I want to share a story today.

As some of you might know, I’ve recently started my first job as a junior doctor (we’re now around a month into it). Naturally I’ve been trying to make friends with people, generally being nice and open and friendly etc. There’s one doctor (let’s call her Jane) who I’ve been becoming friends with through playing tennis.

The other day, I needed to make a referral to the surgical team that she’s part of. I rang up the team number, and she picked up! I was like “Hey Jane, this is Ali, how you doing? Listen, I’ve got a patient that I want to talk to you about…”. There was a pause on the other end, and she replied quite formally with “Sorry we’re in the middle of handover, is this urgent?” To which I replied “Nope not at all” and she said “Okay, can you call back in maybe an hour and a half please?”. I said “sure” and hung up.

Now, a bit of context - “handover” is the meeting where the night team pass on their patients to the day team, and where they talk through issues that arose during the night and identify patients who are particularly unwell. Long story short - her response to me was entirely reasonable, and when you’re in the middle of handover you don’t want to be dealing with non-urgent calls from other teams.

Still, despite knowing this, I couldn’t help thinking that her voice sounded a bit ‘off’ over the phone, and therefore she was annoyed at me, and therefore I must’ve done something wrong. I then spent the next few seconds recalling our other recent interactions and wondering if I said or did something that offended her.

And then I stopped myself. I reminded myself that no good would come of extrapolating and overthinking, that even if I wasn’t imagining it there were 70 reasons why her voice might have sounded ‘off’ over the phone other than ‘I hate Ali’. I reminded myself of that classic quote:

We wouldn’t worry so much what other people think of us when we realise how seldom they do.

After a few minutes of affirming these teachings to myself, I began to feel less bad about potentially offending Jane and got on with my day. Later that afternoon, she texted apologising that she sounded unintentionally rude on the phone. When I got that message, I noticed a feeling of relief sweep over me - even though I’d rationalised away the worry that I’d offended her, I clearly still had some level of anxiety remaining about it.

I bring this up because even though I’ve been reading, practising and writing about topics like stoicism, controlling emotions etc for years, it’s still a daily struggle. As Derren Brown says in his book ‘Happy’:

Each of us is born into a world where we know no better than to internalise every message we receive as being one about us.

I find that the more often I remind myself of this, the easier it becomes to tame the ‘Social Survival Mammoth’.


This post originally appeared as part of my email newsletter that I send out every Sunday. Click here to check out the previous issues and maybe subscribe :)