The culmination of 6 years of gruelling study. I had passed my finals and actually qualified as a real-life doctor.
With the sun shining, my peers buzzing and my family beaming with pride, you’d think this would be a joyous moment in my life.
But something wasn’t sitting right.
I was smiling on the outside, but it was the kind of smile you have to feign.
The contrast between the celebratory atmosphere and my inner apathy made me feel unsettled and confused.
“Why am I not happy?”
They say hindsight is 20/20, and this case is no different. Having reflected on my journey, I now see that day as symbolic.
One thing I pride myself on is being a conscientiousness person. I’m in my element when working hard and learning how to be better. Yet towards the end of medical school, I was less and less able to express do so.
With my enthusiasm waning, it felt like I was butting heads with a brick wall.
They say you learn more new words in the first year of medical school alone than a Russian language student learns during their entire course. That was a lot of fun.
It was later in medical school, when this novelty had peaked and troughed, that it was time to apply knowledge in the real world. To actually step up and become a doctor.
But wait – had I ever really wanted to be a doctor to begin with?
Then again, I did have a blast in my first year as a doctor.
For the first time I had real responsibility placed on my shoulders, and it felt great. Although medicine wasn’t something I had much passion for, I discovered I could still function well and be a competent junior doctor.
In fact, the pressure of that year brought out the best in me.
I grew from having to be a reassuring presence for distressed family members. I grew from being forced to think on my feet. And I grew from being part of a cohesive team, which often felt more like family.
Like early medical school, there had been lots to learn. The novelty bug had bitten me once again.
And then I hit what Seth Godin calls ‘The Dip’.
Fast forward two years later, and the low-hanging fruit had been plucked.
I realised something: if I’m going to hit the next level of competence, I’ll need to invest much more time and energy.
The problem? This couldn’t have been further from what I wanted to do at the time. Because at some deep level, I knew I was being eaten alive.
An internal conflict was gnawing away at me, and it manifested in a few ways:
- Resisting the identity: when family or friends asked about my job, my impulse was to change the subject. When they asked for comment on health topics, I became irritable. Why? Because it reminded me how little enthusiasm I had for inhabiting the role of ‘doctor’. I resented myself for feeling like one person at work, and another at home.
- Shiny object syndrome: during this time I also developed what you might call ‘hobby overload’. One month I was writing short stories, the next I was taking up piano. All this was symptomatic of a deeper issue. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but my brain was working overtime to test out solutions to my predicament.
- Career envy: I’ve written before on how useful jealousy can be, especially when you’re in a career rut. My love of writing, forming deep connections and understanding people manifested as a longing to be an author, therapist or coach.
Apart from these subtle signs, you wouldn’t have known I was suffering from the outside. I was functioning reasonably well at work, but on the inside I felt like total apathy or complete burnout weren’t too far off.
The fundamental clash between my role as a doctor, and who I was in my core, created a lot of pain.
It felt as though I was leading a double life.
Why do so many of us find ourselves in this position? Why is it so tempting to live a double life of our own making?
There are many different reasons. The most powerful? Guilt.
“Is life really so bad? Maybe I should be less entitled.”
“I should be more grateful for this opportunity, because others have so little”
“I should just stop daydreaming, suck it up, and do what is expected of me”
Notice the common denominator being should. The word ‘should’ is the mother of all guilt.
Guilt has little to do with having actually done something bad, and a lot do to with feeling like a ‘bad person’. But things get really interesting when you take a look at where that feeling comes from.
Often enough, it’s driven by some unresolved internal conflict:
- You want to make your parents happy, but you’re unfulfilled at work
- You want to make a difference, but your organisation wants to maximise profits
- You love to think outside the box, but your boss loves you to fall in line
Without addressing internal conflicts, your subconscious mind will keep throwing doubts at you. Some of which will make you feel terrible shame.
You’ll be wandering why you feel so unhappy, when things don’t look too bad from the outside.
It’s paradoxical, but the easy way out is to just power through, ignoring the conflict. This is one option.
The harder way is to explore the conflict open-mindedly, bearing in mind your core values. This can be a more rewarding route in the long-run.
Maybe you identify a surprisingly easy way to boost satisfaction in your current role. Or, perhaps you realise you’re in the wrong industry entirely.
When I examined my own conflicts, the weight of leading a double life started to lift.
I saw that being a doctor was driven more by obligation than personal fulfilment. I saw that the medical path was no longer aligned with my deepest values.
Gradually, I began to feel lighter. I began to contemplate what might be possible – this time with wonder, rather than a creeping sense of guilt:
“Wait, who says I can’t leave medicine?”
“What would be possible if I followed the joy instead of the obligation?”
“I only have one life. What would my version of a meaningful life really look like?”
Are You Leading a Double Life?
Here’s the thing.
When things are ticking along reasonably well, but you’re drifting apart from your authentic, core self, no one is going to step in. Why would anyone intervene? The only person who can change your trajectory is you.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t mandatory; it’s entirely optional.
You can suck it up and keep on your current path, wherever it may lead. Just accept that no one is going to come along, shake you, and beg you to create a more fulfilling career.
Then again if you’re leading a double life, and you know there to be internal conflict simmering under the surface, I only invite you to notice it.
Talk it through, meditate on it, and reflect on your day-to-day life.
Answers won’t come overnight, but when they do, it may well become obvious where you need to make some changes.