05/12/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Building My Own ARK

I had hit all my goals as a psychiatrist -- board certified, respected by my peers, reaping the financial rewards of a busy practice -- years before I realized those wins didn't automatically translate to other areas of my life. And because I was convinced of my professional identity as a "successful" person, the lessons that would reveal my failings didn't come easy.

Painful lesson number one: Turned out I wasn't terribly aware of others and their feelings -- a peculiar deficit for a psychiatrist, where the playing field is people's emotional lives. The truth is, I was a "good enough" listener in my office but rather insensitive in my personal life, especially where my children were concerned.

When my second daughter, then age 7, danced in the opening night of The Nutcracker at the New York State Theatre, I wasn't there. Instead, I was attending a psychiatric conference across town. I had put my career first, even above a momentous event in my young daughter's life. Of course, all the other mothers had been there, sitting backstage, supporting their anxious children.

The next morning the dance instructor called to ask why I hadn't been present. "Your daughter wanted you there. She kept looking for you," she said. I was embarrassed to recognize my insensitivity. Yet, as stunned as I was by this new view of myself, I was angry that that the dance instructor didn't want to prioritize my career.

As strange as it sounds, the distinction between my roles as a psychiatrist and a parent hadn't dawned on me yet. Why shouldn't my professional success predict my ability as a mother?

I'll admit that, after I had a child, I did find working in my office far easier than parenting. For one thing, patients respected my knowledge and authority, and dutifully departed after 45 or 50 minutes. Home life was far more complex and chaotic; the children challenged my authority and all boundaries of time and place. They expected me to meet their needs any time of the day or night!

It took several years before I sorted out the differences between being a physician and a mother and accepted the fact that, for me, parenting was a more challenging role. I also came to realize that, more than anything else I do, parenting has the greatest impact. Along the way, my daughters have become my best mentors. By reflecting my behavior (sometimes it's like looking in a mirror), they've shown me how to become more aware of other people.

Lesson number two: When we dwell in negative space, our vital energy is sapped and we're stuck. The negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Redefining success has, for me, meant realizing the importance of reframing, turning a negative situation into a positive experience. This lesson was brought home to me on a trip to India a few years ago.

Our hostess, a native Indian, served us an exquisite multi-course meal and clearly thrived on being with us. Someone in our group asked what had motivated her to entertain tourists, complete strangers, under her roof. "I lost my son in a terrible accident," she began. "My neighbors refused to stop talking about it. As a Buddhist, I believe we must let go of suffering." Opening her home to people from around the world had started as a blind attempt to hold on to life, and it had worked. She realized she could still experience -- and create -- joy.

If she could embrace happiness after a loss of this magnitude, I needed to readjust my perspective. While the fact that my marriage hadn't worked out was painful, I'd become a mother because of it, the source of the deepest meaning in my life. Most of the time, we can reframe the disappointments that come along, if we want to. When we do, when we reframe a negative, we're newly able to enjoy life, make better use of our time and energy, and move forward.

Lesson number three: Gratitude opens doors; it is a universal key. My awakening to the power of gratitude began, indirectly, with a puzzling patient. Ms. K, as I'll call her, confided that something too terrible to talk about had happened to her. She hoped psychotherapy would help her reveal it. Our sessions, however, skirted around the issue, whatever it was. She repeatedly insisted there was a "key" we needed to find.

I explained that therapy is a process: one step forward followed by half a step backward; there wasn't a magic key. After a few months, Ms. K left therapy. She assured me she felt somewhat better. I didn't; I had found her case to be unsettling, certainly not one that had a satisfactory resolution.

Not long after that, I experienced a spontaneous new behavior: Every morning as I awoke, I found myself counting my blessings. Without any intention, I mused on my good health, or the daylight I could see through the window, or the anticipation of getting together with a friend later -- and I was filled with a buoyant gratitude. This little morning ritual became a habit and continually opened me to a clearer perspective.

Around this same time, Ms. K returned to my practice. She was still searching for a "key." I decided to tell her about the key of gratitude I had discovered, although I wasn't sure it would resonate for her. "That's it!" she said. Her face lit up, like the sun shining through a thick layer of clouds.

Gratitude is truly a master key; it unlocked the answers for Ms. K. For me, whatever the situation, it's the key that opens my mind.

These three pillars -- Awareness of others, Reframing the negative to a positive, and applying the Key of gratitude -- have allowed me to see success in a new light. They have helped me build my own ARK, a vessel of strength that carries me along as I redefine what really matters.