Josh Schwarzbaum, MD, MBA

This is the journey of how I stopped getting upset with my patients and cured my burnout. 

Once I got this understanding of how the mind works, I was able to see people in a new way and found that my relationships improved across the board – with my family, friends, co-workers, spouse, and children.

Early in my career as an emergency room physician, I met the criteria for burnout. I didn’t feel my work was important, I didn’t feel connected to my patients and I didn’t feel that I was having an impact. I knew something had to change as I wouldn’t last much longer. 

Ironically, in a place where you could provide the most help, I felt like I was wasting my time. 

I would give of myself to those who needed the most and care for a population that others didn’t want anything to do with but I still felt drained. I was getting some insights into my life but it wasn’t enough to keep me going.

I started doing gratitude exercises and felt more thankful for what I was born into and the opportunities I had. I felt better but then I would go to work, someone would scream, curse or threaten me and I would just ask myself, is this really worth it?

I could be working with people that actually showed their appreciation for me and I’d feel better. 

Then one day, I had a big realization. If I slightly change the way I look at my patients and how they act, I could come out feeling a lot differently. 

With this one, small shift, all of my relationships changed for the better. My patients, family members, co-workers, and friends.  

Instead of looking at people like there was something wrong with them when they were acting a certain way, I would look at them as if they were whole, healthy, and complete. 

But that wasn’t enough. They were still abrasive, acting disrespectfully, and irrationally. I realized there had to be another piece to this puzzle. Given their behavior, if there wasn’t something wrong with them, there had to be something wrong elsewhere otherwise, they wouldn’t be acting in that manner.  

I started investigating and talking more to my patients about what was going on in their minds and what was causing them to act the way they were. I found that under their tough skin, there was a pair of soft eyes, a gentle person who wanted to be heard, a person who wanted to be helped, and a person who had nowhere else to turn. 

So I asked them, if you need help why not ask? Why curse, kick, scream, and use violence against the very people that are trying to help you?

It became apparent to me that each one of these people was doing the best they could at the time. Their best thinking was dictating their behavior. They knew they needed help. They didn’t know where else to go, but they still felt that something was missing. They weren’t heard, they didn’t feel cared for, or they weren’t getting the attention they needed. 

They looked back over the course of their lives, their upbringing, their experiences and they figured that in order to get things they needed to act in that way. They were using what worked for them in the past so it made perfect sense to use it now. They were alone, afraid and readily settled into their habits. 

Once I realized this, my whole approach changed. I had the answer. 

I could honestly say there was a good person underneath the roughness. There, in front of me, was a soul, someone whom I could connect with on a deeper level. It was only because of their innocent thinking that they were acting this way. 

Now it wasn’t them who was doing something to me. It was the way that they processed the world around them but still, it didn’t make it right. 

I don’t know what they have been through, what they’ve gone through, or what led them up to this moment. But I do know that if I were in their exact shoes, I may have responded in the same way. 

Now there was a crack in my reality. Could I really blame them for what they were doing and if I couldn’t, what was I getting so upset about? 

Instead of taking it personally, I expanded the way I look at people. I opened my mind in the way in which I could connect with myself, my patients, and the people around me. 

I recognized that the phenomenon of how people get upset doesn’t only occur within my patients, but also within me.

I wondered why things triggered me and what caused my buttons to get pressed? I thought about being in the same scenario twice but having different feelings each time. I realized then – it wasn’t the situation, rather my thoughts about the situation were dictating how I felt. 

Once I started seeing it in this new way, that people are using their best thinking at any given time, I started taking things less personally. I knew what was really going on underneath it all. 

Now what they did and what they said wouldn’t bother me as much and I could connect to them on a deeper level. I knew that just like each one of us, they were just looking for help, connection, love and understanding. 

Now, instead of trying to defend myself or stick up for what’s “right” I would go one layer below and look for what was missing. If I could provide even a bit of it, we would both be in a better place. 

With this recognition, the way I felt about work changed in front of my eyes. My patients didn’t bother me how they used to because I saw within them the same piece that’s within me and that’s within you… A piece of the divine.

It didn’t stop there though. This spread to other realms of my life and I saw improvements in my relationships with employees, parents, business partners, wife and kids. 

When I started looking at people in this new way and recognizing what truly was creating their behavior (and mine) I felt more satisfied, smiled more and the negative interactions I had diminished over time. 

I still get yelled at or cursed at once in a while but now, it’s few and far between. When I do though, I know to look within, find the same piece inside of them that’s within me and walk away feeling good.

Dr. Josh Schwarzbaum is a triple board certified physician in emergency medicine, addiction medicine, and emergency medical services. He consults for organizations and coaches individuals helping them find their natural resilience and peace of mind no matter what life brings their way.

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