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Physician, Know Thyself: A Self-Identity Crisis


Dr. James Turner has an important question to ask you today.

Who are you?

It’s a simple and seemingly harmless question, but it’s important to know the answer. And that answer needs be more than “I’m a doctor,” or “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an important cog in the big machine.”

As you’ll learn in today’s tale, putting too many identity eggs into one ego basket can be very problematic if that basket is taken away.

For much of my adult life, I’ve identified as an anesthesiologist, but also as a husband, father, jogger, brewer, author, and adventurer.

Who are you?

This post was originally published on The Physician Philosopher.

Physician, Know Thyself: A Self-Identity Crisis


During my third year of medical school I received a harrowing phone call, “Can you please go over to Steve’s place? I am worried about him. He might want to hurt himself.” The person requesting this was the mother of Steve, one of my best friends in medical school. At the time, I was a third year medical student on my surgical rotation. Steve’s mom was concerned he might commit suicide.

Sleep deprived as I was, I ventured over to Steve’s apartment. This is where I would learn the true meaning of the command: “Physician, Know Thyself.”

In the Beginning


Steve and I met during my first year of medical school.

It was his second first year as he took a break during what should have been his first year after some tough family situations. His parent’s family pharmacy was failing at home.

Due to his family’s struggles, Steve made an intentional decision to take a break from medical school to help his family business. He would be coming back to medical school the next year to start over once his family life was in order. His repeat attempt is when I met him.

This sounded all well and good, except that Steve’s next attempt at medical school encountered problems, too. He didn’t pass a class, which led to a formal process where Steve would have to fight for the right to stay in medical school. While battling major anxiety, Steve underwent several committee meetings, multiple appeals, and many sleepless nights.

Steve had been engaged that year. He was marrying his high school sweetheart of more than ten years. He found out that his dream of becoming a physician would end the day before his wedding day.

As I watched his soon-to-be wife walk down the aisle on their wedding day, the skies opened up and it began to rain. As a groomsman in his wedding, I couldn’t help but feel this was a harbinger for what was to come.

On the day he and his wife said, “I do,” he was surrounded by his medical school friends all who (except for me) had no idea that their journey would continue while Steve would be left behind.


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A Downward Identity Spiral


It didn’t take long after that for Steve’s downward spiral to begin. He had always dreamed of becoming a family practice doctor in his hometown. With a lot of hard work and perseverance, he had received admission to medical school.

Yet, he delayed going to medical school the first time for a year while his older sister applied to medical school. Steve felt bad that he would go to medical school before his older sister. He was a caring and selfless person who enjoyed putting others first.

Unfortunately, because of the amount of work he put into getting into medical school and the long-held dream he had of becoming a doctor, Steve’s identity began to be rooted in that dream. When it all fell apart, his relationship with his wife began to unravel.

He spiraled into a deep and dark depression. His marriage never really stood a chance given the circumstances in which it started. Divorced and depressed, he went to a particularly dark place.

What determines your identity?


Steve’s story has impacted me profoundly, including how I think about my self-identity.

What is your self-identity? You can find out by imagining the following scenario: Imagine that you had to explain to someone you have never met, but who was very interested in learning about you, who you are.  What would you say if they asked you to tell them about yourself?

Alternatively, you could ask yourself the following “What are the most important things in your life that if you lost would change who you are?

A Doctor’s Self Identity


When answering that first question, most physicians would start out by saying something like the following:


Well, I am a doctor who works at the local hospital. I am originally from California, but did my training here on the east coast. I’ve been married for five years. We have two kids, a boy who is four and a girl who is two. I love playing sports, particularly basketball. And I really enjoy cooking. What else do you want to know?


On the surface, this all seems like a perfectly acceptable response. Except for one major thing. We have labored so long to achieve the right to call ourselves “doctor” that it has become part of our identity.

You know what I am talking about. That moment someone asks what you do and you are proud to say, “Well, I am a doctor.” Or maybe it’s when you notice how proud your spouse, parents, children, or anyone else you love is when they explain that you are a doctor.

