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Confidence and humility: Our challenge to develop both during residency


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Canadian Family PhysicianLe Médecin de famille canadien Vol 53:  april • aVril 2007

Residents’ Views



Confidence and humility

Our challenge to develop both during residency

Jonathan Kerr


Confidence: self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s abilities.

Humility: a humble view of one’s own importance.

Compact Oxford English   Dictionary of Current English1


uring  our  medical  training,  we  are  expected  to  develop  many  skills.  We  often  find  ourselves  pushing the limits of our individual comfort zones,  attempting procedures and tasks that we have less than  mastered.  And  to  deal  with  these  potentially  anxiety- provoking  situations,  our  medical  culture  teaches  us  to  develop our self-confidence, and to do it quickly. In doing  so, we move beyond our insecurities, with the hope that  those  around  us—our  patients,  in  particular—will  feel  assured  in  our  capabilities.  There  is,  however,  a  danger  in this pursuit. 

As we force ourselves to know more and to do more,  we risk becoming overconfident and tempted to push the  boundaries of our abilities too far. Also, overconfidence  can  have  a  negative  effect  on  our  personalities  and  on  how we treat others. We have all worked with arrogant  physicians  and  have  been  embarrassed  by  their  rude- ness with co-workers and abruptness with patients.  

Of course, patients want their physicians to be highly  competent and confident. But they also want, and deserve,  doctors who are introspective, who know their own limi- tations, who will actively learn to fill in knowledge gaps,  and  who  understand  their  role  within  the  health  care  team  and  within  their  community.  As  such,  the  2  defini- tions above need not be mutually exclusive. With proper  self-awareness,  medical  trainees  and  practising  physi- cians will nurture both confidence and humility. Here are  some suggestions for working toward this goal:

Be introspective

A  good  physician  should  be  self-aware.  Have  you  ever  taken  a  step  back  and  evaluated  yourself  in  clini- cal  encounters  or  in  everyday  situations?  Is  your  clinical  knowledge up-to-date? How are you handling challenging  circumstances?  How  does  your  personality  change  when  you are tired? Are you treating others with respect? Have  your co-workers ever considered you cocky? Are you sure? 

Reflecting  on  questions  like  these  develops  self-under- standing, and you should take the time for such introspec- tion. Some of us find that scheduling self-reflection is the 

best way to ensure it occurs. Perhaps you can take 5 min- utes at the end of the day or ponder these thoughts during  your next jog. Try to build evaluation into your weekly rou- tine. Call it your “personal growth time,” or, if you happen  to be fond of acronyms, PGT. 

Know your weaknesses and work to improve on them

During  these  personal  growth  times,  think  about  your  weaknesses.  Avoid  approaching  this  as  an  inter- view-type  scenario,  where  you  turn  your  weaknesses  into  strengths.  Instead,  be  brutally  honest  with  your- self.  Think  about  your  weaknesses  within  the  different  dimensions  of  your  life:  medicine,  personality,  finances,  physical  health,  relationships,  spirituality,  etc.  Keep  a  running  list  of  each  and  consider  ways  in  which  you  could  improve.  And  when  you  are  feeling  really  brave,  share  your  list  with  someone.  It  will  motivate  you,  and  others will begin to notice the difference!

Keep learning

No matter where you are in your training or career, there  is  always  more  to  learn.  For  many  of  us,  the  most  use- ful and interesting way to learn is around our cases. Be  humble  enough  to  take  a  moment  to  look  up  the  vari- ous  considerations  in  the  diagnostic  and  management  plan about which you are unsure. With the widespread  availability  of  Palm  devices  and  Internet-based  medical  programs, the answers are right at your fingertips. Also,  as you go through the day, create a list of questions you  can  look  up  that  night.  This  way,  you  will  be  studying  topics  you  are  actually  interested  in,  and,  most  impor- tant, your patients will benefit. 

Avoid your unsavoury alter ego

We  all  have  the  potential  to  metamorphose  from  our  usually  well-mannered  selves  into  our  abrupt,  impolite  alter egos. This is especially the case when we are tired. 

How do you respond to the nurse after the 3:00 AM page  for  an  acetaminophen  order?  How  do  you  treat  the  fel- low resident who gives you a “lame” consult when you  are  already  swamped?  Are  you  rude  on  the  phone?  Do  you get frustrated? Does it show? 

At the root of some of these negative feelings might  be  the  assumption  that  your  time  is  more  important  than everyone else’s. The on-call and consulting pro- cesses  tend  to  foster  this  culture  of  self-importance. 


Residents’ Views

It  is  all  about  “turf  wars”  and  “punting”  patients  to  other services. But humility is “a humble view of one’s  own  importance.”1  Are  you  really  more  important  to  patient care than the nurse up on the ward? Are you  actually  busier  than  the  resident  in  emergency?  Or  could  it  be  that  these  people  are  actually  looking  out for patients’ best interests? We are all playing on  the same team, and we all have our respective roles. 

Remembering  this  after  that  3:00AM  page  might  help  you  to  be  understanding  and  polite  when  you  call  back.  Oh,  and  remember  to  smile  when  you  are  on  the  phone.  The  person  on  the  other  end  of  the  line  will hear it in your voice.

If  you  do  occasionally  have  a  momentary  lapse  in  judgment  and  humility,  and  you  realize  that  you  have  snapped  at  someone,  take  the  time  to  call  back  and  apologize. It will prevent any hard feelings, decrease the  chance of others talking about you critically, and foster  a better relationship the next time you work together. 

Set relational goals

We tend to spend plenty of time setting career goals and  financial goals. But we often forget to pay attention to how  we are interacting with others. Take a moment and make  some relational goals. How do you want to communicate? 

Do you give advice too often and listen too seldom? This  is a common mistake for us doctors because we are con- stantly  trying  to  fix  everything.  Sometimes  just  the  act  of  listening is the most important thing we can do.

How  would  your  co-workers,  friends,  and  family  describe  your  personality?  If  you  are  unsure,  ask  them! 

Tell them to be honest. You might just be surprised about  what they have to say. Do you come across as preoccu- pied? Short-tempered? A grump?

Once you know this you can ask how you actually  want  others  to  perceive  you.  Could  you  make  better  eye contact? Should you be more polite? Is your tone  of  voice  appropriate?  Could  you  be  more  attentive  to  how  others  react  to  your  mood?  By  setting  relational  goals,  even  simple  ones  like  these,  you  can  work  toward  being  a  more  pleasant  person  with  whom  to  work and live.


Having  a  healthy  balance  of  confidence  and  humility  can  help  a  medical  trainee  become  a  superb  physician  and can help an experienced physician become an even  better  one.  Creating  this  balance  requires  effort  and  patience.  I  hope  some  of  these  strategies  will  benefit  you, your co-workers, and, of course, your patients. 

Dr Kerr is a first-year family medicine resident at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.


1. Soanes C, editor. Compact Oxford English dictionary of current English. 3rd ed. 

New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2005.

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