It started innocently enough.

She walked toward me with a mutual colleague of ours. He introduced us. I mentioned I was thinking of writing a book and she immediately impressed me with her suggestions of where I should look for more info in the classic literature. Learning that she was a speaker at the event we were at, I decided to listen in to the short version of her course during the plenary sessions.

I was enchanted.

Originally, I had planned out what speakers I wanted to see before I arrived at this conference, so I was scrambling to change my schedule. She captivated me with her knowledge, her straightforwardness and what I thought was her confidence.

The past few years in my field held a sense of confusion for me. I did not know how, when, or with whom to deepen my knowledge. For six years following graduation, I had not found a teacher that I clicked with. I had the added difficulty of living in a foreign country. And then suddenly here she was. I was SO EXCITED. I ran back to my husband and told him all about it.

By the end of the 3-day conference, I had a guru. I had already decided to follow her back to China for multiple trips to deepen my knowledge. I was ready to do anything she needed me to do. It was like puppy love.

Fast forward 6 months: I am in China with my new guru for a training that would last 4 weeks. The group of people was great and the lessons were going really well. I noticed she was short with people who took a little longer to learn or who asked questions she deemed unworthy – but I didn’t put too much stock in this, she was, after all, my guru. I just listened and obeyed.

The material I was learning made me feel like I was steeped in Chinese medicine the same way I had been when I started my graduate degree. It was a magical feeling and I loved the knowledge I was gaining. I could feel myself becoming a stronger practitioner. I could also sense my own sense of importance gaining because of my closeness to her.

For the duration of the course, her assistant helped to set up classes and organize things. He had been learning with her for a few years. A few times, the way she talked to him made me shudder – I pitied him for being treated so harshly. But I trusted her and I trusted that she was doing it for a reason. I looked the other way and moved on.

We started becoming closer. She invited me into the inner circle. I was one of the special ones. I reveled in this position and jockeyed to do anything I could to keep it. She suggested I do a PhD in China, I called my husband to tell him we needed to move. I started planning.

Before long, I was offered a full scholarship with a full time translator at a school in ‘small’ Chinese city – under the condition that I started their program within 2 weeks instead of the following year as I had requested. When I told her I couldn’t decide that quickly to uproot our entire lives, she questioned my dedication. So did I.

I returned to China for the second time, 6 months later. I was greeted with open arms and the generosity you can only feel from someone you’ve placed above you. Others weren’t so lucky.

The way she spoke to her other students started to get under my skin. I thought we were close enough, so I mentioned it. She got angry. We moved on. The trip finally started to bring up some serious questions for me – was she a guru or just a really smart ego?

A month after my trip, it was Christmas time. I took some time from my vacation and taught myself how to create a fill in online pdf form for our patients. I put the questions she used for a program she was teaching us into that format and shared it with the private group of students she had amassed. I thought I was helping.

In my post I said “I made this form, I thought others could use it as well. It will be easier for our patients to fill in if they don’t have to print, scan and send back”. She was on a retreat and I was convinced she would return and be thrilled with the effort I made.

What happened upon her return sent me into a year and a half spiral of strong emotions and internal discovery. On the private forum, I received an overly polite thank you for all my hard work. And then a furious private message followed with the information that I had stolen 15 years of her hard work. She chastised me and told me I was petty and unprofessional.

She wrote 2 weeks later to remove me from her inner circle. I had planned the next 5-10 years of my life based on what she needed from me. I was a shipwreck. I had just lost the wind from my sails and I was stuck in the middle of an ocean.

I started, with time, to connect all the dots. I saw the treatment of her students for what is was: ego based fear. I observed my guttural pain that I felt when she dumped me. Without her, I felt worthless. I questioned my desire for a PhD, I realized I didn’t really ever want one. I started asking myself questions that I hadn’t asked in 2 years and was surprised by the answers.

How do I want to practice Chinese Medicine?

What kind of relationship do I want with my patients?

What would I teach people if I was given a platform as big as the one she created?

How do I want to be viewed as a teacher?

How do I want my students to feel when they work with me?

It’s been nearly 2 years since ‘the dumping’ at this point. I have spent them rebuilding myself and my voice. I am scared. I am in a vulnerable position. Being here makes me realize why I chose a guru in the first place: if I could just follow someone else’s ideas, I didn’t have to be responsible for anything. I didn’t need my own voice. I didn’t need to speak my truth or put myself out there. I could hide in her shadows and do her bidding without making myself vulnerable to outside judgments. My thyroid broke down while this was happening. I lost my voice and my ability to regulate my body temperature, weight, and hormones.

I started blogging. I started learning again, things I wanted to learn. I returned to teaching students myself. I was afraid, I am afraid. But I am listening in and moving forward. I have experience and knowledge to share that needs to be filtered through me in order to reach the people it needs to reach. I cannot and will not use someone else’s filter for my thoughts, ideas, needs, and wants.

I have learned again to be vulnerable. I have realized that not everyone will agree with what I say – but that I can choose to be kind and generous anyway. I gained the knowledge that I don’t want or need guru status. My true desire lies in helping you be your own guru. My true value comes from having learned this lesson myself. 


  • Caitlin Donovan

    Burnout Expert

    Caitlin Donovan is one of New York City’s leading burnout experts, host of “Fried – The Burnout Podcast,” and author of the book The Bouncebackability Factor. Her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine enables Caitlin to combine Eastern wisdom with her natural practicality. After treating more than 25,000 patients, Caitlin added 1:1 coaching, corporate workshops, and keynotes for companies such as PTC and Lululemon – all with a focus on burnout. She has been featured on podcasts and online magazines such as “Elephant Journal,” “Thrive Global,” “Addicted 2 Success,” and “Your Story. Your Health.” as well as quoted in Oprah Magazine. Caitlin and her husband spent 12 years living in Europe, but now make their home in New Jersey. When Caitlin is not speaking or coaching on burnout, you can find her with her husband and their white fluffy dog hiking around NJ and NY.