On the plasticity of personality (or the magnifying effects of stress)

Looking back, I have met my peers twice.

The initial meeting took place during orientation and the first few weeks of classes. We projected friendly, affable, but somewhat hollow versions of ourselves. Everyone held their breath, trying to maintain a persona that was agreeable, likable, and unsustainable. Once classes began, we finally exhaled.

The second meeting has been slower, more gradual. Over the past twelve weeks of school, the facade of first introductions have faded and been replaced by our truer selves. Sometimes, I don’t realize that I’m presenting a different Eugene, and that he’s meeting a different classmate. Not only that, but the stresses of endless lectures and exam prep have applied a magnification, an amplification of character traits within us all– both positive and negative.

Peers that seemed so happy-go-lucky during orientation now project irritability and tend to complain about issues that cannot be resolved. Others that initially seemed very introspective and reserved now light up the room when they walk in. Essentially, the stress of medical school highlights an individual’s ability to cope with chaos and disorder– if they have good strategies in place, then there is an overall positive outlook, if not, then a negative perspective tends to prevail.

Our personalities are not static descriptions or reflections of ourselves. Our environment heats up, changes our outlook, and affects our interactions with others. It’s easy to assume that I’m the rock and everyone shifts and changes around me. Instead, we’re all on a rocky cruise ship trying to play darts while blindfolded and three drinks deep. The chaos of medical school is an incredible stressor, and it is foolish to imagine that we can predict the effects of its application.

I like to imagine myself, “Everyday Eugene”, as a soft squishy hot dog on the outside with progressively denser and tougher layers going inward. At its center, a sharp and clear diamond resides there that represents the essential, “Core Eugene”. This is my true center, my spirit that never sees the light of day but guides my every action. The stresses and distractions of life cut and scrape away that hot dog layer– my daily mindfulness practice helps me rebuild the lost bits.

During times of great turmoil and chaos, the tougher layers are abraded and lost like wood to tough sandpaper. These trials and tribulations represent opportunities to test myself, to see if I am the person that can handle the challenge, and also allows me to reshape and rebuild afterwards because it rubs away baggage and old thought patterns that do not serve me. Med school has proven a powerful crucible experience for my tougher layers– adjusting my own personality under this stress microscope is both a blessing and a giant pain in the ass.

The trick, then, is ensuring that the diamond at the center is truly at the center of the soft hot dog. If not properly aligned, or if its location is unknown, then it could be lost while the tougher layers are scraped away. Losing sight of that essential “Core Eugene” is my greatest fear– that I will lose my center and allow the environment to shape me entirely, rather than having a fundamental quantum of “Eugene” that cannot be altered or hurt by the outside world. I fear that this is happening to a few of my peers, but I am unsure how to help.

This constant personality flux means that group dynamics will shift and my tribes will change. The folks that I was close with during first block are now distant memories and forming other groups of friends. Peers that were part of the mass of bodies in the lecture hall are now close confidants. And it’s important to acknowledge that many of my peers have pleasantly surprised me. Folks that I would’ve initially pegged as terribly uptight and close-minded have approached me about float tanks, or sensory deprivation therapy. There’s no way to tell who will change and whether they’ll do so in a way that jives well with my own evolution.

Accepting this chaos, that we are all changing and adapting to our environment in different ways, is all that I can control. I attempt to guide my shifting personality as med school progresses, but I cannot determine who I will be at the end of my fourth year, entering residency. Awareness of this unpredictability is the first step, the second step is enjoying the ride with good friends and loved ones.

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