By Dr. Chantal Reyna
How well would you handle not being able to perform surgery anymore?
The real question is “How much of your identity is based on being a surgeon?”
We tend to define ourselves by our professions. Our profession has been a large part of our identity. We have dedicated our formative years to this profession. When we lose our profession, we lose a part of ourselves. It is a void; it is a hollowing. How can we put ourselves in a position where we still recognize ourselves if we lose a piece of our identity?
Resilience is the answer. Resilience is flexibility. Resilience is adapting to unexpected changes, stressors, or adversity. Resilience is strengthened by diversifying ourselves and can be learned.
We are the sum of many parts. Think about jigsaw puzzles or impressionist artwork. Each individual piece combines and interacts to build a structure that is more than the sum of its parts. These pieces can be combined in different ways to create infinite unique configurations. These designs can be so solid that the structure will still stand strong even when removing one piece of it. This is what it means to diversify yourself to build resilience.
As Linville described, identity (your personal puzzle or painting) is compiled from many self-aspects (work-self, community-self, relationships, home-self, etc.) or pieces that come together to make the whole. We even describe ourselves differently depending on which self we are at the time. Work-self may be reliable. Community-self may be giving. Family-self may be compassionate. This goes beyond work-life integration. The more numerous the pieces, the more self-complexity is present and the more resilience we will have. Take away one part of a jigsaw puzzle or one dot from the impressionist painting, and we will still see the overall picture: ourselves.
How do we begin to diversify?
It is an active choice. It is choosing to increase the number of self-aspects. Decide on a new self-aspect and repeatedly do an activity to reinforce it. Are there any old hobbies to rediscover? Are there new ones that have yet to be tried? Create a meaning, purpose, or goal for each newly chosen aspect to provide guidance, courage, and motivation to grow and maintain it. For example, if you add a marathon runner to your self-aspects to improve physical fitness, you might train by repeatedly running longer distances to build endurance. If you want to become an avid reader to understand literary references, it might be reading one chapter a night. Diversifying yourself is purposefully increasing the number of self-aspects and creating them through repeated action to lay the foundation for the new identity.
It can be challenging to identify entirely new aspects, so we can also start with diversifying broader categories: self, relationships, and career.
Self: Improving self-awareness and recognizing core values can guide which self-aspects would provide internal validation and fulfillment. Self-aspects such as being a volunteer, musician, or anything that aligns with your core values will provide fulfillment.
Relationships: These are the support networks from family, friends, and co-workers. These can be separate networks. Just as you have a community self, a work self, etc., there can be friends from work, yoga, or college friends. Just as more than one mentor cannot fulfill all needs, the same is true for relationships. Rarely is one relationship sufficient to fulfill all different areas of support. These can be expanded through new activities.
Career: Besides surgery, we can expand these roles by taking leadership positions or obtaining second degrees. When performing surgery, we have back up plans. Smae operation but different approaches when challenges arise. The same should be with careers. We can investigate related but similar fields, such as coaching. We can add research to our repertoire.
We are more than our profession. I am a world traveler, an avid book reader, a musical fan, a wife, an aunt, a friend, a mentor, and a surgeon. We are ingrained from our first interactions that our profession is our sole identity. How often have you asked someone or been asked, “What do you do?” This typical icebreaker question instills that our sole identity is our profession since the responses are “I am a thoracic surgeon” or “I am a vascular surgeon.” But that is not all we are. I’ve started asking people on new encounters a different variety of questions. “What activities do you enjoy doing?” “What type of activities do you enjoy outside of your work?” If asking about their work, I try to use “What is your occupation?” I have tried to rephrase the questions to avoid the implication that our sole identity is our profession. I have also tried to change my own response. “I work at X as a breast surgical oncologist.” It takes effort on both sides.
I only recently started my journey to increase my self-aspects further to diversify and build resilience. I look at literature outside medicine, where resilience and diversification have been discussed in other fields for decades. I am a surgeon and grateful to be able to care for others. That is one piece of the whole. Who am I? “I am Chantal: world traveler, musical aficionado, wife, Hispanic, daughter, surgeon.”
Linville PW. Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987 Apr;52(4):663-76. doi: 10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1993. PMID: 3572732.
Dr. Chantal Reyna is a fellowship trained, board certified surgeon, specializing in diseases of the breast. She currently serves as the Medical Director of the Breast Program and Chief of Breast Surgery at Crozer Health and will become the Section Head of Breast Surgical Oncology at Loyola University in Chicago. Her research interests include minimizing axillary surgery and male breast cancer. She is an active member and holds several committee positions in the Society of Surgical Oncology, the American Society of Breast Surgeons and the Association of Women Surgeons. She is an avid soccer fan and enjoys reading and traveling internationally.