The Thief of Joy

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Following Content Also Features as a Guest Blog Post from MDObvious.

How comparison is necessary to find the right path, but can be the emotional pitfall of the unwary during layoff.

“At least he’s contributing,” I would find myself thinking as I interacted with the odd gas station attendant or grocery store cashier.

Like most people, my interpersonal interactions during the pandemic have been limited mostly to social media, immediate family and random retail workers. When you spend enough time on your own it’s easy to let your mind both wander and wonder about where you would rather be and what you would like to be doing. It’s easy to compare what you’re doing now—being jobless—to others you know or used to work with. More often than I care to admit I found myself comparing my daily ineffectualness to those who were working and thought ill of myself in the process. These thoughts robbed me of the appreciation I should have had for the time I’ve been able to spend on my own and with my family. In short, I was taking things for granted and those thoughts were robbing me of joy. The statement “comparison is the thief of joy” has chiefly been attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, but this phrase has been uttered in other forms for centuries. Afterall, even the Torah and Old Testament say not to covet thy neighbor’s goods. But layoff is a difficult time to heed any sort of advice, and it certainly is no exception with wariness of comparison.

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But is comparison all bad? Well, no. It’s important with a job search to be able to be able measure the strengths and deficits of a position. The attributes of locations, employment type and schedules need to be compared in order to make the right decision about finding the best fit in your next workplace. Even more pertinent is that we all use comparison to help us find inspiration. Watching others who are succeeding and seeing the steps they took to arrive there can help you with your aspirations and job search. Perhaps such inspiration pushes you to new places, new occupations or even outside of medicine entirely. Used with caution, comparison can be a very useful tool.

Comparison is much less useful when it perpetuates thoughts of negativity or promotes fear and stagnation. If you find your mind occupied with comparing your jobless state to what you used to have, all you’ll find is bitterness and feelings of inadequacy. If comparison makes you automatically decide that change from what you used to do are detrimental, it can impair personal and occupational growth. Alternatively, comparison can sometimes prevent you from taking a position when it gives you a feeling of misappropriated superiority. After all, almost any job for those truly financially struggling is better than no job at all.

So, what are the ways we overcome the snares of comparison? First of all, ask yourself what good you’re achieving when you compare yourself to others. If it’s causing significant emotional pain, it’s probably not a comparison worth pursuing. Being realistic and gentle with yourself is the most appropriate choice—compare yourself to the average, not the exceptions! After all, most physicians are used to being experts in our fields, but not all of us are the surgeon general or make major scientific breakthroughs on a daily basis. The best advice I have had is actually not to compare yourself to others at all, but only to the best version of yourself. You can’t change who you are or that your layoff occurred, but you can concentrate on how you’re becoming better and what you have to look forward to. Begin to cultivate your positive attributes and focus on them. Think about the times when you have been particularly effective at a task or exceeded expectations. Think about the skills you used that made you successful, and tailor your job search to those positions that would highlight those strengths.

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Secondly, I would consider turning off social media unless it is related to job searches, employment contacts or is actively promoting self-improvement. You don’t need to see what colleagues and friends are advertising or buying when you’re down on your luck. It’s akin to window shopping with an empty wallet and will only leave you emotionally broke. The worst part of this pandemic for me has been seeing my colleagues and others in my profession lauded as heroes when I have been forced to play the role of spectator. It leaves you with the feeling of emptiness that only fills with sadness if you entertain it for too long. Take time instead to focus on the world around you—the people in your house and the tangible things you touch and see every day. These are things and people you can actively impact that can improve your lifestyle now despite being out of work. No social media platform can promise that for you.

Finally, instead of comparing, start focusing energy on what you have time to do. Are you a better parent now? A better child? A better spouse? A better friend? Even if you are not actively being a physician at the moment, you may still be playing these roles. Have you found a second stream of revenue? Will it make your work-life balance going forward more palatable once you start back at work? Are you giving back to society in other ways during your job search? Perhaps you’ve provided emotional support or medical information to family or friends during the pandemic. Maybe you even started volunteer work. During my layoff I became a do-it-yourselfer, a homeschool teacher and a blogger. I also took the opportunity in my time off to join a local COVID vaccine trial. Though I cannot contribute actively in a clinical setting at this time, I can still contribute to the health of society in this way. Not only has it restored some of my purpose, it has contributed to my understanding of COVID and medical research in general. It’s a life experience I do not think I would be able to have if I was working. Just remember as you start focusing energy on others and honing your skills that you are continuing to make yourself a better job candidate, and this time away from the workforce is not all in vain.

The next time you find self-doubt creeping into the back of your mind as you compare yourself to the diligent clerk at the grocery store, remember that your time to contribute will come again soon. Until then, put your efforts towards becoming the person that others compare themselves to, and find your joy again.

Blog Post Excerpt from MDObvious.

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