Mama M: Am I Too Nice to Be a Good Doctor

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dear Mama M,

People tell me I am too nice to be a good doctor. The thing is, I am near the end of medical school — I graduate in two months, actually, and I guess I haven’t learned how to be tough.

I am not jaded like a lot of my classmates, who have learned from tough patients and tough times on the wards. They tell me that I am still too innocent and too trusting of people, and that I care too much about being gentle and about listening to people and their stories.

And it is true; I do care about how people suffer inside, as much as I feel intrigued by their physical ailments. I want to help them emotionally as well as physically. 

I matched in an excellent Internal Medicine program, and will start my residency in a few months, but I am worried that maybe people are right.

How do I learn in the next few months how to be tougher and savvier, like a lot of my classmates? I really don't want to be pushed around by patients or be easy to manipulate, and so on, as my classmates warn me. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely, Too Nice

Dear Too Nice,

I think you might be confusing nice with stupid.  Niceness has gotten a bad rap. It gets confused for a particular brand of dumbness or naiveté.

Lots of mean people get pushed around and manipulated, but they are not nice about it. So, there are some things you need to get straight in your mind about who you are and how you want be as a doctor. Stripped away from the cultural overlay of “nice” lies “kind.” And kindness, my friend, rules! 

If you are able to sit with patients in their deepest despair and show them kindness, you will never have to worry about being tough or savvy.  Over time, you will simply learn how to set the right limits that keep you from being pushed around without sacrificing human kindness.

I am not one bit worried about you, Nice. You have the heart for the work. The rest can be learned.  More importantly, as a naturally nice person, you will need to develop a second skin that allows you to trust your kind and curious instincts and remain protected.

Your classmates might believe that they are bad-asses who will never cry about a particularly devastating case or shut down altogether. But they are seriously wrong.

They will do these things ... and guess what? They will be too nice at times. They will be manipulated and or pushed around. They will go the extra mile, and some of their patients will remain in their mushy hearts for a long, long time.  Be careful when reflecting on the feedback from others about kindness.

Believe me, Sugar, you can redefine kindness and make it work for you. You will be tough when you need to be and sweet when you can. At the end of all days, Pumpkin, medicine has its limitations, but kindness does not.

Mama M