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Taking the Hamster off the Wheel: How My BFEF Experience Helped Me Get My Feet Back on the Ground

Posted By Max Zubatsky, Monday, May 14, 2018

At the beginning of my year in the Behavioral Science/Family Systems’ Educator Fellowship (BFEF), I had  a gut feeling that I was “hitting the wall.”  The burnout week had arrived. This occurred both in my personal and professional life.  When I started my job 4 years ago, I hit the ground running and tried to offset my burnout by working even harder.  I quickly learned that this was not a successful coping skill.  As my second year of work progressed, I got back into my past hobbies of running and art. These were both therapeutic and a way to escape from being fully consumed by my job.  I still felt that as a new faculty member, I needed to keep reaching a higher bar to meet the constant expectations of the university.  I not only ramped up my workload, but my hobbies as well.  Now, my coping activities had turned into stressors themselves! I was doing too many things on hyper drive, while continuing to plan for upcoming things in my career. The hamster was pedaling so hard, that the wheel was now starting to break.   

During fellowship year, I decided to change my mindset around any potential onset of burnout.  I found the support of my small group and mentors was instrumental in that.  Here we all were just trying to do the best that we could and all having moments of insecurity.  We slowly could bolster each other up and help each other find small meaningful things in each work day.  I found myself trying to act quicker in the moment when any difficult work and personal issues arose.  Heck, if I emphasize these skills to my patients, then why was I not “practicing what I preached?” I often looked to comedy, inspirational quotes or human interest stories to put my life in context. 

I have to keep being mindful of my privilege as a white male professional.  Some of my hardest days would still be embraced by some of my patients and families that I treat in my practice and in the community.  These patients would be grateful for those days that challenged me but perhaps were just an everyday occurrence to others who did not have as much as I did.  It’s a constant reminder to myself of, “Max, these are issues that you are sweating way too much about.” Putting my life in perspective forces me to lessen my strict expectations that I often set for myself. Even if I can make 1-2 small breakthroughs during a tough week, these are moments that are meaningful and that I can pay forward to my students and residents.  The guidance from my mentors definitely made a difference in this new perspective towards my work.  Not looking over small breakthroughs or successes has now made me become more present-centered as a person and professional.  Whereas in the initial months of my job I was doing nothing but planning and coordinating future tasks, I now embrace more of the virtues that each day brings. 

I learned so much from my small group colleagues and mentors this year around momentum and self-motivation in our lives. A number of Ted Talks that we discussed as a group covered the need for self-balance and recognizing successes in life from different perspectives. Many in the group explained the ways that we can push through challenges or barriers at work, whether it be difficult leadership, team dynamics, resistant residents or overwhelming projects as a new faculty member. Before the fellowship experience, I was doing more self-guided learning and not enough team building, sharing, collaborating and group thinking.  Now, I make it a priority to run creative ideas past other faculty, create brainstorming sessions with residents and students, and facilitate reflection and observation activities with multiple learners. One thing that really stuck with me was that much of our expectations for our job and others at work can be largely determined by our own mindset. When I now face challenges or problems, I embrace them as an opportunity to learn more as both a person and professional. 

Little did I know that one of my most valuable fellowship lessons would be to slow down and take time to appreciation small things in life.  As early career faculty, we often think we need to speed up and do more in order to constantly make our mark.  My small group mentors continually reminded us that we need to set achievable work goals that are attainable and manageable. They encouraged us to be open to making mistakes and being vulnerable to learn from these teachable moments.  It’s important to grow from the challenges and the mistakes, but equally important to celebrate the successes, both large and small.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it, “Bad times still have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”  The hamster now gets on the wheel at his own pace, realizing that this journey is a marathon and not a sprint.

  Max Zubatsky, PhD, LMFT is Assistant Professor in the Medical Family Therapy Program at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.  

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