Mama M: Scared Stupid

Columnist

Dear Mama M,

I am a new third-year medical student, and I am terrified.

I have heard from others that the third year is killer, that I will be the low man on the totem pole, and that I will feel stupid and lost and alone all the time. And then there’s all the real-life death and blood and guts and so on.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m kinda thrilled about it, but terrified too. I wake up in sweats at night, after dreaming that I made a mistake that kills someone in the ICU or in the Emergency Room, and so on. I have done well on all the book learning of med school and I think I can handle it intellectually, but I just don’t feel prepared for what I think I'm getting into.

Any words of advice to help me?

Scared Stupid

Dear Scared Stupid,

I am thinking about what to say to you that will provide some comfort. But there is no real comfort when talking about fear — or feeling stupid, for that matter — except to know that it is universal. 

Feeling alone is a state of mind. We are both always alone and never alone. Your peers and colleagues will have their own ways to manage their fear, but none of them will be without it. The truth is that real life is enormously hard and scary a lot of the time. 

Feeling stupid is an opening. It is a lens that allows you to see where your inner work is.  The sooner you cultivate the process of leaning into fear; the more you will push through it to see what is on the other side. 

Or you could just stand there feeling stupid. You will have to choose: growth or fear, feeling stupid, or feeling stupid while you laugh at the insanity of being human.  You choose. 

I vote for growth, because as an MD, you will encounter the trifecta of Suffering, Healing and The Unknown. You will need to learn how to live with fear, to hang out with it, to dance with it, to laugh with or at it.

Mostly, to know it is a companion of sorts.  Fear will keep you sharp, Dr. Scared. It will keep you on your toes. It can be your buddy.

Medical school is hard. It’s competitive and exhausting and relentless. There is not a lot of time left over for personal growth. But if there were, there would be class on the naturally wonderful process of “Leaning Into Fear” — because fear is natural and instructive.

The more you lean in, the less unfriendly it will feel. When you are standing in the ICU or the ED and the fear is creeping along your spine, hang with it, Dr. Scared, because it is talking to you, reminding you to learn more, or to follow an instinct that could save someone’s life. 

Be moved, rather than paralyzed by it. And as for feeling stupid — that is a harsh bag of gunk we swab ourselves with that doesn’t really serve us. Of course, you don’t know everything. You are not supposed to.

Don’t drag a bag of gunk around. Life is hard enough. Lean, my friend, just keep leaning and learning and making friends with fear. 

Fear is one of our most powerful guides, and all emotions are fleeting. What remains is the spirit that you bring to every precious moment.

Mama M