The Unseen Mask of Women Doctors
Authors: Dr. Laura Schwindt & Dr. Karen Tindall
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Calm, confident, and in control. That’s how women doctors are trained to be. It has been
implanted in our DNA throughout our training that we need to appear professional and always
have everything together. After all, we are the experts who have trained for many years to reach this level of our careers. Indeed, we are experts at doing it all? Honest and vulnerable conversation can be hard to find in medicine between women physicians regardless of seniority or position. Who wants to look like the one amongst your colleagues who cannot handle the job or life? Putting on our masks of stoicism gives us protection from feeling less than the superwoman we think we need to be. If we hide that life and work can be challenging, no one will suspect us of not achieving or being successful enough. Many women in medicine feel they must work extra hard to prove their competence and overcome gender stereotypes. As a result, women physicians are wearing their masks of stoicism, which perfectly hides how they genuinely feel at work and home.
Honing our skill of appearing completely in control has taken practice. It is something we have
been groomed into throughout our training and from how we see other women doctors behaving. It can become so ingrained within our DNA that we fail to recognize it in ourselves. Kay, a 39-year-old surgeon, was in a car accident a few years ago. Nothing too severe but enough to shake her up and leave her car needing to be towed. It was Kay’s day off, and she felt tearful for the rest of the day. Kay rang her good friends, one of whom was a colleague at the hospital. Each listened to her recount the story and expressed regret; then, they promptly changed the topic of conversation to what was going on in their day. Kay could not understand why her friends did not offer her more compassion. The answer was that Kay was a professional mask wearer. Outwardly Kay, whether at the hospital or home, always appeared collected, calm, and had everything under control. She had never given her friends reason to believe that she could not cope with a minor car accident. Her friends thought this was no big deal for her. Even in her moment of need, Kay most likely did not communicate that she was finding the day hard and needed their support.
Through conversations that have provided a safe space for women doctors to feel comfortable with being vulnerable, we have heard exactly what they are experiencing and how they are feeling and behaving. Women have become so adept at wearing their masks of professional stoicism that they always have them on. It has become a modus operandi. It takes some adapting to start to take the mask off and feel comfortable with sharing true feelings and experiences.
So what are women doctors sharing with their colleagues and us in these spaces? Right away, there is a great sense of relief and camaraderie, knowing that they are not alone in how they feel and the similarity of their experiences. They begin realizing that other women face personal challenges behind their masks of professional stoicism which creates opportunity for genuine connection. Lauren, 50, described the realization that she was not alone in her experiences as powerful. Having spent many years in a career that always made her feel a little anxious, she discovered that having the opportunity to have open and honest conversations with other women doctors was freeing and the hidden burden that she felt she carried alone was a shared burden between women in the group. She felt lighter just knowing she was not alone.
One surprising insight that becomes apparent when women doctors feel safe and share is the realization that the mask they wear to protect them from the stress of work and personal life is just covering up inner chaos. The superhero mask begins to lose its power as women realize it is nothing more than a facade that isn’t helping them build any resilience to stress or fulfillment in their lives. The magic of a safe space for women doctors to be their authentic selves is how it creates a meaningful home where their basic psychological needs are met. In the book, Do Hard Things, author Steve Magness describes the power of combining meaning with three basic psychological needs to build resilience:
Competency: feeling like you can make progress and grow
Autonomy: feeling like you have some control over your life
Belonging: feeling like you are part of a group
The women doctors we meet share that being in a safe space with other women who are open to authenticity and craving whole person well-being as a path to increased whole-life fulfillment fosters an environment where they feel these basic psychological needs are being met while creating deeper meaning in their purpose. Maybe it is time we collectively start to reduce how much we are wearing our masks of stoicism. Finding the freedom to be open about what we experience with other women physicians will allow more women in medicine to be real. The honesty and vulnerability strengthen bonds and build a much more supportive community in which we live and work.
Are you ready to shed your mask?
All names in this article have been changed to protect identities but the stories are real.
Dr. Karen Tindall and Dr. Laura Schwindt combine their love of people, transformations, medicine and dentistry together in their partnership of The Mint Door. Through their exclusive members club for women doctors and their popular Practice Wellness Programs, they demonstrate that the concept of total well-being is key to whole person and whole practice success.
You can find out more by visiting www.themintdoor.net or follow them on Instagram @themintdoorclub.