Before starting medical school, buried in a list of to-do tasks, I was asked to submit my Meyers-Briggs personality inventory. I was no stranger to this string of four letters, as I had performed the assessment many times in my life. I didn’t need to take the test again to know what I would get: INFJ.
The actual meaning and relevance of these four letters can be debated for the rest of time, but I do believe that the traits conveyed by those four letters — introverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging — truly do reflect my personality. At least one of these traits is undeniably true: introverted. I am an introvert through and through, which, in an arguably extroverted career, comes with its share of challenges.
Throughout my life, being an introvert has been a huge struggle when it comes to interacting with new people. Traditionally this has meant avoiding answering phone calls, looking down so I don’t have to say hi and never going to large social gatherings if they weren’t necessary. In my first two years of medical school, I became isolated because I never went to the social events that the school hosted. I distinctly remember deciding to go to a club meeting at the start of my first year where I spent the entire long walk to the room giving myself a pep talk to keep moving. I wanted to be social and meet new people, but every fiber of my being was saying, “turn back, go hang out at home in your bed instead.”
Was I glad I went? Sure. Did I speak to anyone I didn’t need to? Not a chance. With this level of past introversion and social anxiety, I dreaded the start of clinical rotations. Emerging from a year and a half of pandemic-induced social isolation, I had a lot of doubts swimming in my mind: What if having to be social all the time becomes too draining? What if I am bad at talking to patients? What if I’m too socially awkward to be respected as a professional?
Much to my surprise — and maybe to the surprise of my family and close friends — I found that the clinical setting has expanded my confidence and surfaced new elements of my personality. I love walking into a patient room, introducing myself, and talking to the patient about what brings them in to see a doctor that day. I am not historically the most confident person, but when I knock on that door and grab the doorknob, I transform into the confident young woman I have always been told I should be.
Even though I’m introverted and typically recharge by being alone, I find that talking to patients and listening to their concerns saturates me with energy. I tend to walk out of a patient room excited to share what we have discussed with my attending. I have received many comments from my preceptors about how energetic and attentive I am in the clinical setting — not quite the constructive criticism about being a wallflower that I had expected!
The discovery that I not only enjoy interacting with patients, but that they also enjoy meeting and interacting with me, has been incredibly eye-opening. I have always enjoyed understanding the feelings and perspectives of others, preferably from the shadows in an observational capacity; I never expected medical school clerkships to transform my capacity for empathy and conscientiousness into a meaningful form of connection.
I didn’t notice this shift in my confidence right away. It was only recently that a mother on my family medicine rotation made me notice my confident and professional presence when she said to me, “I am so glad that you came in and my daughter got to see you. She has always wanted to be a doctor and it’s incredible that she got to see such a beautiful young female actually doing it.”
As I said goodbye to that family, seeing myself in the eyes of that little girl, I suddenly felt the power of my newfound confidence. Several years ago I was that little girl, simply dreaming of being a doctor. So as she gave me a small, shy wave, I said to her, “I look forward to seeing you as a doctor someday too.” I never saw myself as a role model before, but being a third-year medical student has made me see that I am. I’ve grown in ways that I didn’t expect and broken out of a shell I didn’t even fully realize I was in. This is a gift I never expected to receive in the early years of medical training.
While nothing has changed for me in terms of being an introvert, every patient I meet makes me feel more like a real doctor and less like the white-coat-wearing impersonator I thought I was two years prior. I thoroughly enjoy talking to new patients and the small connections I make in my brief encounters. Whether it’s joking with the teenagers, realizing I have the same name as a patient’s daughter (and we both spell Sara the right way!), or having a patient smile and say it was great to meet me, each connection feels profound. I’m still an INFJ, but I no longer see the “I” in this abbreviation as a barrier to success; it’s a strength I never knew I had.
Featured image courtesy of Sara Wierbowski.