I recently heard a story from a beautiful, African American woman who wore a stylish black cardigan and dark red lipstick. Her dark, silky hair was perfectly curled, and her smile illuminated our faces like a flashlight exposing the darkness. As she began to speak, her deep, rhythmic voice reverberated off our concrete classroom walls; her voice and its warmness filled the room like blowing breath into a balloon. I was touched by her presence even though we were separated a considerable distance. She held a sweet sense of humility, a knowingness and experience, in her voice. She told us a story.
This kind and gentle woman had been incarcerated for 14 years. Her story starts as a child, when she experienced domestic sexual trauma that continued into her teenage and adult life. She got wrapped up in some bad relationships which propelled themselves into criminal activity. Her story is not unlike many others; when trauma starts this early on, it isn’t a choice. It is a lifestyle given without any permission or consent. Among her triumphant stories was a small detail about how she began to tell herself lies and believe them. Her identity was built on false narratives, destructive words that shaped her, and a lifetime of untruths. She said eventually, she didn’t even know her real birthday.
Although I am very different from this woman, I share many of her same vulnerabilities. We all do. We are all capable of telling ourselves lies that become truth and this truth becomes our reality and this reality becomes our life. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, purposeless, hopeless, that we have no friends, no choice in our life trajectory, and no control, or that we’re unattractive, disliked, stupid, or meaningless. We can say these things, and they will become true. I spent a lot of time in high school convincing myself that I needed to change; that I needed blonde hair and tan skin before I could be loved. Or that I needed bigger muscles and a smaller waist before I could be attractive. Or that if I spoke and acted a certain way, I would fit in. I began to believe myself. These lies became my reality and that reality became very grim and oppressing as I tried to fit into all the images that society tells us are important. My saving grace came when I began to tell myself something else: I am smart, I have importance that goes beyond physical appearances. I am loved exactly how I am. Then I began to tell myself something even more radical: Maybe I could even change the world. These things I told myself changed my life perspective. Our self-talk matters.
You may truly think you are worthless or unloved or a failure. I am not condemning your feelings or telling you that you are wrong. The thoughts you have about yourself are valid. That is really how you feel and that must be recognized. What I am saying, however, is that you should start telling yourself a new narrative. Every day wake up and tell yourself the truth that you want your reality to become. Roll out of bed and tell yourself, “I am loved. I am important. My work is meaningful. My life is valuable. I am kind, lovable, and gentle. I am free from addiction. I am free from sadness/anxiety/depression. I am in control. I am loved by something much larger than me. I was created with purpose. I was created with passion. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Or maybe just tell yourself one of those things or maybe all of them if you need it. Some days I do.
This week my mantra has been “I am strong, I am capable, I am confident” because each of those words touches on an insecurity I’ve felt this week. On Monday, I told myself this phrase as I walked to class, practiced a speech, worked my job, went about life. On Friday, my mantra became my reality: I endured the week with strength, competence, and self-assurance. My positive self-talk came true.
As you read this I ask you a simple question: What do you need to hear?
And I implore you to take on a simple task: start telling yourself that. Today, right now, this week. It may save your life.
I’m sitting in a hip, jazzy cafe in Palo Alto, California. I’m sipping on some water because I just indulged in a milk tea with boba that was absolutely delicious. I arrived in California this morning around 11:00am, after leaving my apartment at a shockingly early time of 3:30am (shout out of appreciation to my boyfriend, Avery, for waking up and driving me to the airport). All day, I’ve jumped from plane to plane, city to city, to finally land in this spot. This comfortable spot of sitting in a worn-out leather chair in a young and busy coffee shop in a beautiful city.
It is no accident that I’m here; it took years of hard work, focus, dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance to get to this place. It took planning, purchasing a plane ticket, organizing accommodation, and a lot of thought to get here. Yet, I keep thinking to myself, This must be a mistake. What if I show up to the interview and they say, “Sorry, we have no records of you. It must have been a miscommunication.” At least then it would all make sense. I don’t say these things to self-flatter or to self-deprecate, only to give a voice to my darkest fears in this moment. Tomorrow, though, I’m interviewing at Stanford Medical School and that is a reality I never dreamed of coming true. Flying in, over the beautiful city of San Francisco and after coming in from Los Angeles, I thought about my hometown and how drastically different this is from that. I feel like I don’t belong here, like it is all a big mistake and I’m the butt of the joke, but somehow I know this is where I’m supposed to be.
I’m overwhelmed with appreciation at how far I have come and how beautiful this moment is, like finally letting air out of a balloon that has been way too full for way too long. I never expected this moment, but I know I worked hard for it. I never felt entitled to anything but felt indebted to giving this dream everything I’ve got; I reflect on everything I’ve worked diligently for and how I have sacrificed some of the ordinary joys of a 20-something to make it this far. Those moments lost are worth it, because the feeling of accomplishment in this one is so, so sweet. I reflect back, and I feel grateful.
Grateful for the people who helped me get here, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Thankful for the people who have continuously believed in me, even when I was down on myself. I’m thankful for the people who pushed me to keep going when I wanted to give up. I’m thankful for the people who let me cry on their shoulder when I needed to. I’m not in medical school yet, and I’m certainly not a doctor, but I think it is worth celebrating this moment, no matter what happens in the future.
I have no idea what will occur in the next few weeks, but right now, in a warm and inviting cafe in Northern California, I am so happy. Happy for opportunities, for growth, and for truly having the chance to chase my biggest dreams.
