy. Know that you are not alone and there are a lot of other doctors in the woods too -just peer behind a few trees and you will see them. Call out to them and now you have a posse. Please keep in touch.

  4. Leonard on October 31, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    This is all too accurate for me right now. Except I’m an IMG and trapped in a residency I don’t have a passion for with over $400k of debt (accruing interest at 7%…). Wood’s pretty dark for me right now.

    • Heather Fork on October 31, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      Hello Leonard, thank you for sharing a little about your situation. I am very sorry to hear about your debt and that you feel trapped in residency.
      That sounds incredibly challenging and stressful. Are you considering a non-clinical direction? Do you mind my asking what your specialty is? Perhaps there is a non-clinical direction you could work towards that would be more motivating for you and a better fit.

      • Leonard on November 1, 2016 at 2:41 pm

        I’m currently in my PGY-2 year as a radiology resident and it’s just not for me. Only thing is my prelim year in Internal Medicine was even worse and I was even more miserable. I honestly think medicine was a terrible career choice I just did because it was safe and it made my parents happy. Any ideas of a non-clinical direction for an IMG with limited residency training/no board certification? Thank you so much for any help you can offer.

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