How we talk to ourselves can profoundly impact our mental and emotional well-being. The effects of negative self-talk are often insidious. Whether it be the voice in our head that tells us we are not good enough or the one that reminds us of our past mistakes, our internal dialogue can devastate our self-esteem, confidence and motivation. In a world where adversity and negativity can often consume us, Dr. Reyzan Shali’s story serves as a beacon of hope and resilience.
In a world where adversity and negativity can often consume us, Dr. Reyzan Shali’s story serves as a beacon of hope and resilience. From the streets of Baghdad to the bustling halls of a California medical practice, Dr. Shali’s journey is as captivating as it is inspiring.
A Kurdish woman born and raised in Iraq’s capital city, Dr. Shali grew up amid political and societal unrest that tested her courage and strengthened her compassion. Driven by an unwavering determination and innate defiance against the status quo, she pursued a medical career, eventually making her way to the United States. After being tried by a series of events in her adult life, she forged her own path to self-love.
Now, with years of experience as a physician under her belt and a heartfelt dedication to her parent’s legacy, Dr. Shali is also stepping into a new role as a public speaker, hoping to share her story of perseverance and impart valuable lessons about self-worth, resilience, and service with those who need it most.
Dr. Shali describes herself as having a unique childhood. Growing up, her parents raised her with kindness and love, but she was exposed to a lot of external chaos.
“My own family environment was wonderful, meaning I had the greatest parents in the world, in my opinion. Very, very protective. They were very supportive.”
The country was fraught with unrest and uncertainty as a result of the ongoing political conflicts in the region. Even though the conditions were not ideal for anyone, Dr. Shali believes they were especially difficult for someone like her. She had strong convictions about societal issues and matters concerning the well-being of others—both near and far. “If I see another human being mistreated, I need to act,” she says.
“I tend to be a little defiant when things do not sound fair to me. There was a double standard that bothered me often, that I still see today, and that I feel exists worldwide. I was outspoken and unapologetic about my opinions.”
While it took bravery to speak out, she was heavily criticized and scrutinized by people around her.
“My speaking about these issues caused a lot of difficulties because my perceived defiance invited a lot of ire. People told me to stay quiet and not provoke.”
While many agreed with her worldview, others would tell her that certain beliefs were all in her head. When she spoke of situations she observed, she was told they were the result of her own actions.
“So even though my immediate environment was wonderful and supportive, the overall culture, coupled with the political and social turmoil, was challenging.”
Dr. Shali says that for as long as she could remember, she had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to get out and escape that setting. And eventually, she did get herself out, setting her mind to pursuing medicine.
“One of the main reasons I got into medicine was because I had older family members who were doctors. To me, it was very comforting how people would come to them in so much pain and agony, in significant distress, but they would leave feeling much better. I was able to see the effects of healing and kindness with my own eyes.”
She saw the true power of medicine and the value of being able to help nurture others. What she witnessed sincerely affected her and resonated with her desire to give back to the world.
“That human connection and that ability to help others touched me profoundly. I grew up watching that and couldn’t see myself doing anything else. It felt like a calling.”
Dr. Shali received her medical degree in Baghdad and then moved to the United States to complete her residency in Michigan. To her, immigration was a thrilling and terrifying experience all at once.
“I grew up the youngest of nine, so I was very spoiled and pampered. And then, all of a sudden, I was living in a foreign country. It was scary, but it was also very exciting and filled with new possibilities. I took it day by day. I tried to learn. That openness is something I carry to this day. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, I try to welcome it. In those moments of discomfort lies the most growth.”
She arrived with only a hundred dollars in her pocket but determined to forge her own path. “I did whatever I needed to do, washing dishes, waiting on tables. I didn’t mind the hustle,” she adds.
Dr. Shali pursued internal medicine, initially wanting to go into oncology because her father had passed away from cancer.
“In my humble opinion, I still believe my dad is the best dad in the world. And so, I wanted to study oncology to help people who were suffering from cancer, as my father once did. However, I realized I was getting way too emotional during oncology rotations.”
She says that it may have been the memory of her father or seeing people losing their loved ones firsthand that made her question if she wanted to continue pursuing that specialty. By the time she finished her residency in internal medicine, she had gotten married and had a son.
After completing her boards, she moved to California with her family and began working with different medical groups, including the Scripps Coastal Medical Group. Eventually, she had a second son.
It was her empathy that drove her to become a doctor, and she decided it was time to honor her father’s memory in a different way.
She wrote a book called “Teaming Up Against Cancer” and dedicated it to her dad. The book discusses how those diagnosed can take back their lives as they receive treatment and protect themselves from dangerous misconceptions. It also encourages cancer prevention through diet and screening tests.
“It was first dedicated to my father. I was going to finish writing the book, and I was going to give the first copy to my mother. She was at the time living in Lebanon. However, she passed away before I could, so I dedicated it to her too. That journey of writing the book was very meaningful to me.”