As I’m enjoying my morning coffee, with sunshine flooding into my small but comfy shoe-box of a bedroom, I google “how to show Christ’s love as a doctor”. It may be obvious how doctors have a platform for showing compassion, love, equality, and integrity towards their patients, but I’m a practical kind of gal so I wanted some real-life tips. One thing that stood out to me in an article that I read is the call to honor God with our lives – a seemingly simple task – but to avoid making medicine/success/accomplishment/money/etc. an idol before God. I started reflecting on my own life and realized how important and hard this is.
Avoiding idols is a slippery, hard-to-detect fine-line that I’ve even experienced as someone who is not a doctor yet. I find a sense of belonging and contentment in feeling like I’m making a difference, even if small, in someone’s life at this stage in my journey. I take pride in my accomplishments that I work so hard for, and I celebrate the opportunities that come to me throughout this journey. When I studied for the MCAT, I felt like that exam was truly determining my future, and I had to step back (or have others around me) to remind myself that God is in control of my destiny. There have been times where this career has become an idol in my life that I worshiped and thought about constantly, and it takes daily, continual action to break down that idol. My support system at my church reminds of the temporary nature of this life and how everything we do should be good but is truly only transient. When we break down those idols, liberation from anxiety, worry, and defeat ensues.
Idols don’t always look like golden calves. Sometimes they look like the pursuit of money so you can live a little more comfortably, a cute boy who you devote all your time to, the success and accomplishment of your children, perfection towards a hobby or skill, or the more deleterious but real-life idols like addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and sexual immorality. The hardest thing about breaking down idols is remembering to wake up every single day and chip away at that thing you think gives you worth in life. Whether or not we like it at all, those things will fail us and we will leave them behind us when we enter the kingdom of Heaven. I try to remember that although I want to be a physician more than anything, my life is worth so much more than that. My God has given me, and all of us, specific ways and tools to impact and gather his Kingdom. That may not be as immediately flattering or boast-worthy, but it is way more important. Every day, in a small but consistent way, start chipping away at the idol you’ve built in your life. You probably already know what it is. The effects are liberating in so, so many ways.
“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3
Today at work I got emotional.
I work in a cardio-oncology lab, and I spend most of my days writing and reading about cancer therapies, cancers, and heart disease. Sometimes, I write and read so much that I dream I actually have breast cancer, and I wake up gripping for reality and feel overwhelmingly thankful that I do not. I read about it so much that sometimes I forget that actual people get cancer, not just numbers and statistics published in journals, and I’m humbly reminded of this when I see patients in the clinic who cling to an unwavering hope. I don’t typically get emotional at work, because when I’m not sitting at my computer planning things or shadowing in the clinic, I’m working with mice that I’m treating with immunotherapy. While I do get attached to my mice and I’m thankful for the role they play in scientific discovery, they don’t typically make me emotional. Sometimes, they even bite me and claw at me and elicit a response very opposite of thankful. Today, though, I had a conference call with the physician I work with and a group of our collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center. We all got together to talk because we are interested in understanding why and how the immune system can fight off cancer. We as a cardio-oncology group are interested in the heart, and why some patients develop fatal heart disease when they receive immune-checkpoint inhibitors (a cancer treatment). This is what all of my research projects are focused on, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I think one day I may become a cancer doctor, or a cardio-oncologist, or continue asking questions like these, but that’s too far away for me to speculate. The other group, hailing from one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world, discovered immunotherapy and specifically how the immune system can attack cancer cells in the body. While I was a bit star-struck to be talking to people who have literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, something every doctor or scientist dreams of doing, I was even more touched by their sincerity and care for patients. I think a lot of times people think humanity is heading in the wrong direction, but moments like these tell me differently. I’m reminded that biomedical research is truly a selfless act of love for humanity. If you have cancer, or if anyone you love has cancer, please know that there are scientists, physicians, pharmacists, students, and every part of the biomedical research industry who are out there working for you. Day and night, there are people thinking of how to combat the disease that maliciously steals our children, parents, friends, and neighbors. I’ve heard people jadedly and suspiciously tell me they believe that there is a cure for cancer that the government is holding it from us. This is incredibly discouraging to me, because I see the hearts of scientists and doctors who are diligently searching for cures and treatments. I see them behind masculine, poised faces, behind white coats and dress pants, behind strong words and distant demeanors; I see people who care for humanity and spend their lives working to cure someone they will never even meet. While most days I just let these encounters go unnoticed, today I appreciated that there is something incredibly powerful and moving in that reality.
You’ve got people in your corner. You may not know who they are yet, or maybe you do, but they are there. There are people out there that want to see you succeed as bad as you do. They support you, encourage you, market you to other professionals, love you in your flaws. They see your worth, even if you don’t. They recognize your talent, even when you don’t. Something about you inspires them, and you feed off their success and hunger for life. You have people that are your cheerleader. They rejoice with you when you do great things and they fall hard with you when you don’t. They are acutely aware of your life goals and dreams, and they can see what lights your eyes up and sets your heart ablaze mid-conversation. They tell you that they know what you were made for. They are happy for you. They are there for you. They are rooting for you. It may be your mom, teacher, co-worker, best friend, mentor, stranger, boss, dad, roommate, or just a passing face – but somehow they know you and believe in you. People are rooting for you. They don’t wish to see you fail, wish to see you find trouble, but are instead genuinely happy for you! These are true friends. Real friends that you find strength in. Friends that you reciprocate this feeling of pride, excitement, and overwhelming love for. Forget yourself and remember the people that are rooting for you. Those people will be the first people you hug whenever you cross the finish line.
-Me, to myself, when self doubt infiltrates my thoughts on the beautiful things God has given me.