I worked at the Portland VA Medical Center for 5 years. There were a lot of good things about that job, but as with any large bureaucracy, there were a lot of things about it that were inefficient, ineffective, and blocked progress. There were policies and ways of interpreting policies that favored some people over others and the institution over patients and staff. There were initiatives designed to make the system better, but which appeared to be designed to be a gold star in some manager’s cap, not a meaning change to the system. But I digress…
Sometime during my 4th year, I knew it was time to leave. It had become clear that I was behind the curve salary-wise and running out of options for finding the kind of work that would really challenge me. I wanted to do more work with women and working exclusively with women in the VA wasn’t an option as there were too few female patients to make that a viable focus. I also wanted to be my own boss, which meant having a private practice. I had started building it and it was beginning to look like I was going to be able to make the transition.
But the wait was excruciating. Ultimately, there were about 8 months between the time that I made the decision to leave and the time I was able to.
In the meantime, I had to make my time there at least tolerable.
I decided to shift my focus to things:
(1) I enjoyed
(2) I was grateful for
(3) I could control
Enjoyment: When I enjoyed something like going to get coffee with my supervisor, I focused on how much fun I was having. I amplified the feeling.
Gratitude: I didn’t dwell on the things that irritated me, instead of when something like that came up, I looked for something about the situation I could appreciate. For example, when my boss was late to a standing meeting we had (which he was frequently), I stopped caring and after a few minutes of waiting would simply return to my office to get other things done. I focused on being grateful for the extra time to work on important tasks and for not having a meeting that day, rather than on feeling disrespected.
Control: If something happened that was outside my control, I didn’t worry about it. I just accepted what I needed to do in response. For example, during the months leading up to my resignation, clinicians were worried that management was going to give them work quotas that were going to make their lives miserable and set them up for failure. Since I had no control over what management decided, I didn’t worry about it.
As a result of shifting my focus, my remaining 8 months were a lot more pleasant, I was less bitter about things outside my control that negatively affected me, and even today when I look back on the 5 years that I worked there I feel the experience added to my life. My time there benefitted me in so many more ways that it hurt me. If I had focused on the problems and things that affected me negatively, I would look back on my time there with a much different lens and feel much differently about it.
The lesson: when you are stuck with an unpleasant experience, shifting your focus can make all the difference for your mental/emotional well-being and the quality of your life. It won’t keep negative things from happening, but you will be better able to cope with them.
If you are in a difficult situation, maybe you are single and longing for a partner or you are going through a difficult time at work or you are in a conflict with a friend or family member, it doesn’t matter. Shift your focus to things you enjoy, things you are grateful for, and things you can control.