Physician burnout, learned helplessness and playing the victim

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

Physician burnout is a normal response to overwhelming stress  

Burnout is a normal response in anyone who chose to be a helper and a healer and is blocked from making enough of a difference in the lives of their patients.

For the physician, burnout signals a need for a course correction in your career. There is GOOD NEWS.

If you don't like anything about your current practice ... you can almost certainly change it, even if you can't see a way forward right now.

  • You do have the power
  • There are plenty of alternatives to your current job

First though, you will have to let go of two things:

  • Playing the victim
  • Learned helplessness; believing change to be impossible when that is not true

Let's take these twin blocks to personal and career change one at a time. 

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First, it is important to draw a distinction between being victimized and playing the victim. 

A true victim has a true perpetrator who is actively and consciously abusing the victim. Bullies and bullying are common in healthcare. Unsafe working conditions and orders that are dangerous or illegal are also not uncommon. If you are in a situation where you are being actively bullied, asked to do things that are unsafe or illegal or if you are in danger yourself - get out of there. You are a true victim and it's time to step away. Do whatever it takes. 


PLAYING the Victim is a whole different matter. This is when you act and sound like you are being victimized but there is no perp. 


3 Signs you are Playing the Victim

When you hear yourself doing one or more of these - in the absence of a true perpetrator - you are playing the role of the victim:

  • Blame
  • Justify
  • Complain

This happens most often in physician gripe sessions - in-person or online - where the blame is laid on the system, the call center, your call rotation, the compensation formula, EMR [Your Brand Here], your boss, your employer, the insurance company, one political party or another, the government. Once the blame has been apportioned, the doctor feels a little bit of relief and head's back to see the next patient.

If you ask a few questions about these complaints it quickly becomes clear you are not being victimized, held down and abused against your will. In truth, there is a mismatch between your ideal job and this job and the organization's values and your values. This is a crap job for you.

But rather than quit and find a better one, we blame, justify and complain and sit inside the iron bars of Einstein's Insanity Trap.

Any time you point fingers at anyone else and blame them ... while not acting in your own self interest to get yourself and your family out of a bad situation ~~ created by a contract you signed ~~ you are playing the role of the victim. You are looking for a perp to blame this on, rather than taking the healthy step of walking out the door.

The best way to make rapid change is 
a Discovery Session with One of our Physician Coaches
No Cost, No Obligation, Completely Confidential


Learned Helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances. This behavior can be exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control.

The medical education experience is a superb driver of learned helplessness behavior. The process is intense and exhausting - on physical, emotional and spiritual levels and even with resident work hour restrictions. The Med School + Residency +/- Fellowship saga is a classic set of repeated aversive stimuli beyond your control.

You have no control because each class, rotation, call night is set by someone else and is is absolutely mandatory. Each rotation in this exact order is what you must complete to graduate. All eyes on the prize.

So we put our head down and do what is required, obeying the second commandment of healthcare education "never show weakness". [Never do or say anything that could make anyone think you haven't got what it takes]

MedEd is where we first learn about blame, justify and complain because for 7 - 16 years we are completely controlled by the system and the faculty for better or for worse.

At graduation no one tells us we are completely free. Education, training, apprenticeship and you are completely free to choose any career, any job or any other expression of your original Lightworker Essence.

Most of us miss this point of liberation and continue with the habits of a good resident.

After graduation, out in practice, when you signed a contract for this crap job and it dawns on you just how much it sucks ... we behave like a good resident would. Put your head down, do whatever it takes to get through the day, the call, the meetings and blow off steam with our well-practiced blame, justify and complain. 


Now can be the time when this all comes to a halt

If you want to change something in your current job or even change jobs:

  • STOP blame, justify and complain - recognize when you do it, let it go

  • START clarifying your Ideal Practice Description

  • START taking New Actions in that direction - free yourself from Einstein's Insanity Trap

  • When the little voice in your head says, "That's Impossible", test that assumption. Is what you want impossible or just a constraint on your action plan?

The best way to make rapid change is 
a Discovery Session with One of our Physician Coaches
No Cost, No Obligation, Completely Confidential



  • When do you find yourself playing the blame, justify and complain game?
  • When that happens are you actually being victimized and persecuted by someone?
  • What would you change in your current job to make it more like your Ideal Practice?



Tags: stop physician burnout