A little over a year ago, I stumbled across an article about highly sensitive people. I had never heard the term before, but as I read the article, it resonated very strongly.
Feel more deeply?
Take longer to make decisions?
Cry more easily?
That's me! After reading the article, I went on to do a self quiz, and the answer that came back was basically "You fit this profile so perfectly, why did you even need to take the quiz?"
So yeah. I'm a highly sensitive person. Meaning that I tend to respond very emotionally to things, that I am very sensitive to criticism, and that I can get overwhelmed easily. These were all things that I knew before reading the article (and the subsequent articles/blogs/books on the subject that I have read), but the concept of a highly sensitive person was helpful to me for the way that it presented my individual traits as something bigger, some complete personality type that described me shockingly well.
It also helped me by explaining why some aspects of work were much harder for me than for other people. All through medical training (and into my first years of practice), I would look at the high achievers around me and wonder how it was that they were able to accomplish so much more than I did. How could they work a long day and then come home and raise a family and do research projects? And without hating their lives?
Identifying myself as an HSP has helped me to realize that things exhaust me more than they do other people. I engage deeply with everything I do, and so I use up a lot of energy doing my work. One challenging conversation can deplete a lot of my emotional reserves, so when I have a day with multiple tough patients, it isn't surprising that I have no energy for anything else in the evening. I'm simply done.
This happened to me last week, when I had to tell a long-term patient that he was dying. That interaction was difficult enough, but then it was followed by a number of really tough disclosures about personal trauma from other patients. I did everything I could to be present for my patients and to help them get the resources they needed, but by the end of the day I had nothing left. I spent my evening on my couch binge-watching Top Chef and eating leftovers from the fridge, physically and mentally unable to do anything else.
When I tell stories like this to some of my colleagues, they look at me like I'm crazy. It's not that they're not empathetic or that they don't care about their patients*, it's just that they don't personalize things in the way that I do. They can detach from their patients and move on quickly, whereas I struggle to not be too deeply affected by my patients' stories.
But it's something I'm working on. I have zero desire to burn out early, so I'm constantly looking for ways to do my work well without giving so much of myself.
Which will be a subject for a future post, because for the moment it's time to read a book and recharge for work tomorrow.
*Well....for some of them it is.