A Caution Against the Extinction of Emotion

“Well, you know, I was recently diagnosed with cancer,” my friend said lightly in the middle of a spirited conversation about the merits of eating organic vegetables. She smiled as though she had just mentioned a factoid about organic kale, and not told me something earth-shattering. She continued eating her lunch while I sat there slack-jawed, trying to arrange myself. So consumed was I with the news of the diagnosis, I cannot recall a single other thing that we discussed during that lunch.

Throughout medical school, our professors have often told us to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Diligent student that I am, I believed I had mastered discomfort. I believed that no matter how difficult the patient or awkward the situation, I could muster up some empathy and manage to make that prized human-to-human connection that separates the clinicians from the caretakers.

It’s an illusion to believe that we are comfortable with discomfort if we only ever experience discomfort as physicians. In this unique profession of ours, we are prepared to meet strife and pain on a regular basis. Whether we are delivering bad news or seeing a struggling patient, discomfort is no stranger to us. It is essential, however, that we recognize the power imbalance inherent in these situations. As physicians, we are the ones delivering the bad news or offering advice to our patients. As such, we must come from the position of strength. I have also detected the unspoken expectation that no matter what awaits us when go through the door to see a patient, we must remain unchanged when we come back out the other side. While we empathize with our patients and do our best to help them, ultimately, once we step out of the examining room, that bad test result or unfortunate lifestyle choice is the patient’s emotional burden to carry forward, not ours. In other words, our professional responsibilities call upon us to maintain that misfortune as ‘other.’

Even as a student, I’m already seeing how challenging it can be to disentangle my professional identity from my personal life. In my professional life, I have cultivated a sort of empathetic stoicism that allows me to connect with patients ‘in the moment,’ and then quickly wash my emotions off and redirect my focus toward whatever task comes next. It’s a survival tactic that I suspect many of us have deployed. In our personal (non-professional) relationships, however, our identities as children, siblings, lovers, and friends must come before our identities as doctors. Unfortunately, the more time we spend practicing in our professional roles, the more difficult it seems to transition from professional to personal. In personal relationships, we cannot always anticipate when we’re going to receive news, either good or bad, but when we do, we cannot expect to go through the door and come back out unchanged.

In our professional lives, we’re expected to be compassionate but composed. We’re taught to deliver bad news, perform motivational interviewing, and deal with difficult patients, but I wonder where the line is between beneficial sensitivity training and detrimental emotional taming. Before we walk into an exam room, we read through the patient’s chart so we know what to expect, and this allows us to create a sort of comfortable discomfort to protect ourselves. I would argue that this emotional fortitude is not beneficial to all aspects of our lives. Emotions are sloppy—something  that doctors cannot afford to be—but I worry that if we don’t let our feelings bleed through the lines, emotional composure could pave the way for an extinction of feeling. After having lunch with my friend, I had felt frustrated with myself for being so stunned and scared by her news. I didn’t have the emotional composure that I would have with a patient, but that’s the key difference—loved ones are not patients. It’s a testament to our most intimate relationships to express our genuine feelings however uncomfortable they may be. Perhaps, as physicians, we need to work even harder to stay in touch with these feelings so that we never lose our ability to access them.

Featured image:
Feeling. by Javi Sánchez de la viña

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