Overcoming Burnout with Dr. Shanika Esparaz

February 19, 2024

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Welcome! We're all about realistic time management designed for professional working women here in this little pocket of the internet. I'm glad you're here.

So many of us have struggled with burnout – at work, at home, or because of the tension between the two.

Dr. Shanika Esparaz, a double board-certified physician in Ophthalmology and Lifestyle Medicine, has as well and has come out on the other side (while staying in medicine). On this episode, she’ll share her burnout and recovery story and strategies that helped her (and now, her clients) manage the journey.

You can learn more about Shani and message her on IG @shani_esparazmd https://www.instagram.com/shani_esparazmd/

You can also learn more about Shani’s coaching here: https://envisionyourwellness.mykajabi.com/coaching

Full Transcript

 Episode 42. Shani Esparaz

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Kelly Nolan: Hey, hey! Today, I am thrilled to have a guest on the podcast. Dr. Shanika Esparaz. Shani is a double board-certified physician in ophthalmology and lifestyle medicine, and she’s a certified health and wellbeing coach. I met Shani in the world of Instagram (which I know is a crazy world, but one that I have met some wonderful friends through), and I’ve truly enjoyed learning about her journey through burnout as a physician and the actions she took to get out of it.

One of the reasons I find her story so inspiring is that she has stayed in medicine and made it work for her, and I know that many women struggle in their current jobs but also struggle with the idea of leaving their fields. So Shani’s story about how she has made it work might be right up your alley. So let’s dig into Shani’s story and then some takeaways that she has to share that helped her make the transition from burned out to living a more enjoyable life.


Kelly Nolan: All right, well, welcome, Shani! I am so excited to have you here! I’ve introduced you in the intro, but if you don’t mind sharing a bit about who you are for the audience, that’d be great.

Shani Esparaz: Yeah! Thank you so much, Kelly, for having me on today. My name is Shanika Esparaz. I go by Shani. I am a double board-certified physician, an ophthalmologist first, and then recently got board certified in lifestyle medicine because I’m super into real wellness and wanted to learn how to take care of myself. I am also a certified health and wellbeing coach, and I work with other women in healthcare and other women professionals. Most importantly, I am a mom to two little girls, and my husband is in medicine as well.

Kelly Nolan: Wow, you have definitely a lot on your plate. And I have asked Shani to share more about her story because I find it so fascinating, so relatable, and very inspiring as well. So Shani, if you don’t mind sharing kind of your story of when things got overwhelming and, more importantly, the actions you took around really kind of getting intentional on making your life what you wanted it.

Shani’s Story of Overwhelm – 2:29

Shani Esparaz: Yeah, thank you so much for asking me that because I think it’s really important to understand what makes someone do something. And so, in medicine, it’s very common to go through certain steps for training. First, you go to college, medical school, residency, and sometimes fellowship.

And so, I did all of that, and I thought, “Okay, great! I’m super excited to start working in the real world,” and then I did start working in the real world as an attending, and I’m about six years out of training now, so about three years in, I was finding myself feeling really burned out, and I didn’t realize what that was at that point because I just didn’t really think of someone early in their career being burned out. I thought of someone later in their career and older feeling that way.

And so, at that point, I was super busy at work. I worked “part time” (about four days a week), but I was really fitting in a full-time schedule into a part-time schedule. I was really busy at my practice, which is great. That’s what you want. Right out of training, I was doing lots of surgery, seeing lots of patients and new consults, and I really, on the outside, felt like I had achieved what I had wanted to achieve, what I had worked so hard for for so many years.

And at this time, I had my second daughter. I had my first one during residency, and my husband was at a similar stage in his career, just an early attending, and he also was feeling burnt out just with call and constantly hammering away at work. And so, it came to a point where I was starting to have some physical symptoms of burnout. I was having some GI issues and headaches, and, again, I just chalked it up to, “Oh, you know, I’m just busy and a little tired. This isn’t burnout.”

