Help me encourage a great future doctor not to lose faith in herself.
April 29, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm out of fresh encouraging perspectives, and the stakes are higher than ever. Please help me figure out how to best be a supportive friend in the 11th hour of my pal's struggles with studying for the med school boards.

So, my friend is a very intelligent and principled person, and has for most of her education been in honors classes and in other ways recognized for her commitment to learning and knowledge. She also happens to be one of the most caring people I know, and is absolutely one of my best friends. She is the sort of person who is keenly sensitive to the human element of any problem or situation, and for this reason I think she would be an invaluable addition to the field of medicine, which can sometimes be heavily populated by self-absorbed jerks and/or people who are only in it for the money.

But, as far as I can tell, she is burned out in the extreme from years of studying and studying, not to mention her family worries and expectations (she is a 1st gen daughter of immigrants from a country with pretty conservative expectations for offspring, and despite somewhat Westernized viewpoints on the part of her parents, there are still major friction issues). She has struggled this entire year, her second in med school, with getting herself to buckle down and study, and has been discouraged time and again even when she did with grades that fell below the median of her class - but she's scraped by. And now, with classes over so the students can completely focus on studying 10+ hours a day to pass the board exams, she is really and truly putting in the effort, only to keep getting dismal results on her practice tests for the boards.

She's discouraged. I'm discouraged for her. She's been seeing a counselor, but sometimes sabotages herself even there by not revealing the extent of her struggles, or not doing the tasks that the counselor suggests for her. It takes so much effort for her to just focus on studying these massive tomes of knowledge that she somehow has to ingest and immolate into her very core that when she doesn't make progress, she loses almost all faith in herself. She has mentioned to me that her brother, who also attended med school and is now in residency, did poorly in the books section too, but excelled once he was in a more hands-on environment doing rotations. So, I've been encouraging her to look ahead to that -- but the problem that she and I both obviously can't ignore is that she has to PASS the boards to get there.

I'm out of supportive words and phrases. Everything I can think to say, I've already said: just hang in there; quit beating yourself up; I BELIEVE IN YOU - YOU CAN DO THIS, BUT YOU NEED TO BELIEVE YOU CAN DO IT; it's okay to take more time (she is now pushing back the beginning of her 3rd year to give herself more time to study because her practice test results haven't been enough to pass), you are smart! you are intelligent! you of all people should be a doctor because you actually care about human beings!

I've said it all already, and I can't imagine that repeating this to her is any help at this stage.

I need insight into this experience; who out there in MetaFilter has had similar struggles in professional schools - med school, law school, anything else similarly demanding? I am meeting to have coffee with her this evening, and I just want to give her the most encouraging pep talk I can feasibly manage without personal experience of what she is going through. It would crush me to see her defeated by this, and if there is anything I can say or remind her of to help her avoid that, I want it in my bag of resources. Help me help her.
posted by dorothy humbird to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's very noble of you to want to help your friend out. Might you be able to provide her with a day or a weekend away from studying? It often helps to step back a bit, give your head a break by doing something fun, and then come back to your work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps you can plan some fun activity that would be entirely engaging, so that she won't be secretly thinking of her boards the whole time.

The other thing is that it's great to give pep talks, but it's usually more helpful to just listen with compassion. Maybe she just needs to blow off some steam and doesn't need someone coming up with plans or pep talks for her. Instead of helping her with pep talks, why don't you help her in other ways that are surely being neglected? Maybe you could do a load of laundry for her, or bring her some home-cooked food.
posted by sickinthehead at 7:03 AM on April 29, 2009

Keep saying the same nice things you’ve been saying. The repetition actually does help. Sometimes it takes a lot of repetitions of good things to make a dent in all the negative self-talk. But don’t plan some big pep talk. Listening to her rant (or whimper or yell or cry or whatever) is probably more valuable to her than the pep talk.

The other thing that’s been really helpful to me as I’m working through my dissertation is to have my finance ask what I need from him. If you ask her “What do you need me to do to help you through this process?” that lets her know you’re in her court on a very practical and committed level. She may tell you she doesn’t need anything, but pay attention to some practical things you can do for her to ease her burden as well. I would have been too embarrassed to ask for someone to help me clean my kitchen or bathroom, but simple things like that can help ease the psychological burdens that add to the academic ones.

You could also make some simple meals and put them in single-sized portion containers to help her not have to think about cooking (homemade soup freezes really well and is comforting). Or drop by with a grocery bag full of easy-to-cook ingredients. If she’s having trouble focusing, just having you in the space she’s working might help. I know I’m less likely to get up and do non-studying things when there’s someone else there who will see me surfing the internet or going to the fridge for the fourth time in an hour. But if you keep asking her what she needs, eventually you’ll find a great way to help motivate her.
posted by BlooPen at 7:27 AM on April 29, 2009

Why can't she withdraw for a year and do lab research or some other kind of research? She might get some perspective that would help her by doing that. She just sounds super tired.
posted by anniecat at 7:43 AM on April 29, 2009

Oh, sorry, you just said she was going to do that.
posted by anniecat at 7:43 AM on April 29, 2009

You sound like absolutely, positively the best friend you can be to your struggling friend, and a wonderful human being as well.

It does seem to me that you've already done and said many things to provide support and encouragement. I agree with BlooPen that the repetition can be helpful, even if it sounds trite, banal or insincere (after multiple repetitions) to you.

When I was struggling with bar exam preparation, I treasured the little breaks from studying more than anything else. Your coffee tonight should be a welcome break for her and I'm sure she'll appreciate it.

Don't be too hard on yourself. You're doing a terrific job of supporting your friend and you're to be commended for that.
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:26 AM on April 29, 2009

When I was in the midst of studying for the bar exam a friend from law school sent me and another friend who was also studying a care package. It had fun stuff like toys and candy etc. It wasn't so much what was inside as that she was thinking of me. It really lifted my spirits. When I had to take a bar in a different state, my husband cooked dinner for me every night (believe me when I say he is not one to cook very often, so it was very touching).

It also helped a lot during the two long hot summers I spent studying for the bar to take time away from studying. When I got burnt out I said screw it and went to a movie or hung out at a bar. Alot of people thought I was crazy for going out so much, but I passed both times and I think part of it was that I kept my sanity. It seems counterintuitive but I really think that taking time away from studying is very helpful.

What I did was establish a study schedule that built in time for social stuff... That way I knew that I would have time to cover everything and I could actually relax when I was out and away from the books.

Good luck!
posted by bananafish at 12:43 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all your input.

For the record, this friend and I have a history of supporting/advising each other in trying to throw off procrastination and embrace productivity - both are perpetual hurdles for us. So, I know where she's coming from, but it's even harder for me to encourage her here, since I know in her situation I would be floundering just as badly.

Anyway, over coffee I continued to encourage her to get back on the horse and keep at it. I also asked if there was anything in particular I could help with, and she mentioned having me over for tea -- she always cleans when I'm there, but doesn't feel the motivation unless someone is in the apartment with her. I heartily endorsed this, but I'll be looking for other ways to ease the anxiety/stress.

Once again, thanks to everyone who responded. :)
posted by dorothy humbird at 7:25 AM on April 30, 2009

« Older Quality TESL training in Los Angeles area?   |   When I'm rubber and your glue doesn't work.... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.