Compassion and flourishing in medicine

Medical school is tough. The hours are long, the content is overwhelming, and it can feel like there is no end in sight. I see junior doctor friends working incredibly hard through such difficult circumstances, and wonder if I’ll ever have the necessary qualities to do the same.

It’s long been recognised that going through medical school can put a huge strain on students’ wellbeing. In response, medical schools often train students to cope by building their resilience. Resilience is no doubt important, but with this year’s University Mental Health Day around the corner, I want to endorse taking a step further.

Students should be supported not just to cope in medicine, but to flourish. By recognising the positives of medical study – the things that really nurture us as students – and making the most of them, we can truly grow and be happy.

This week, a consultant helped me to frame my own thoughts on this by asking: “What do you want to bring to medicine, and what do you want medicine to bring to you?”. For me, the answer is compassion in two forms: compassion for others, and compassion for myself.

Compassion for others is certainly what drew me to medicine. This at first took the form of compassion for patients, and the privilege I feel being a support in their most challenging times. I have since also found that compassion for colleagues goes a very long way to improving my own wellbeing.

Everyone working on the ward is a human being with their own experiences. We all make mistakes: I have gained huge motivation from listening to peers and seniors discussing their vulnerabilities, as it reminds me not to feel disheartened by failures or strive for unrealistic perfection. We all have successes, too, and giving peers positive feedback brings me great joy as well.

I am surrounded by amazingly intelligent, empathetic and motivated people. These are the friends and colleagues who inspire me every day. However, if they are anything like me, they do not recognise their own strengths.

This brings me to self-compassion, which can also help us to flourish in medicine. The saying “You cannot pour from an empty cup” resonates strongly. Dr Louise Younie introduced me to the process of creative enquiry, which I found boosted my happiness while writing my dissertation this year. At the end of a day, I painted my reflections, and it felt calming to reflect through art rather than words.

A watercolour painting on white paper, depicting several exotic-looking flowers in bright colours, and a couple of round orange fruits on the vine

One of Hattie’s daily reflection paintings

Most importantly it showed me that you must fill your cup however you want to, not how someone tells you to. Wellbeing is not the same for everyone.

This week I went back to the café where I nervously sat awaiting my interview for medical school. At the time I felt apprehensive, under-confident, and unsure if I was good enough to be on the course. Now in my 4th year, I continue to experience all these feelings. Returning to the café, I reflected on how much I have achieved and what I have learnt since I was last there.

When looking forward, it is so easy to only see the mountain ahead. Self-compassion for me is taking a moment to rest on the climb, and look back at how far up you have travelled.

Hattie Coleman is a 4th year medical student at Barts & The London, and an RMBF student volunteer. She is currently enjoying the wide-ranging challenges of paediatrics, while looking forward to being by the sea during summer break.

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