And so, I got checked out and everything checked out fine, thankfully. But then I decided, “You know, I feel like I’m on a cog wheel. I feel like I’m trying to continue to achieve and strive, but I’m not actually present in my life.” My day was kind of running me, and I really was thinking, “What’s the point of all this, if I’m not happy at work?” I mean, I loved what I did, but I was starting to dread going into work.

And then, on the home front, I really wasn’t seeing my kids very often. We had a full-time nanny. My husband and I would leave for work in the morning before breakfast and then come home when they had finished dinner, and I just wasn’t really as present as I thought I would be trying to wear so many hats.

And so, it came to a point where, at one point, I actually went to the ER with really bad headaches, and then at another point, where — I shared this with you, Kelly, when we first met, and it’s something that happened, again, three years ago when I was going through burnout, and I can talk about it now because I’ve kind of healed from that burnout.

We had a full-time nanny at that point who had been part of our family for about two years, and she had recently had maternity leave and her first child and came back to work for us, and unfortunately, my husband and I didn’t recognize the signs, but she was going through postpartum depression. And one day I came home, and I had discovered that my youngest daughter had been hurt. Fortunately, she’s okay, and I’m thankful for nanny cams and all that stuff. That basically was a big wake-up call.

Again, our family’s okay. We’ve healed from that trauma. But it was a huge catalyst and wake-up call to say, “What’s the point in continuing to strive for something I thought I wanted to be and thought I wanted if I’m not happy at work and at home?”

Kelly Nolan: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve told this to you before, but I’m just so sorry that you went through that. As a mom, it gives you those heebie-jeebie feelings that it’s hard to shake, and I’m sure it was so much — sometimes it does. As we’ve talked about, you kind of have these terrible moments to kind of shake you a little bit up and have you see the bigger picture, so I don’t think there’s any silver lining in those situations. But I am grateful for that and the other things that kind of helped you kind of take the reins of, “Hey, you know, this thing I decided to do 12 years ago–,” or however long ago it was, “– doesn’t necessarily need to dictate every step I take forward over the next decades.” And so, I really appreciate you sharing that.

And then share kind of where it went from there, because that’s what I love. I think that a lot of people have similar experiences but kind of, understandably, stay in that space because you’re so tired, you’re so living in the weeds. Even though you want a change, it’s hard to know where to go from there. That’s what I find so inspiring about your story, so I’ll let you continue.

Going Back to The Basics – 7:58

Shani Esparaz: Sure! I agree. It can be hard in these situations, again, where you’re just so tired and fatigued and it seems easier to just keep going on the same track. Many of us, especially if you’ve been climbing a certain ladder, think that, “Okay, those before me climbed this ladder, and this is what I have to do. I have to keep saying yes and doing more and seeing more patients.” But this experience or event really made me stop in my tracks and think, “You know what? At the end of the day, I want to get more time and flexibility.” Time is our most precious commodity, and so, I really wanted to regain control if I could find a way to. And so, I decided to start with the basics, go back to the basics and start taking care of my health and wellbeing, physically and mentally, so that I could take better care of myself, my family, and my patients.

So I turned towards lifestyle medicine. It’s a field of medicine where, again, we go back to the basics of things that we really should have learned in medical school like how to take care of ourselves through nutrition and proper sleep and working out. And actually social connection has been shown to be really important for our health.

Kelly Nolan: Yeah!

Shani Esparaz: In medicine and many other fields — I’m sure you can attest to this, Kelly — we’re told to stick to the books and isolate ourselves and grind away, and it’s really not emphasized that it’s healthy to spend time with your friends and family.

Kelly Nolan: Yeah, absolutely.

Shani Esparaz: Yeah.

Kelly Nolan: I love, actually, that you’re sharing that. That’s something I didn’t know that you kind of started with that wellness space of taking care of yourself there because I also think that it’s hard to do when you’re so busy, but it’s really smart to kind of almost stabilize from your self perspective before you make any big decisions because I would imagine, then, you’re in a more solid, stable place to make decisions about where you want to go instead of maybe acting drastically, which I think is very understandable when people do it that way, but I love that you turned to, “Let me kind of stabilize myself, and then I’ll make decisions from there, too.”

