I’m currently very pregnant. Like, people are surprised I continue showing up to work kind of pregnant. But here I am, seeing my patients, explaining my role, and assuring them that someone will be covering for me when I go out on leave.
Recently, I’ve had a few patients gesture at my belly and say something to the effect of, “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re doing something exciting/meaningful, and what have I got?”
I used to hear a mildly different version of this when I was a hospice social worker: “you’re young, you can’t understand what this is like,” meaning I couldn’t possibly have experienced loss because of my age. I often struggled with that pronouncement because I have suffered some significant losses and I resented that those experiences were being minimized. Of course, my patients didn’t know that. All they saw when they looked at me was a young woman with her life ahead of her as theirs was ending. The actual words were not so important; it was the feelings underneath that I had to focus on. They wanted to know: how could they be vulnerable with someone who wasn’t in their shoes?
This is not to say that my feelings in these moments aren’t important. I’ve written before about the need to use our own feelings in a therapeutic role. But the negative feelings that arise during client interactions are better dealt with after a visit. Therapy is for the patient, not the therapist. We have to deal with our shit at a later date.
And deal with it we must! But what do we do in the moment, when our patients challenge us in this way, for things we can’t help, like our youth or ability to bear children or our race or gender? And what do we do with the feelings that arise when we’re called out for the audacity to be different from the person we’re treating?
So much of this work comes back to our early training: good old active listening will help you almost every time. When a patient says that my life is beginning as their life is ending, I take myself out of it as I reflect back to them (after all, I’m not really the issue here): “You feel like you don’t have anything to look forward to.” Or, “it sounds like you feel sort of purposeless, is that right?” I think sometimes patient want to talk about us because it’s less scary than talking about them. That’s a fair impulse. It’s our job to gently redirect and help our patients get back to the heart of the matter. And it’s fair to acknowledge their feelings about talking to someone who isn’t their age/gender/religion/whatever. Naming awkwardness is the best way to get past it. A clinician needs to have some level of vulnerability in order to help her patients be vulnerable too.
But after the visit, how do we sort out our own shit? I may understand rationally why people struggle with my age or my pregnancy or what have you. But when the patient leaves and I’m writing my note, I often feel frustrated by their judgements. I wonder if I was effective in the visit, if I should have drilled down harder on a statement. I second guess myself. I find myself feeling resentful about an off-handed comment. To cope, I do what I tell my patients to do: I examine the thought and try to let it go. If it’s a particularly difficult one, I talk about it until I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. I find that talking about something to death diffuses its meaning. And I remember to view it all with compassion. Our patients come to us with their own shit too; our job is to help them sort theirs out and deal with our own stuff later. Preferably in supervision!