What Happens When You Talk About Your Burnout Experience

It's a tough question

Photo Credit: AFPics/Shutterstock
Photo Credit: AFPics/Shutterstock

I remember being in a pediatrician’s office as a kid and checking out a piece of artwork hanging on the wall in the waiting room. It was a cartoon type of drawing of a female pediatrician at work with chaos all around: children running around and screaming, tugging at her white coat, overstuffed charts falling off the shelves. The doctor was portrayed as positively harried, with slightly unkempt hair, glasses a bit askew, and a weak, tentative smile. The drawing was personalized, with the pediatrician’s name on her white coat pocket. I imagined it was probably a gift, from a family member or a grateful patient. I think it was supposed to be endearing—a very human portrait of a busy working mom trying to keep it all together—but it was unsettling to me, even as a kid.

I couldn’t fully intellectualize this gut feeling of mine until I grew up. Here’s what I figured out. I must have felt: Why would a woman intentionally choose to portray herself to the world as frazzled? Even if she does feel overworked and frantic from time to time, why would she want that image hanging on the wall? Why would someone create that kind of portrait as a gift? Maybe there is a comforting solidarity in expressing one’s frazzled nature (assuming that every other woman must be in the same boat), but that’s a little sad. Why glorify it? It reminds me of when smart women intentionally act dumb. I, for one, don’t find that cute. Does the male equivalent of the frazzled doctor cartoon exist? I doubt it, but if it does, you’d probably never see it hanging proudly, as art, in his office waiting room.

My negative reactions to the portrayal or even celebration of a frazzled life—whether via a cartoon or now more commonly via a public tweet or Instagram post—have softened a little over time. As burnout becomes a central concern in medicine, I understand that the public sharing of personal challenges can serve as a valuable coping mechanism for many. I do wonder, however, if over-sharing in a public way might have its downsides as well. What is the right forum?

Excerpted from Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside by Katrina Firlik, MD with permission from the author.

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