Shani Esparaz: Right, right. I really wanted to sit down with myself and figure out my why. What do I like to do and what is my higher purpose here? And so, I think for other folks, once you kind of figure that out, it’s easier to lay out the next steps once you’re feeling well and more clear-headed and more rested.

So after kind of taking it back to the basics, I worked with a coach and, again, figured out my why. I literally wrote it down, and I still have it today on my computer. Sometimes I still look back at it at challenging times. Having gotten coached, I was able to figure out my next steps, which was to do something kind of radical. Not many folks have done this, but I decided to open my own direct care ophthalmology practice, which is a kind of non-traditional medical practice where I get to spend time with my patients and really get to enjoy more of what I like to do in a more personalized, intimate fashion. It is an out-of-network practice, so that’s why I say it’s non-traditional, but I’d heard of some other folks doing this in other fields, and there are a couple of ophthalmologists across the country who do this as well.

So, again, a very non-traditional way of practicing medicine, and the practice has been open for about a year now and it’s still surviving, so I think it was a good decision that I made a couple years ago. I am also still part-time at my previous practice, and I have a great relationship with my previous practice. I’m there a couple days a week. I love my patients. I love what I do even more now, now that I’ve really stepped back, taken care of myself, got coached, and figured out my why.

Kelly Nolan: I love that, and I think what I really wanted to have you come talk about is also that you stayed in your medical field, where I feel like there are a lot of people like me who were in a legal field, had their own reasons to leave, and then left the field entirely to find a better fit. But what I think is so inspiring about you is that you’ve done that but stayed in the medical field too, which I think some people, it is that feeling of, “I love my job, I just wish I could do it maybe 70% of the time that I am,” and so, figuring out creative ways to help get you there.

And then we’ve talked previously about how your job, the kind of more traditional job that you’re still in, you were part-time before with a full-time workload, and now you really have that part-time workload to fit that part-time FDEs or whatever the clinical terms are.

Do you mind sharing a bit about how you did that because I think that’s so challenging in a way, too. Understandably, a lot of women do it where they’ll go to part time, but they still work close to full time or beyond, and to really stay in the same place but now draw boundaries and break those kinds of patterns that you’ve allowed in the past (again, understandably) to really mold this into a real part-time job. How did you do that, and does it require maintenance along the way, too, to ensure that it remains that way as well?

Moving From Full Time to Part Time – 13:29

Shani Esparaz: Sure, yeah. I appreciate you bringing up the word boundaries because I think that is really easy to say, “Okay, I’m gonna put down boundaries,” but actually putting it to practice can feel really icky and hard because, again, it’s just not part of your training or the culture when you are in certain fields, you know? Again, you’re told to say yes to everything and over-extend yourself without compensation necessarily. It’s a recipe for burnout, especially for women, especially for mothers, too.

So it, again, started with knowing my why, and then I painted a picture of what would my ideal schedule look like. How many patients would I be seeing? What services or what would I be doing? After painting that picture, I then started taking small steps towards that. So I said, “Okay, this is what I want. I want to create my own clinic, but I still want the opportunity to work at my previous practice because I love my patients there.”

And so, having drawn the vision, I went and talked with my boss and my boss’s boss, and it was a process, I would say. I am thankful for their support and their reception of — you know, they probably weren’t prepared for me to say, “Hey, I’m gonna open my own practice.” But I started with, yeah, I’m really grateful (and truly that came from sincerity) for the opportunities I’ve been given because I had grown my skills, and like I said, I had done so much and seen so many patients in a short amount of time in my young career, and so, I was very thankful for everything they’d done to support me, and I said, “I want to continue doing that type of work here, and this is also my dream is opening this practice.”

And so, I think when you’re in those high-stake, high-emotion situations, and you’re not exactly sure how someone’s going to react, again, I would say remember your why. Perhaps practice. It’s never gonna go exactly how you think it’s gonna go, but at least you’ve gotten the words and the motions out.

