Physicians can’t take things personally. Here are some tips.

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A natural part of life is emotionally growing (hopefully) with experience. If I was to look back at my own journey, when I was in medical school and just graduating, I would say that without doubt, one of the biggest things I would tell my younger self, would be to not take things too personally. This would be particularly true in professional situations.

I look back at how personally I used to take certain things that I no longer do — and have to smile to myself at my relative immaturity. I remember one incident in particular that happened several months after I finished medical school. I was seeing a 19-year-old patient, whose mother was in the room with him. It was late in the evening and I had to draw some blood (this was in the United Kingdom, where this task typically falls on new interns or “junior house officers.”) I was having a difficult time getting the blood, but was convinced I could get it if I just had a couple more attempts. The patient’s mother snapped at me: “Just stop for Heaven’s sake … I want a more experienced physician to come and do this!”

Instead of understanding the mother’s natural concern and acting to try to defuse her emotions and deal with the situation in a more mature way, I remember that I felt very offended with how she spoke to me. I kind of snapped back at her, told her that I was a qualified doctor, and that the other more senior doctor was in another part of the hospital. We went back and forth for a bit, before the young patient intervened and said: “Just stop it, the pair of you!” (in a very British way). Looking back now, I always remember how I escalated instead of de-escalated that situation, and am quite disappointed with how I handled it. I recall other times too, over the next few years, when I was doing my medical residency, where I didn’t manage situations as maturely as I could have.

I recently wrote about the art of dealing with angry or tense family situations. These occurrences happen every day in hospitals. We are in an emotionally charged field. My 3 pieces of advice to help never take things personally, especially to any new physician, would be as follows:

1. Compose yourself. You will often get a heads up before heading into the room to face a difficult situation. Take a few deep breaths and compose yourself. Expect that emotions are going to run high and be prepared for that. As a professional, your role is to calm everything down, not spiral things further out of control.

2. Separate yourself from the situation. You and the situation are two separate entities (keep saying that to yourself: “You are separate from the situation.”) There is no room for ego in an interaction like this. As you listen to everything and absorb, try to mentally remove yourself from the complaint, no matter what you hear. You know you work hard, and everyone around you is doing their best. Go into an almost “detached mode” from reality. If you like, even see yourself as an actor on a stage! A professional actor.

3. Deal with their feelings first, then the problem. People have a lot to get off their chests. Your goal is to let those feelings out and guide those adrenaline and cortisol levels (in the other person) back down to their baseline. After the feelings are known and understood, then go into problem-solving mode.

Not taking things personally or being too sensitive, is a core element of “customer service” in any industry, not just in health care. I can tell you that in my career, I have been screamed at, verbally threatened, called names and told to leave the room. OK, these may be an absolute miniscule number of cases, but they are not nice when they happen. But to me, they are like water off a duck’s back. The vast majority of everyday frustrations and anger that go with the health care experience, are to be expected as part of a job where you deal so intimately with the general public.

It is super tough to not take some things as a personal affront when emotions run high, and it feels like somebody is attacking you or your work. It almost seems unnatural, because we all want to defend ourselves and the people around us (which you can still skillfully do, but only after listening and calming everything down). However, having that level of thick skin is not only important for dealing with problems more successfully, but also makes you less prone to getting upset yourself, no matter what it is you are doing.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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