The book has helped many people cope with their cancer diagnosis.
“I wanted to make my parents proud, and one way to make them proud was to do good deeds. Both my parents were very kind and helped many people. Aiding others and caring for your fellow human is something I grew up watching. It’s engraved into my DNA.”
Dr. Shali thinks the medical community as a whole would benefit from adopting a more compassionate and holistic perspective in health care.
“One major thing we do need is more education regarding holistic care. We all need to be a little bit more open-minded about incorporating it, and we need to be more respectful of patients that are interested in it.”
She recently joined Tri-City Primary Care in Vista, California, alongside a team of five other physicians.
“I’ve been welcomed very warmly by the community. That is how I built my practice. It was someone telling her cousin about me or someone else recommending me to their neighbor. So, I do want to give back to this community I love. Being in control of my own practice, my own decision making, my own time, allows me to be of more service to the people.”
She also gives back to the community through public speaking and sharing her own story of resilience.
“I tend to stand up and say no. I disagreed with people and spoke truth to authority. All of that translated to a lot of scorn, and eventually, that became a lifelong struggle with a lack of self-love. I had to slowly rebuild myself, and I want to share how I did that with anyone else who may be suffering.”
Despite the hardships, Dr. Shali is confident that she has gained invaluable life lessons along the way. These insights, she says, can serve as a glimmer of hope for others going through similar experiences.
“I always say to my own boys and younger people that people will want to bully you and make you feel bad about yourself only for them to feel less marred about their own existence. The problem isn’t you. It’s that they are hurting.”
She developed a destructive self-perception as a result of being subjected to constant criticism, in situations close to her heart, all throughout her life; she empathizes with the younger generation that now has to deal with bullying through social media.
“All the negativity that was thrown at me and that still gets thrown, I did not take it well. I internalized all of it. I took it upon myself that, yes, anything that went wrong was my fault.”
She started taking the blame for things she was not responsible for.
“And, of course, that translated to a lot of self-hate and lack of self-confidence. It took many years to understand that those words had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with them. It had to do with what they’re feeling, their own insecurities, their own lives, and how unfulfilled or unhappy they were.”
Dr. Shali says that she still regularly encounters examples of people projecting their emotions onto others and, at times, doing measurable and lasting harm.
“It is difficult to watch someone being ridiculed for their physical attributes, their financial security, their background—there are so many avenues through which we can judge one another. It hurts when I see a woman working very hard, providing for her family financially, and still being told that she is worthless. It bothers me to see someone working diligently only to face constant derision from their boss. Imagine what it is also like to be a child in today’s world, where there are infinitely developing new mediums for cyberbullying. I hear about these stories often.”
Eventually, she came to understand a simple truth she now encourages others to consider.
“I woke up one day and realized that it is just not mathematically possible for everything wrong out there to be because of me. That thought itself was incredibly freeing and healing.”
By spreading her message, she might spare someone else the emotional trauma of facing that kind of adversity alone or internalizing it in the same way she did. Just hearing a different perspective may make all the difference.
“If I can help just one person see the bigger picture and resist imprinting outside voices into self-hatred, then my efforts would have been worthwhile. To put it another way, there is a distinction between criticism meant to help you improve and criticism meant to annihilate your self-worth.”
She says that she was not able to distinguish between those two ideas before. “The disapproval I’m talking about came from places and people intending to demean me, muting my voice, and changing my personality,” she says.
“I did get into a place after all these years where I understand the way someone treats you is often a reflection of their own happiness. In my own life, it does not engrave my psyche as much as it used to. It took a shift in perspective and a stronger sense of inner knowing to strengthen my armor.”
However, Dr. Shali understands that breaking out of those thought patterns is difficult. She started by taking simple steps.
“I stopped indulging and regretting mistakes or so-called mistakes. We’re all human. We all can make mistakes, and most of the time, mistakes are not truly mistakes. They are difficult lessons we grow from. Sometimes you need setbacks to move forward and propel. There is no value in regret. It’s not how you start; it’s how you get up and keep going.”
She also stopped seeking other people’s approval and instead turned inward for her sense of confidence and competence.
“I think that comes with age, not caring as much about what other people think of you. I made a conscious effort not to let anyone’s insult stab my soul and destroy my spirit. I also used to say yes to so many people and so many things my entire life when I didn’t want to. I just said yes because I wanted someone to like me or approve of me. I had a hard time saying no. I was betraying what I wanted.”
In time, she began to set boundaries by “developing a voice” and saying no when she wanted to say no. She says that it was incredibly empowering to put herself first.
“Another thing that helped me recover was that I got to a stage in life where I realized that I’m here to be in service of others. I’m here to take care of others. I think we’re all supposed to do that.”
Growing up, her father was a huge fan of Muhammad Ali, whom Dr. Shali also came to admire. One of his famous quotations she finds moving says, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Dr. Shali has always lived by this idea. “When someone says something disparaging, I remember, I have these good intentions to take care of and heal so many others,” she says.