And then know going into any type of — if you’re negotiating anything, figure out your three non-negotiables. “These are my boundaries. I can see X amount of patients,” or “I can work in X amount of locations.” So kind of having those in my mind beforehand really helped me to communicate more effectively in that type of situation. And then it’s a process. After initially saying what I had envisioned, some talks and negotiations. And, like I said, thankfully, I have a very great relationship with my other practice and enjoy even more what I’m doing there now.

Kelly Nolan: I love that. Thank you for sharing because I’m sure there are many people who are interested in having those conversations and getting those results and I think it’s really valuable to hear from someone who’s done it. So thank you.

Shani Esparaz: Yeah.

Kelly Nolan: Well, this is so valuable I think just to hear your real-life story of it. I know that there are some takeaways or things that guided you through the process and that you work on with clients that you work with from a coaching standpoint on helping them. Do you have any takeaways you want to share from a kind of practical standpoint that might help someone who’s in some phase of that story that relates to you a lot?

Arrival Fallacy – 17:07

Shani Esparaz: Yes, so these are things that, again, we really wish we learned about more in our trainings or our fields as we’re learning and growing. So one thing I see in common with the women I coach is this idea of pushing off happiness. It’s a term called “arrival fallacy,” and this idea that we have to keep grinding and even when we’re done with training, that, “I’ll be happy when I’ve done X amount of cases,” or “I’ll be happy when I’ve gotten this promotion or gotten this amount of research papers published.” And it’s hard to keep living like that, but a lot of us do, pushing off our happiness.

I think it’s important to stop and recognize that our happiness doesn’t come after success. Our happiness is actually in our day to day. It’s the little things that actually, if we stop and live intentionally, happiness is already around us, and I think recognizing that actually the most successful people in the world find happiness in their day to day. They’re not waiting for some distant future of having grinded for ten years and made partner maybe or whatnot to actually be happy.

So one thing I would recommend to women who are high achieving, have goals and dreams, is don’t wait ‘til you achieve that. Try to find happiness in your day to day.

Kelly Nolan: Yeah, and I think that even just the knowledge of that can help you catch yourself when you’ve been doing that delayed gratification thing, essentially. And you’re right. So many of us are trained that way. You go to college, then what’s next is law school or medical school or something else or the big job, and then you’re going after the promotion. It’s very like what we adopt in our culture, but there is a moment when you wake up, especially when you’re done with all the training and those kinds of more formal milestones to be like there’s kind of an infinite expansive space in front of me, and if I’m continually chasing something then — to your point, I’m all for people going after what they want, but we’ve got to do it in a more sustainable way.

And I think that’s what’s wonderful about your approach, too, is that, yeah, obviously we would all love to build in happiness in the day to day, and it’s easier said than done, especially when we’re all so busy, but I think just even the value of catching yourself when you’re like, “This is a major assumption I’m making, that I’m delaying happiness, I’m delaying whatever I might want until an arrival time.” And I also even like thinking about — and I’ve mentioned this in a prior episode — really getting clarity around how much time are we talking about until that arrival because sometimes it can be like, “Yeah, but I really want this thing.” It’s like, “Okay, but I’m gonna grind for the next three years, the next four years, the next six years to get there, and what am I sacrificing in the meantime?” And sometimes getting the concrete details around that can help you see that maybe it’s not always worth that effort, or maybe we delay it a little bit, like say, “Okay, let’s actually aim for that in eight years,” and maybe the path there is more sustainable and enjoyable along the way.

Shani Esparaz: Right. Right, and as you were speaking I remembered one book that I read that I really enjoyed, and maybe some of your listeners have, is The Happiness Advantage by a Harvard psychologist. It really, again, talks to this idea of happiness happens, and it kind of infuses success into the rest of your life, whether it’s in your career, better health, better relationships. So starting with happiness is sometimes where we should start to shift our focus rather than, exactly, that distant goal eight years from now because we will get there, right? We got to a certain point in our life, and we will get to that goal, but starting to take care of yourself, starting to invest in those relationships that maybe you haven’t been able to invest in as much is gonna give you so much more happiness and, therefore, success.

Kelly Nolan: Can I take us off on a little bit of a tangent? [Laughs]

Shani Esparaz: Of course!

