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Reflecting on Self-Reflection

June 25, 2024

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By Angela Schoepp, PharmD
PGY-1 Pharmacy Resident, Legacy Emanuel Medical Center

I used to be the type of student who would see an upcoming self-evaluation and dread having to complete it. Being prone to overanalyzing my mistakes and shortcomings (as many professionals in health care do), I always felt like I did enough self-reflection internally and automatically, whether I actively chose to or not. Then, when my pharmacy residency began, I was overwhelmed with the amount of new written evaluation assignments that kept popping up in my email, day in and day out. It felt like I was being forced to consistently focus on the times when I didn’t meet my goal or didn’t perform the way I wanted. It was difficult to feel confident in my abilities and push away the imposter syndrome of being a newly licensed pharmacist. But when I shifted the way I used the tool of self-reflection, I learned the potential of this practice to catapult me to reach the goals I set for myself.

A 2022 Harvard Business Review study by James Bailey and Scheherazade Rehman describes how being a consistent self-reflector can unlock the power within you. Their sociologic research, which recruited 442 executives, demonstrated the most useful reflections that advanced professional development consisted of three themes: surprise, frustration and failure. Their research found that focusing on utilizing the positive aspects of these uncomfortable events — rather than spiraling from their own disappointments — improved professional development to a greater (or at least more memorable) degree than reflecting on experiences that went as expected. We can flip frustration into an assessment of our values, a sign to improve our communication skills and a chance to practice patience. We can shift from thinking about a surprise as an annoyance, to an opportunity to be creative or improve a process that avoids future similar surprises. Failures are temporary and have been shown to lead to more sustained growth compared to success. Through the process of self-reflection, I learned I needed to take time to learn from my mistakes instead of bottling them up and hoping I or others forgot about them.

Self-reflection takes courage, thoughtfulness and contemplation. It should focus on actionable steps that progress to the next stage of your career. Being too broad can lead to unhelpful categorization and feeling overwhelmed; being overly critical can lead to burn out. One tip I find helpful in practicing self-reflection is to keep a journal and go back later to read previous entries. You may be surprised how differently you saw an event when it happened compared to remembering it in retrospect. Taking the perspective of a neutral observer can help you look at a situation with more objectivity. It is also helpful to think about how you physically reacted during a stressful event and consider why you reacted in that way. Possibly, expectations and reality were misaligned and that led to the disappointment. Finally, it’s important to go easy on yourself. Perfection is an unattainable goal.

I’ve been told by a professional mentor that once I finish formal residency training, it’s difficult to transition from consistent, thorough feedback to infrequent annual or quarterly reviews. I feel one way to combat this is to practice giving yourself feedback and to evaluate your own work, in addition to reaching out for more formal input. Utilizing the techniques discussed above, I plan to continue this journey of self-reflection even though at times it can be painful, and that I may get stuck or want to keep pushing forward after a difficult period. This process will allow me to facilitate my continued growth and to keep showing up for myself, my colleagues and my patients.

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