by Eunice J Minford MA FRCS Ed, Consultant Surgeon, N Ireland
A simple observation highlights to me the importance of the difference between what we feel and what we think, particularly when it comes to health. The world we live in gives precedence to the intelligence of the mind and/or the brain without taking full cognisance of the intelligence of the body. Thinking and thoughts are associated with the mind/brain and much weight is given to the acquisition of knowledge and information and the cognitive disciplines in education and professional life. In contrast, feelings are often dismissed or ignored or over-ridden. They may be negatively associated with emotions or a so-called ‘emotional person’ or someone being too ‘touchy feely’ as opposed to the rational, logical thinker. Certainly as a child I was lead to believe that feelings were somewhat irrelevant; I was not encouraged to express what I felt but instead learned the opposite. I thought it was good to be the ‘strong silent’ type who didn’t disclose feelings or personal matters. Everything was always ‘fine’ no matter what was really going on.
Whilst thoughts may appear to arise in the mind, feelings come from the body and are the language of the intelligence of the body. When I do a ward round in the morning, I ask patients “How are you feeling?” not “What are you thinking?” if I want to know what is going on for them and their wellbeing.
This simple observation clarifies that if we want to know the truth of what is going on in the body and in someone’s health, we ask about how he/she is feeling and respond accordingly. True intelligence is embodied and feelings are the conveyors of that intelligence.
Yet so little importance is really given to understanding the feeling realm within medicine. Medical training itself is a good way to learn how to ignore and over-ride one’s feelings; we often end up using food, alcohol or excess work to numb ourselves and not feel what is really going on. The onslaught of medical training, the hours of work, the vast amounts of material to be learned, having to deal with exposure to high levels of suffering and trauma of various kinds, results in people hardening to be able to cope. Yet it is a false coping mechanism that leads to over-worked, cynical, burnt-out doctors who have difficulty caring for themselves, never mind their patients.
To provide true care for another we must first provide that care in equal measure to ourselves.
This means listening to and honouring our own feelings about how we feel, being aware of when we are over-working and becoming exhausted. It means taking the time to get a good night’s sleep, to eat healthy nourishing food and to be emotionally aware so that we are not dumping our undealt with anger /rage / aggression /sadness etc on our fellow colleagues and patients. I rather ignorantly and arrogantly used to think that my angry outbursts were just part of who I was – that I was made that way and people could ‘like it or lump it,’ not realising that I could take steps to address the root cause of that anger – which had nothing to do with the situation at hand.
I have found that the ability to truly care for myself is something that deepens the more I live it and that there is much more to it than I ever imagined. Indeed, some of my preconceived ideas about what it means to be self-caring have been challenged. For example, there is the general belief that exercise is good for the body irrespective of the nature of the exercise and I have come to realise that aggressive forms of exercise, that push my body harder and harder, are not actually good for it.
Furthermore, I have discovered that the more I truly care for myself, the more I am able to care, both for others and myself. I have also become aware that there are a myriad of ways that can interfere with my ability to care for myself due to my engrained ways of living – yet I know I always have the power to choose that which is truly caring or not. It always seemed easier to care for others than it did for myself and indeed some would consider putting others before oneself is the way to live. Alas, that does not lead to true care, for to know what true care is, it must be lived by oneself and then it becomes but a natural expression of who one is and an equality of care is then delivered to all.