Ego vs. Happiness – 21:36

Kelly Nolan: When we talk happiness and also, especially when we juxtapose it with the big, achieving goals that people are going after, something that in my own life I’ve realized and also have struggled with at times is the ego versus happiness thing, and I’m curious when you were making these changes — I mean, granted, you opened another medical practice. You’ve also done things that are very impressive in and of itself, but did you grapple with, “How are people gonna perceive this?” The ego of, “I’ve put all this effort in,” how do you feel about that dynamic of ego versus happiness when they conflict, maybe they don’t always.

Shani Esparaz: Yes, so I think this also ties into one of my other takeaways, which is continuing to re-evaluate what you want in life because, like you mentioned, some of us started training 12 years ago. I mean, think about how much you grow and change and how much life happens to you in that time. And so, really re-evaluating, “Okay, I started with this at one point,” maybe when I was in college or graduate school. “Is this still what I want, or am I doing this for other reasons? Am I doing this for how my parents think about me or my community and colleagues and whatnot.”

And so, for me, I went through burnout about three years ago and then got coached and then became a coach myself, and just in the last year I have decided to let go of a big part of what ophthalmologists do, which is doing cataract surgery. It wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn’t a decision I made overnight. But it was a decision that felt right over time and something that I finally said out loud and kind of made it official because I was like, “This is what I want to do.”

So for me, I still am an ophthalmologist. I still do lots of procedures and lasers, but I let go of an aspect that I was trained on. I was actually good at cataract surgery, and I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but when I look at the big picture, I enjoyed other parts of my career much more. And so, it’s hard to let go of something that is really part of your identity for a while and that you think you have to keep doing because that’s what other folks are doing in your field, and I want to let others know that it’s okay to let go. The biggest thing is ego, like you said. It’s realizing, “Okay, why am I doing this? Does it really fulfill me and make me happy?”

And so, asking yourself those hard questions or working with a coach on those hard questions can really help. Now that I’ve kind of decided and let that go, I’m, again, so much happier in medicine and within what I’m doing.

Kelly Nolan: I love that, and I love that you mention that it’s not like you hated it. You don’t have to only let go of the parts of a job you really hate. If anything, I think a lot of the women I work with, there are just so many elements of life and careers that we love, and it’s just hard that sometimes when you realize maybe they don’t all fit together in the way that you’re looking for. Do you mind sharing a little bit more about why you decided to let it go? Was it a time commitment? Was it a stressor? Was it, as you said, taking away from other parts that you enjoyed? What kind of went into that for you?

Why Shani Decided to Make The Shift – 25:02

Shani Esparaz: Yeah, so for me, I really want to be part time with medicine. I’ve come to a point in life where I realize there’s so much going on in life and that medicine is not life. I wish I could have a t-shirt that says that for whatever field you might be in because, again, I think it’s so easy to get tunnel vision when you’ve spent so much time in training to think that your career is your life. And so, because I wanted to work less hours and less days, it was really hard, again, to fit a full-time schedule into a part-time schedule.

So I had to triage and say, “Okay, my priority is working part time because I have XYZ else that I like to do. I like to coach. I want to be there for my kids. I like to go to hot yoga and get back into tennis, etcetera,” all true things. So I decided that was a higher priority than cataract surgery. For me, cataract surgery was something I did in addition to my fellowship, which is retina. And so, I mostly do retina now and focus on that. The satisfaction from surgery just wasn’t quite there for me. I felt like I was looking for my patients’ reaction to how happy they were after surgery rather than my own satisfaction of how I felt with doing surgery.

And then surgery in and of itself is stressful. You know, you do have complications and things like that but, again, I just didn’t feel like I had the bandwidth to do cataract surgery and retina and be part time.

Kelly Nolan: Yeah.

Shani Esparaz: For me, it just made sense to let go of that part of my career.

