In a field where confidence is key to success, humility in medicine is almost seen as a weakness. But often times, our own definitions of humility fall short of what actual humility is. What exactly is humility and what role does it play in medicine?
What is humility? Many people see humility as the opposite of confidence. But this is far from the truth. We have all seen false humility before. One example is the friend who complains that he failed a test but later you find out that he got a 100%. The actual dictionary definition of humility is “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people”. True humility is believing that you are not better than anyone else. It does not mean that you do not have confidence or self-worth. You can be confident and find yourself worthy while seeing others as equally valuable and worthy.
So why is humility important as a physician? Saint Augustine suggests that “humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” Being humble sets the foundation for having other virtues such as patience, compassion, self-control, gentleness, and diligence. And many of these important virtues are integrally connected to being a good physician.
Good doctors know how to listen. They are smart but also relatable, able to speak in terms that patients can understand. Excellent physicians are compassionate and understand patients’ fears and anxieties. They recognize that they are fallible and thus continue to learn and improve themselves. They are willing to ask for help and work in a team. You can be none of these things without humility. If you think you know all of the answers, why would you listen to anyone else? If you think that you are more valuable than someone else, how can you have compassionate for the drug addict that comes into the emergency room at 2am? Without humility, you cannot be taught or mentored. You cannot improve.
I’ve learned that humility cannot be gained by looking inward. We cannot say that we are bad, lowly or unworthy. If we look inwards to gain humility, we gain self-hate and false humility. To obtain true humility, we must look outwards. We have to look at the people around us. We must see that each individual person has purpose and meaning. They are inherently valuable because they are human. We also have to look at the world around us. There is so much going on in this world that we have no control over. We are small specks in a massive universe. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
As I continue to my medical training, I am constantly reminded that medicine is so much bigger than me. Being a physician really is not about obtaining my own personal goals. It has to be about serving others and restoring life. Why is humility in medicine so important? Because in order to be excellent physicians, we must truly understand and value the patient. And at the end of the day, you cannot effectively treat a patient’s mind, body and soul if you do not see their inherent worth as human beings.
Read about other qualities that make an excellent physician in “Truth and Compassion in Medicine”.