She also believes that parents can help their kids develop self-confidence by living by example and sharing their experiences and struggles.
“I told my boys that I’ve been bullied all throughout my life and that I continue to be bullied. I’ve had hurtful words thrown at me, but eventually, I came out stronger. I told them that what is important is that they are good people with pure intentions. That is what everyone should strive for.’ That is what we all should weigh ourselves against.”
She says that if someone stays their course, works hard, and does what is good for them, their family, and their community, they will eventually overcome hurdles. “This bullying from other people may bother you for many years, but eventually, you will come out of it a better person,” she says.
“Live true to yourself, your soul, and what makes you happy. The bullying is their problem. If they lie to you, that’s on them. If they steal from you, that’s on them. If they take advantage of your kindness, that’s on them. If they abuse your naivete and caring heart, that’s on them. They have to live with that. You don’t have to live with that. You don’t have to live with doing that to another human being.”
It is important to keep going. For younger people who are still trying to find their place in the world, Dr. Shali says that discomfort is not always bad when chasing your aspirations.
“Writing a book was so foreign to me, but I went for it, not knowing anything about the process. Going through something new and different may feel as impossible as climbing Mount Everest, but take one step at a time. There is a lot of growth that comes from trying something new. Those experiences are what help you find yourself and your inner strength.”
They should also be prepared to put in the work. Big dreams require commitment, dedication and perseverance.
“Dive in. Hustle. Life is not easy. No one is going to hand you anything for free. You will have to work hard. Observe your surroundings and learn from your experiences. That knowledge will serve you down the road.”
Committing to those dreams and that hard work is an expression of self-love itself.
“You have to work really hard to be more confident and feel better about yourself. Go back to school and get the education that will help boost your confidence. Work two jobs instead of one to support yourself if it means financial independence so that no one has power over your sustenance. Be so good at what you do that it doesn’t matter if your boss overlooks you anymore. Become the person you’ve always envisioned—someone your loved ones can be proud of, whether they’re still here on Earth or looking down from the stars. Put in the effort to earn your own approval so that when you go to bed at night, you can do so with nothing but serenity rather than guilt or regret.”
She has a lot of ideas she wants to put out into the world, particularly about negative self-talk, and she knows that speaking engagements are a great way to do that. She can reach a broad audience and tell them they do not need to suffer in silence.
“One of the ways I find my job very rewarding is the connection I’ve built over the years with patients and families in my small community. When I can help three or four people sitting in my office struggling with something very major they are having a difficult time with during a 15-20 minute visit, I have made a difference. We find a resolution, and they leave my office with their day feeling lighter. If I can do that on a small scale, I’d like to start doing it on a large scale.”
She says that when people meet her, they can sense that she empathizes with them because of her non-judgmental spirit. In life, she has been blessed with the ability to connect with others by being vulnerable, understanding, and trustworthy.
“To be human is to be imperfect. I too am flawed, but I believe that I have a good soul and a pure heart. People are drawn to me because they sense that they can trust me. That’s something I can put to good use. Because of the hardships I’ve endured, I am in a unique position to help others by sharing the wisdom I have gained.”
In her medical practice, she has loyal patients who have flown from other states to continue seeing her. Often, they will share personal stories with her.
“People come to me from Nevada, Ohio, and several states across the country after they’ve relocated because they feel safe with me. So just imagine what they’ve seen in the world—what they’ve seen from the medical community, what they’ve seen from other people! They have to fly all the way from far away cities to come and see me because they feel comfortable with me. They know I have their best interests in mind.”
Some will even refuse to go through with medical procedures at other specialists without her encouragement. “I really take that responsibility seriously, and I feel honored to receive their trust,” she says. One of her patients even flies from Greece to undergo her physical with Dr. Shali because of the comfort Dr. Shali brings to her patients.
“I may help an 80-year-old at work one day, but I want to make another 80-year-old feel just as good about their day. Or another 40-year-old or another 55-year-old. I want a 19-year-old out there to understand that the cruel words she may someday hear have nothing to do with who she really is. I’m hoping she’ll get to that understanding way earlier than I did. I’ve learned that I want to not only heal people physically, but I want to help them heal their spirits.”
One thing that she has embraced is her honesty about her experiences.
“Over the years, I slowly and gradually showed my vulnerability. I started feeling less ashamed of showing my authentic self and all its imperfections. I gradually realized that’s precisely what connected me to others. Human beings are fallible. We all share that, and there is beauty in that.”
Dr. Shali is committed to spreading her message and welcomes any chance to do so.
“I think it saved my soul to live with the purpose of serving others. It helped my psyche in so many ways. It’s no longer about me. To anyone struggling, understand that we are all here for a flicker of time. Every difficult time will still pass. The most valuable gift we can give ourselves is learning how to keep growing and moving forward.”
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at email@example.com.