Kelly Nolan: I love that, and I appreciate you sharing that it’s — I think sometimes if you were only looking at cataract surgery in a vacuum it sounds like it was a fine enough part of your job. It’s just that when you start comparing it to everything else that it starts losing the priority of all the other things you want to prioritize. And so, I appreciate that because that’s such a part of life evaluation and time management as a whole that I think we weren’t taught. And so, when I teach time management it’s like kind of seeing all the pieces together and how they interact in your day, and I think that’s something that you’re describing on a larger scale of, “Sure, this alone was fine, but when I start comparing it to where else I’d like my time to go and the priorities I have for my life and my own pursuit of happiness right now, it’s just not adding up.”

So thank you! Any other takeaways you want to share?

Clarify Your Why and Set Boundaries – 27:37

Shani Esparaz: So actually about what you were just talking about how, again, we as women and time management and the skills that maybe we need to work on more, and also this idea of perfectionism and having to do it all and do it all at once I think is very common, again, in working professionals and moms and women trying to continue to achieve. And so, one thing that I’ve continually worked on myself is, again, clarifying your why and then learning how to set down boundaries. I call it almost avoiding a risky substance, like with our patients, we think of risky substances like alcohol and tobacco. And so, I think it’s difficult for women to avoid people pleasing and to put down boundaries and saying yes too much. We really should be saying no if it doesn’t align with our priorities.

So I would add that along with fitting in with time management, I think keeping that goal in mind of boundaries is really important.

Kelly Nolan: And how do you approach that when it’s like, let’s say, in your part-time traditional job (I’m totally making this up) you’re asked to step onto a new committee or something like that, and you’re like, “This is gonna push me way outside of my bandwidth,” but there’s that pressure to be like the team player and all that kind of stuff. How do you not necessarily even phrase your no, but how do you coach your own mind through that understandable feeling of, “I feel like I need to take this on,” to “Yeah, but I’m not going to.” How do you get there?

Shani Esparaz: Yeah, so I’ve been asked to do things outside of clinic, not necessarily by the practice but just in general just being on social media, being in medicine.

Kelly Nolan: Yep.

Shani Esparaz: And so, I’ve been asked, “Oh, will you be on this committee or head this project up?” And, again, for me, before, I would say, “Yes, yes, yes!” You know, I’m trying to make my mark in the world. And I think that’s important to a certain extent, because life gets busier and then you have to start saying no and knowing it’s okay to say no even when you’ve said yes before. But I think if you are at a point where you’ve looked at your why and you’re like, “Okay, this doesn’t really match up with my priorities or my goals,” and especially if you’re not getting compensated because often in medicine we get asked to do things without compensation.

And so, okay, so it doesn’t align with my whys. I’m not necessarily getting compensated. I usually would suggest (and this is what I’ve done in the past) saying, “Thank you so much for considering me and reaching out to me. This sounds like a great project. At this point –,” however you want to word it “– my plate is full or I’m working on other things,” however you want to word it. And then I would say end with suggesting maybe a colleague or especially another woman if it’s a leadership position, right? We need to lift each other up. So suggesting maybe a colleague or a friend or a community member that you think would be interested or up for the task.

So I think ending on a positive note when someone’s reached out to you and interested in your expertise, but you just don’t have the bandwidth to do that is a great way.

Kelly Nolan: That is great, and I also love just reminding myself that I can always do that in my next phase of life when my kids are older or even when I’m empty nesting or whatever it might be. But it’s just something that fits. I’m naming from my life right now and I’m planning for my life in this phase, and so, it kind of frees me up of the feeling of, “It’ll never happen if I don’t do it. now.” [Laughs] It helps me with that fomo-y feeling. [Laughs]

Shani Esparaz: Right! Right. Ugh, fomo is so real. [Laughs]

Kelly Nolan: [Laughs] Awesome. Well, Shani, thank you so much. I think that there are just some wonderful takeaways and also just some general inspiration from your story and definitely people who will relate. If people want to get in touch with you, whether just to hear more of your story or to explore coaching with you or whatever that might look like, where can they find you?

Shani Esparaz: So I’m pretty active on Instagram and they can find me at @shani_esparazmd on there, and then there are links on my profile if you want to look at my website and learn more about coaching.

Kelly Nolan: Awesome! Well, thank you so much. I just loved hearing your story. I really appreciate you being here. Thank you to those listening, and I’ll catch you in the next episode!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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