We are all in relationship with everything that exists in our lives…
Our bank balances.
Our sense of worth.
All of these relationships can change for the better or worse. Often they change too slowly for us to notice. But sometimes, they change suddenly – especially when we see something we can’t unsee, perhaps after a significant life event.
And it’s usually what we see about ourselves that can shift a relationship most dramatically.
- We see that we haven’t been honest with ourselves.
- We see that we haven’t been living true to our deepest values.
- Or we see that at the relationship’s onset, we were young and naïve.
Towards the end of my time in medicine, my relationship with the identity of ‘doctor’ started to sputter like a car running on fumes. Why? Because after I stopped to reflect on the awkward truth that I was pretending to be someone else, the prospect of charging on ahead became simply unpalatable.
The breakup had begun.
And as with any breakup, there was heartache.
When relationships reach a natural conclusion, there are clear signals. But it can be painful to understand these intuitive messages, and heed their warning.
Here were 5 signs, straight from my place of ‘inner knowing’, that I needed to move on from my career:
- The work itself suddenly became twice as draining. I just couldn’t muster the energy for either the job or my other priorities
- I started to resent how much time work was taking from other areas of life
- My health deteriorated, I got multiple unexplained symptoms, and I resorted to bad habits as an escape
- I become inexplicably grumpy, impatient, and sometimes socially withdrawn
- I fantasised endlessly about other pursuits (side hustles, passion projects, starting a business, and so on)
The obvious question then becomes: What’s the best move when we notice these signals?
The equally obvious answer is: It depends.
But when we sense an impending breakup, there are really four paths we can take:
- Route A: Pretend everything is fine
- Route B: Hunker down and accept that everything isn’t fine
- Route C: Go all-out to fix things
- Route D: Walk away before things get worse
Route A is the easy option. But without confronting the truth, we pay for it in the long-run. Whether the fallout happens in 1, 5, or 30 years, I believe we always suffer at the hands of denial.
Route B is the mirror image of Route A. Both are marked by inaction, but this route involves being aware of the problem. As a society, we’ve become enamoured with the idea of acceptance. It’s admirable. But to be blunt, acceptance on its own can put us in stasis. Because by definition, it involves letting go of any expectation for change…
Route C is when we fight for that change. This is also admirable, but only up to a point. Without deciding when enough is enough, people risk getting stuck here for years, overcompensating for a relationship which might forever be on the rocks.
Finally, there’s Route D – the nuclear option. This takes serious guts. It’s tough knowing when to walk away. For one, the prospect of being seen as a ‘quitter’ can be mortifying. But the most challenging aspect is usually the uncertainty lying beyond the breakup; Will I ever find anyone else? Will I make it in a whole new career? Without this job, what value do I have?
As you may have noticed, the 4 routes aren’t mutually exclusive. We can also cycle rapidly between them, especially with Routes B and C.
Here’s a quick overview of my own journey:
Route A ==> Route C ==> Route B ==> Route C ==> Route B ==> Route C ==> Route D
Not uncommonly, I started out in denial; Route A.
In retrospect, however, the signals were there from my 1st year of medical school. I developed crippling sciatica, grumpiness, erratic sleep and alcohol dependence (the latter being tragically normalised amongst students).
This lasted a few years before I realised something. I wasn’t inspired by the prospect of becoming a doctor. I was having to talk myself into it on a rational level without truly feeling it on the emotional level.
I loved psychology, so I looked into becoming a Psychiatrist, or a General Practitioner. I jumped into Route C – fix-it mode.
This involved flocking about from placement to placement, desperately in search of a place to roost. A place to call home. But I remained as stuck as ever, and the breakup signals grew louder.
I then cycled between flat-out bursts of fix-it mode (Route C) and periods of acceptance (Route B) – Was I supposed to compromise at this point? To soldier on, despite not finding my current trajectory at all compelling?
When the signals started screaming more loudly, I began to reckon with the only option which made sense – Route D. After much soul-searching, I decided to walk away. To break up with medicine.
I would be lying if I said this was the end the story; that I’m now living happily ever after.
As with any breakup, the fallout can for last years, if not decades:
- I still miss many aspects of being a doctor (the patients, the camaraderie)
- I often look back with a sense of loss
- And I still regularly catch myself wondering if I’m absolutely bonkers
But the upside to Route 4 – walking away at the right moment – isn’t to be underestimated.
It sounds a bit cliché, but the newfound sense of freedom to go out into the world and ‘find myself’ is exhilarating. It’s a rollercoaster to be sure, but now it feels like one I’m supposed to be on.
So if you recognise the 5 signs of impending breakup, reflect patiently on these 2 questions. I hope the balance between their answers will help to inform your next steps:
- Who will I have to become in order to avoid breaking up with my career?
- Am I willing to become that person?