Updated: Feb 9
Feelings are shameful
I used to consider feelings to be at best an inconvenience and at worst an embarrassing loss of control. As a child I remember my mother disparaging my grandmothers, both her own mom and my dad’s, for showing too much emotion. She especially hated it when anyone cried and seemed genuinely more angry with me for crying than for whatever it was that I had done to get in trouble in the first place. She herself has seldom cried and clearly prides herself on this trait.
I don’t know where the family value of stoicism ends and where the cultural overlay begins. Showing too much emotion is generally considered embarrassing and even shameful, representing a loss of face or betrayal of weakness. My mother wanted me to be tough so that I could hold my own in our traditional patriarchal family and in the world of men.
There’s no crying in surgery
In my first clinical rotation in medical school I had gotten rather attached to this lovely elderly couple at the Seattle Veteran’s Affairs surgical ward. The husband’s liver surgery ended up being a tense ten hour ordeal with requiring multiple blood transfusions and cardiac resuscitations. He didn’t make it.
When we went to tell the wife, she just couldn’t take in our terrible news – preferring to chatter on about the slippers she was knitting for the nurse. I was devastated and exhausted, ducking into a stairwell at the earliest opportunity to cry my eyes out. But my chief resident came after me to school me in the proper conduct expected of surgeons. As Tom Hanks said in the movie A League of Their Own there was no crying in baseball, and apparently not in surgery either.
Escapism as a temporary fix
Over the years, I had learned other ways to manage my emotions. I would binge read my favorite romance novels and eat, ideally both. Overworking was another ideal way to numb myself – I could hustle for worthiness at the same time as escaping my feelings.
Authentic support and caring requires a kind of vulnerability that can be deeply healing
The funny thing is that I had always prided myself on being calm and collected in the face of whatever crisis. What I didn’t realize then was that suppressed feelings don’t just disappear. My colleague Dr Caitlin Faas describes how feelings build up pressure like a bottle of soda that’s shaken vigorously. When that bottle is opened quickly, the contents burst out with a lot of force. Looking back, I can see how my anger would explode at unexpected times with a kind of intensity that surprised me as much as those around me.
Empathy as a strength
My primary care patients eventually taught me how powerful emotional connection can be. I learned to strike a balance between the “professional” clinical demeanor that are best suited to most encounters, and allowing the deeper sharing that others require. Authentic support and caring requires a kind of vulnerability that can be deeply healing for both patient and doctor. Sadly, shorter and shorter clinic visit times as required by large employers increasingly prevent this kind of connection.
As I began to allow myself to experience more emotion through coaching and therapy, I saw that others around me were also uncomfortable with emotion. Most lacked awareness or language to describe their experience. Our first instinct is to avoid the kind of discomfort that negative feelings cause, and that avoidance leads to all kinds of other problems.
Richness of the present moment
It has taken me years to unlearn the lessons of feelings suppression I absorbed in those early years. And so doing, I discovered that I was also numbing myself to positive emotions.
I recently saw my son again for the first time since the pandemic started 18 months ago. The joy was so intense that it literally took my breath away – I was sobbing uncontrollably. At first I felt embarrassed to have lost it so unexpectedly, but then I realized what a gift it is to experience my mother’s love for him in such a pure and unadulterated form. Such is the power of emotion.