Lessons Medicine Nonfiction Reflection

On Gratitude.

Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel.” – Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation

The past 30 days have been unusual because of the number of professional gestures of gratitude I’ve received:

  • I received a clinical faculty award from psychiatry residents for my teaching efforts.
  • An hospital administrator contacted me in my professional capacity; she later revealed that she was a former patient of mine and thanked me for our time together.
  • A former patient contacted me to let me know that she is about to start law school, something she did not think she could ever do. She attributed her change in perspective to our time together.

These gestures are deeply meaningful to me. At a time when arguments, conflict, and discord seem to dominate our collective consciousness, how refreshing it feels to receive thanks!

As I do not work in an academic medical center, I never expected to receive a teaching award. While I do some teaching for the residency, I have limited exposure to the trainees. That the residents even thought of my name for the ballot is meaningful. In my professional role, I have the privilege of teaching topics related to psychiatry to a variety of audiences—community members, attorneys, judges, case managers, nurses, social workers. Praise from students, though, is of greater value to me than praise from judges and others who have similar social status. As one of my more precocious medical students once commented, “I should know what a good teacher is, since I’m a medical student and many people teach me….” It makes me grateful for the teachers[1. I believe that literally everyone you encounter in life is a teacher. Sometimes you don’t want to learn what they have to teach you, but that doesn’t dilute the value of the lesson. And sometimes the best teachers in our lives aren’t identified as “teachers”.] in my life who have helped me develop my teaching skills.

Similarly, it is always a delight to receive thank you notes from past patients. Even though I often cannot remember the names of people who were under my care in the past, I recall how many of them taught me how to improve my skills in listening, using plain language, and applying interventions—medications or otherwise—to improve their health. I also recall the shame, fear, and suffering that they shared with me… and how, sometimes, I screwed up and gave them reasons to distrust me in the future. Sometimes I did better. Sometimes I think I did better when, in fact, I did not.

My boss (who is not a physician) recently gave me some feedback: “Maria, you’re hard to read. I usually can’t tell how you’re reacting to something.”

I laughed. “You’re not the first person to tell me that,” I said before continuing, “Like, when I was a fellow in New York, I had supervision with an attending (a physician) and, for whatever reason, I burst into tears because I was upset. To his credit, he didn’t freak out. He, a native New Yorker, sat with me and commented in that direct way that New Yorkers are known to do, ‘I had no idea you were so upset. You should know that you don’t show any signs that you’re upset.'”

After my mom died, I have put more effort in expressing my emotions. (To be fair, though, most of the expressing happens in words, not in my face.) Most of these expressions are of affection and gratitude. It sounds dramatic, though it is true: We never know when people will leave our lives, whether from death or other reasons. As noted in the opening citation, we might not think that what we say has much impact on others. However, expressions of affection and gratitude, at least, cause no harm and, at best, are emotional gifts that strengthen social bonds and foster harmony.

There is value in expressing displeasure, too. Sometimes people need to know that we’re upset, that we feel distress with current circumstances. Though it might make us uncomfortable, expressions of displeasure can ultimately strengthen social bonds and foster harmony. Sometimes we must travel the difficult path, even if it means that we will travel alone for a bit.

I am not old, but I am also not young. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work as a psychiatrist and to teach others the little that I do know. I am grateful that you, dear reader, have made it to the end of this post. Thank you.