As an oncologist, I am no stranger to being yanked around by my emotions. In one day of seeing patients, I can feel the profound sadness of losing a patient with young children, the relief when another patient finally has a response to treatment and easing of pain, the joy shared with another when we marked another year of life after cancer or life with cancer. I’ve been furious when a colleague wasn’t honest with my patient, I have felt deep gratitude when another specialist went out of their way to help a patient by seeing them at the end of a full schedule, and honored by referrals from other clinicians.
When I was just starting out in training, I remember one beloved patient and her family in particular. As she was dying, I seriously lost it. I couldn’t stop crying.
This is the really bad part…. Instead of my comforting her family, they were comforting me. I was deeply ashamed by this and I had to ask myself with deep honesty, “Is it misguided to want to work in a field like oncology?” “Why would I want to be in a field that puts me face-to-face with loss on a regular, even sometimes daily, basis?” and then, when I really let myself ask the real question, “What is wrong with me?”
After a time, I realized that I had been so inattentive to my own emotional life that I was, in no small way, borrowing other people’s grief. I’d never let myself grieve for the people and other losses that I’d experienced as a child.
But it was when I began to allow myself to really feel my own difficult emotions–whether grief, or anger, or shame, or whatever difficult emotion it was, that I became a better physician and a better person. When I became a mother, I let my daughters see my emotions and then see how I could recover from them, freer for having told the truth. They saw that emotions did not overwhelm me and render me non-functional (at least not for long). I strongly believe that avoiding difficult emotions blunts experiences of joy and lightness, connection and love. And that it is our whole emotional life that makes us who we are–it’s part of our humanity.
Fortunately, the family of my patient forgave me for my lack of skill in handling their grief and my own. I’ve seen her daughters around town and together remembered their mother with love and fondness. I know that I should have been more thoughtful in my response to their own loss, should have found someone else to soothe my sadness, should have turned to a friend or member or a mentor who could help me navigate a difficult time during my early career. I soon after learned how to manage my own emotions by naming them, honoring them, and accepting them as part of the rhythm of life. I was eventually able to recall and name emotions from my childhood, and I work to shorten the time between when I feel something and when I can name it.
Which emotions do you find easy to name? Which ones are harder? What are you afraid will happen, if anything, by letting yourself go deep into those difficult emotions? Who can support you if you aren’t used to naming grief, shame, or rage? Investigate your feelings with kindness. If you’ve been numb for some time, seeking out a trusted person to support you is important to avoid feeling overwhelmed.