High-achievers, including Physicians, are capable of some pretty amazing things. Insert list of impressive human accomplishments here. But for all the skills we have developed, some of us still struggle with basics, including our emotions. And I don’t mean, “handling” our emotions by putting them aside, or shoving them down. I mean actually processing them intentionally.
Frustration is a good one to poke at here. How many of us have started the day early with frustration, “why are there no clean socks!?!” and just kept going all day in that space. First it’s the socks, then traffic, then a late arrival, then the EMR goes down, ad nauseum. That first feeling of frustration lingers, and we stay in it, dragging it out all day, looking for evidence of how everything is out to get us and it all sucks. In this instance, we are staying stuck in a feeling.
Anger is another common one. Feeling angry that the late patient “doesn’t even apologize” for being late, but, “you are a professional,” and so you pretend not to be angry. But let’s face it, you are terse. You are closed off. You grit your teeth when the nurse asks you to “just fill out this one form.” You make a quick gesture with your lips when a patient tries to tell you a joke before telling them “ok, let’s get back to business here.” In this instance, you are resisting the anger, trying to pretend it isn’t there, and burning up a lot of energy trying to hide it.
And how about sadness? Maybe you sneak into the bathroom to cry alone, and then try to cover it up. Maybe you try to avoid certain kinds of patients who trigger sadness because they remind you of someone you loved who is gone.
It’s easy to spend a lot of time avoiding, resisting or staying stuck in our feelings, especially negative ones. But the problem with this is that when we do this, our world, and our ability to feel positive emotions becomes very tight and narrow. If I am staying stuck in frustration or anxiety or overwhelm, I am not going to be making decisions well. If I am trying to deny my anger, I won’t allow myself to let go and enjoy a funny joke. And if I am avoiding situations that might trigger painful emotions, like sadness, then I am constantly running away.
Humans feel emotions. And if we don’t take the time to allow them, and to feel them, and to connect with others about how we feel, then our time and energy get used up avoiding, resisting or getting stuck in the feelings.
As silly as it sounds, we need to practice experiencing our emotions. It might be as simple as giving yourself a brief time out, naming the emotion (I feel angry), describing what it feels like in your body, and simply noticing it. This is not the same as pressing on, angrily muttering to yourself that you feel pissed off and no one cares, etc. Being able to pause, even briefly, name the emotion (this is called affect labeling, and studies show quicker resolution when we acknowledge the feeling’s name), and describe how your body feels (my face feels hot, my chest feels tight, etc), is an acknowledgment of your humanness, and builds a connection with yourself.
When you don’t have to expend your energy hiding from or resisting your negative feelings, you also give space for positive ones, that we all crave more of. Love, joy, gratitude. Imagine saying to your patient, “I was frustrated when you were late getting here, but I’m grateful that you made it here so that we could talk about your diabetes today. Thank you.” Imagine how that would feel for you, and how it would feel for them.
Learning to feel creates more space for you in your life, and more human connection to yourself and to others. It’s a skill. And it’s never too late to learn it.