This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Obviously, it is a wonderful thing for medicine to be a calling and a profession.  However, it is also something of which we must be mindful.  We would not cease to exist if this title went away.  Being a physician should not define us.

In the second question above about what would change your identity if you lost it, was your profession one of the answers? How does that make you feel? If you left it out, are you being honest?


Fight for Your Self-Identity


Steve lost his identity the day he found out medical school was over. It wrecked his marriage. It tormented his mental health. And it even led his mother to call me that night out of fear that he would take his life.

Please, take some time to inventory what matters most to you in life. If you aren’t sure how to do this, I encourage you to go through the Three Kinder Questions to help you sort it out.  It’s not only good for financial and life planning, but for figuring out your priorities.

This has to be done before it all comes crashing down.  Love your job.  Be passionate about it.  And be a really good doctor.  But don’t let it define you.

Otherwise, you might be left to pick up the pieces of your dismantled life.

Being a doctor is a good thing, but “like money it is not the end all, be all.” You must root yourselves in things of substance. Not in idols that will forget you the moment that you least expect it.  We know that the hospital won’t love us back.  Therefore, we must not lose our identity within its walls.

Physician, do you know thyself?



I hope this post made you contemplate some important aspects of your life. Do you have examples like Steve’s from your experience? Are you like Steve yourself? How do we combat these things? Leave a comment below.

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4 thoughts on “Physician, Know Thyself: A Self-Identity Crisis”

  1. I have 2 friends with daughters who wanted to be physicians. One girl came to my operating room. She called me up out of the blue and I accommodated her desire to experience the reality of surgery. That girl went on to do what was needed she locked on honed in and did the work. She’s on the threshold of getting in. She authored her own life. The other girl equally as bright kind of figured it was easy. She got a full ride to a nice school with a good premed program. I offered her the same deal to come to my operating room and see what being a surgeon meant since she wanted to be a surgeon. She was a good test taker and thought her test taking skills would be enough. She never came to my OR, because that was her level of commitment. She went to college and flunked out preferring the party to the drudge and has never really recovered a direction. She didn’t author her life her life authored her.

    There is a tool called “self authoring” on self authoring.com which might be useful in the light of a change of direction or as a means of avoiding the need to change of direction. It was developed by the Jordan B Peterson group and is well grounded in positive psychological principles to get your life from point A to point B. In my own retirement I’m about to let my credentials expire. I still hold a license but since I haven’t practiced in a couple years my insurability is about to go. Fine by me. I have proven to myself my need to have medicine as a backup plan is not there. I’ve re-authored my life away from the accumulation mindset to a sane spend down mindset and I have enough. I quit medicine on my own terms at the top of my game and now live a different non medical life. I’m a retired physician, no longer a physician. Know thyself? Knowledge is power

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  3. Thanks for sharing this story. I think we all underestimate how much we associate ourselves with our profession. I can’t imagine what that is like being a physician, but I know how much work it took me to let go of my engineer identity attachment. Even though I thought I had it covered before I voluntarily walked away from it for early retirement, it still took effort to get fully over it.

  4. Excellent post. I think this is something all doctors can fall prey to. Medicine is seductive – it is interesting, personally and financially rewarding, and a concrete achievement that is generally still publicly respected. The potential demand is also infinite.

    Three events that I have seen bring imbalance to the surface:
    1) A major life catastrophe where a career is cut short or the result of a career dominating.
    2) Old age when some realize that medicine has pushed out the rest of their life and medicine is coming to an end.
    3) Realizing financial independence. While the freedom to re-evaluate and choose your path is great. That freedom does bring on an identity crisis since you realize that you do have choice. A serious weighing of the risks of 1 & 2 vs. the seductive properties of a medical career is actually tough. For me anyway.


  5. Very sobering story. Appreciated for its thought-provoking theme.

    I had the luxury of growing up with wayyy too much unstructured play time. Part of me wonders if that, plus being around conflict at a formative age, led to a desire not to be boxed in to any particular identity.

    I still struggle a bit with what my identity really is — but I suppose when it’s all said and done, all that matters is whether I can identify myself as being a caring and open person along the way.


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