Following a recent article about 3 things we need to be teaching more to our students, I received some good and thoughtful correspondence.
The part which seemed most interesting (for me as well to write) was about being more resilient. I wanted to expand a bit more on this, since I know people may have questions about what I do myself, to be a more resilient person. Right off the bat, I’m going to admit that I’m still very much on my own personal journey. But when I look back 10 or 20 years, even to when I was still in high school, I would say that this is one trait that I’ve probably made the most progress on and strived to develop.
Doing so has greatly helped me in my everyday life, because being overly sensitive and holding onto things is one of the characteristics that can really hold people back and hinder them on a multitude of levels. Truth be told, at an earlier stage of my career, I would have let a negative interaction ruin my whole day, or even week — but now I find myself able to brush things off far more easily (both in my personal and professional life, but let’s focus on work and careers only for now).
That doesn’t mean that I’ve become brash or insensitive — far from it! It’s always better to be on the sensitive and caring end of the spectrum, and learn to be less sensitive, than be someone who doesn’t care and is lacking in feelings (and we’ve all met people like that). It just means that I have a realistic attitude and accept that in a frequently tough and emotionally charged profession like medicine, you’ve got to deal with things in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on yourself, stay true to your own visions and goals, while being humble about being on your own learning curve. I’ve learned how to handle certain situations better, understand people, and to not take things too personally.
During my career so far, I’ve seen it all. So too has every physician I know who’s been in practice for several years. I’ve dealt with patients and families who have screamed in my face, got verbally abusive, and even sometimes bordered on threatening. Fortunately, these are a minuscule number of cases, in amongst the vast majority of patients who are good and decent. Then there’s the less severe everyday challenging interactions within the swirling emotions of healthcare. The upset and rude patient and family who need calming down, the ones who will always be upset with anything that happens and complain, and those who do not seem in any way grateful for the care that they are getting, even when everybody around them is going above and beyond. Again, these represent the minority of cases, but are still inevitable in any field where one deals with the general public. Finally, as an employee, also come the disagreements that will occur with colleagues and other administrative staff. These negative interactions are unavoidable in any workplace environment, but can be particularly charged in healthcare.
So here are three ways I’ve taught myself to better deal with them, and how you can too:
1. Schedule the negative for later in the day
If you know there’s a situation or meeting that is going to be particularly challenging, schedule it for slightly later in the day, and not first thing in the morning as long as you have control over this. For a patient or family interaction, obviously if it’s an acute medical issue that has to be dealt with quickly, this isn’t an option, but most of the time — you can do it in any routine situation. I don’t want to start my day off with a difficult interaction if I can help it. I will begin my day on as good and positive a note as possible. The same goes for any other interaction; a further example would be an administrative meeting, where I know that I am likely to disagree or lock heads with anyone in the room. I do it later in the day, after I’ve already got the day off to a flying start. Never immediately start your morning with a negative. The effect that beginning the day with a stressful situation has on anyone, cannot be overestimated.
2. Press the reset button quickly
After something doesn’t go as expected, and you start to experience any of the natural feelings of sadness, disappointment, annoyance, frustration or even offense — recognize those feelings and take a quick timeout. It could be in the break room, back in your office, or in the cafeteria over a quick tea or coffee. Deep breath, clear your mind, and let those cortisol and adrenaline hormones subside. Whenever you experience a highly charged situation, your animal “fight or flight” response kicks in. Your brain and body are being primed to lash out, and you need to be able to calm things down and reset. Remember, that’s all it is — a chemical reaction. You can always remain calm, professional and polite — no matter what the situation. As Viktor Frankl, the famous psychologist and Auschwitz survivor (and great author) wisely said: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
3. Practice gratitude
Multiple studies of happiness have shown that one of the single biggest things you can do to break the cycle of negativity, is to be able to put things in perspective and practice gratitude. Many people recommend keeping journals (although this is something I’ve never personally tried, it makes sense). Think you are having a bad day? What about the sick patients in the hospital? Think your job is tough? Well, as a physician, you are probably in the top 5 percent of the country in terms of how much you earn — and you are also doing something that is still widely respected by society (look at any public opinion poll). Want something else to be grateful for — how about your family, friends, or even the fact that you live in America — which by itself puts you in the top percentile of a world where almost half of all people (more than 3 billion) live on less than $2.50 a day in extreme poverty. And if that’s not enough, keep in mind too that for nearly all of human history, up until only a century ago, average life expectancy hovered in the 20s and 30s. Advances in public sanitation, vaccinations, and medicine, mean that you as a human live in an era that your historical ancestors could only dream of.
I’m a big reader of autobiographies and advice books from some of the world’s most successful people — entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians, and entertainers. I love hearing their experiences and words of wisdom. One of the things that I consistently hear is their advice to be a tough and resilient person. To quickly get back up as soon as you feel knocked down or a sense of conflict. To not dwell on things and move on at light speed.
There are indeed many bad things that happen which are worth getting genuinely upset about. But as for everyday negative interactions, in among a sea of positive ones in a world of opportunities — I say no to staying gloomy for anything more than a few seconds!
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