Opinion by Robin Youngson.
I used to be embarrassed when my patients cried and I never would have dreamed of showing a tear myself. Our usual response to distress is to hand out the tissues.
I thought this gift of tissues to patients was a kind and considerate act but now I wonder about the unconscious message conveyed by my action. My ingrained habit was abruptly challenged the day I read about a doctor who chooses to never give out tissues. I now let my patients cry without interruption. Also, I am not ashamed or embarrassed if my empathy and compassion are revealed by my own tears. These are healing moments.
By these small habits – like handing out tissues – we erode and diminish the humanity in our practice. Handing out tissues conveys a powerful message: that we are not willing to validate or accept emotions as part of our practice. Expression of emotion therefore becomes an embarrassment and the clear message is, “Pull yourself together!”
I no longer believe in clinical detachment. From a Buddhist perspective, the only mental state in which you can make clear and accurate perceptions is open-hearted compassion – fully engaging the heart as well as the mind. Neuroscientists using functional MRI scanners to examine brain function can now tell us that cognitive and emotional centres are inextricably linked. They cannot find a physiological basis for our notion of rational detachment. So we had better become more skilled in using our own emotions in our roles as health professionals, rather than burying them in some dark corner.
Buddhists also teach us that every act of compassion for another is also an act of compassion for ourselves. When we bring open-hearted compassion and non-judgement to the care of others, we find our heart filled up with more love, not less. We all witness tragedies in the lives and deaths of our patients. Your heart will remain lighter if you have the courage to allow a gentle expression of your own sorrow. And your compassion will be remembered for ever, as the moment that healing began.
So throw away the tissues and let your heart shine together with your wet eyes.
The wonderful doctor I mentioned is Rachel Naomi Remen and I thoroughly recommend her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”. Her profoundly moving stories of compassionate patient care will be good preparation for your new practice of shedding a tear without feeling the need to reach for the tissues.
Original image: “The sad taste of tears” by Colby Stopa.