So, why is it helpful to identify our maladaptive thoughts?
As physicians, a big part of our job revolves around identifying a constellation of symptoms and labelling them. We take the subjective description that the patient provides and turn it into something more concrete: a diagnosis. But why is it so important to name these diseases/syndromes? For our patients, it provides an explanation to their experiences, which can provide a sense of relief after a long investigation process. From a medical perspective, a diagnosis dictates our treatment plan and allows us to act with greater confidence.
Now, we will apply the same principles to our maladaptive thinking. First, we identify a pattern in our feelings (similar to identifying our symptoms). Consider this example: “Every time I watch TV instead of studying, I feel conflicted about my decision and therefore loose pleasure in watching TV”. Next, we label our emotion – a term coined by psychologists as “affect labelling” (similar to naming a diagnosis). In doing so, we can acknowledge our feelings, and consequently, find the tools to manage them. Using this same example, we identify "guilt" as the prominent emotion and can therefore find ways to lessen this emotional burden.
Why do we struggle to identify our emotions?
Although we are trained to be good diagnosticians, we often struggle to correctly name our feelings. Being seen as emotional comes with its own share of stigma, especially in the context of medical training. While we are taught in medical school notions such as empathy, and we are boasted for our altruistic tendencies, we are also taught to be stoic in front of our patients, and show strength in the face of uncertainty. Unfortunately, many physicians find it difficult to let go of this deeply ingrained principle in their personal lives, and far too often suppress their emotions. While it may be adaptive in the short term, it becomes problematic in the long run. Failing to connect with our own vulnerabilities can lead to failed connections with others, especially our patients – in other words, it may hinder our capacity for empathy.
Now that you have the information, try out this exercise!
Set a timer for 10 minutes, grab and pen and paper and answer the following questions:
§ Name 5 things that bring you happiness or motivate you
§ Name 5 things that make you feel sad, guilty or angry
§ Do you have recurrent emotions that you feel are unacceptable?
§ Free style write until the timer goes off