I’m hearing from my physician coaching clients that they are beyond exhausted by this pandemic. They experience judgment toward people who won’t get the vaccine. They are frustrated and angry with the situation. And then they feel guilt or shame for feeling this way.
Both doing the actual work and being a witness to human suffering had already worn doctors out. The additional emotional toll caused by these uncomfortable feelings occurs on top of pre-existing physical and emotional fatigue.
Physicians need to know that it is entirely normal to be frustrated and angry that this pandemic continues despite the incredible gift of vaccines, that basic public health measures, not to mention common courtesy, are being rejected by a sizable portion of society. It is not a character flaw or personal error.
We struggle between the commitment we have made as doctors to always approach our patients with compassion and the anger that arises from people’s refusal to accept the virus as a real thing or that the vaccines are safe and effective.
The juxtaposition between the apparent selfishness of those who refuse the vaccine, and the selflessness that many of us possess to commit to practicing medicine in the first place, seems incredibly unfair.
There is also the fact that physicians have spent two years putting themselves and their families at risk for the collective good, while the many people who refuse masks and other public health measures seem unwilling to do the bare minimum for the collective good.
It is hard for physicians to admit that we are human. But we are. We need to normalize allowing ourselves to experience our feelings rather than fighting them as bad or unacceptable. Judgment, frustration, and anger are normal responses to the behavior of others that affects us or someone or some group that we care about in a negative fashion. Guilt and shame are normal human responses to experiencing these emotions that “we are not supposed to” in our roles as physicians.
But here is what I would say. Judgment, anger, and frustration are simply telling you that the boundary between your personal sense of right and wrong behavior in others has been crossed by another individual. This is a normal human response. Guilt and shame are telling you that you have crossed your own internal boundary for your values. And they are normal too.
I want to invite you to accept that these are your feelings, allow them, and let them pass through you. It won’t take as long as you think or as long as it does when you are fighting and judging the way you feel.
One way to help do this is to add some additional phrases to the thoughts you’re having:
One example is adding “and that’s OK” to your thoughts.
I’m feeling frustrated, and that’s OK.
I’m feeling angry, and that’s OK.
I’m judging, and that’s OK.
I hate everyone right now, and that’s OK. (“I hate everyone right now” was my Sunday night on-call go-to thought. Honestly, adding “that’s OK” to it makes me laugh. And hate a little less.)
Another is to add “I notice” to your thoughts.
I notice I’m judging.
I notice I’m angry.
I notice I’m frustrated.
I notice I hate everyone right now.
This helps you distance yourself from your thoughts and those emotions.
Your normal compassionate impulses will inevitably return because it’s who you truly are. It is part of your mission in life. It’s why you went through all that training and sacrificed so much.
Only then can you consider whether the beliefs that lead to the emotions are serving you or not. There can be an opportunity to change your beliefs or to re-affirm that this is what you believe to be true. Even if that belief causes feelings that aren’t your favorite to experience. Give yourself the grace to be human instead of adding “be a better person” to your to-do list.
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