3 Simple Steps for Befriending and Harnessing Your Emotions


Our culture derides emotions. One common belief is that emotions are bad, and not to be
trusted. As doctors, we are taught to remain detached from our emotions, lest they affect our clinical decision-making or we appear less than strong in front of patients. And each
gender has its own limiting rules about emotions. While men are labeled assertive for showing anger, women are given less appealing adjectives. Men are instructed from an Collage emotion of peopleearly age to always appear strong and tough and derided for “acting like a girl” if they show sensitivity or indecision. Both genders are labeled weak when they cry. We are often admonished, “Don’t be emotional.”  Yet, the truth is that emotions are a part of everything we do.

Our excitement spurs us to become involved and work hard on something we’re passionate about.  Our fears hold us back from being all that we can be.  We eat, sleep, communicate, and work differently if we’re happy than if we’re sad.  Emotions also help us connect with people who are like-minded; together, our efforts may accomplish more than if we acted alone.  Emotions even influence clinical outcomes.  Years ago, I cared for a woman with advanced rheumatoid arthritis. She had diminished vision, limited use of her hands, and very painful hips.  Due to financial difficulties, the family’s washing machine was repossessed and my patient had to wash her family’s clothes by hand.  I became determined to find additional services for her and ensure she had access to necessary medications. These efforts, born from my compassion, positively affected her clinical course.

Our emotions are a crucial source of information and the best indicator of what’s true for us.  While we can usually think ourselves in or out of different thoughts and beliefs,  it’s harder to change our emotions.  How many times have people told you to not be sad, or to not be angry?  I bet their suggestions did nothing to change your emotion – except, perhaps, to make you feel angry, frustrated, and unseen.

This is because our emotions are triggered when there is an issue at stake that matters to us.  And that means that we can use our emotions as a compass to guide us toward living in alignment with what is most important to us.

Unfortunately, we are often taught to hide our emotions, lest we “make a scene,” hurt someone’s feelings, or burn bridges.  The truth is that we usually fail.  We’re betrayed by an unconscious eye roll, our body language, the sarcastic tone in our voice, a rise in the pitch or quickening of the cadence of our speech. If emotions are going to make themselves known anyway, we can use this simple, three-step process to intentionally put them to use, creating the outcomes we want.

Step #1:  We often recognize we’re feeling an emotion when something changes in our body. If our heart starts racing, we might be excited or fearful.  If our jaw clenches, we might be angry.  If a smile comes to our face, we know we’re happy.  Once we become familiar with these signs, we can use our bodies as an early warning system to let us know what emotion we’re feeling.

Step #2:  We feel an emotion when something we care about is at stake.  After we decide what emotion is present, we can ask ourselves what issue feels like it’s being threatened or honored.

Step #3:  Once we understand the issue, we can construct a statement that reflects our position – why we’re feeling the way we are.  In this way, we can skillfully speak out, without acting out.  A statement might include a reference to the emotion we’re feeling, the issue that’s at stake, and why we are concerned or excited about what’s happening.

Emotions are a wonderful part of life.  While most of us prefer the highs of happiness, excitement, love, and joy, we wouldn’t appreciate them as much without the contrast of sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and despair.  And since emotions provide the best clue to what’s important to us, it’s crucial that we befriend them, appreciate them, and learn to let them guide us to a life that feels congruent with who we are and what we value most.


This work was joyfully developed in collaboration with my friend and fellow coach,  Deborah Munhoz

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Beware the trap of comparison – physician coaching helps us find the right metric

Group of people doing yoga warrior pose at white studio with gesture of will. Fitness class, sport and healthy lifestyle concept
Yoga is considered a gentle form of exercise – so I was frustrated when my back muscles cramped and I found myself in bed, unable to stand or walk after a class.  A wise bodyworker asked me to describe what I had done during the class.  “I saw someone move deeper into a pose, so I thought I could go deeper too,” I replied. Laughing, she said, “You’re not practicing yoga, you’re doing competitive stretching!”

I had to admit she was right.

How much of our behavior is driven by comparisons with others? How often do we feel compelled to purchase a new car, accessory, or electronic device after someone else buys one? How many of us suffer from FOMO – the fear of missing out – so we take on a new activity or role we don’t have time for, say yes to an event we don’t want to go to, or volunteer for something we have no interest in, in order to “keep up” or not miss out?  How much time is consumed by self-doubt as we worry we’re not “as good as” another person at work or in our life?  My parents’ typical response when I reported a test grade, “What did everyone else get?” instilled the belief that it was important to come out on top of any comparison.  The competition of medical education and training further ingrains that goal in our minds.

Here’s the truth: comparisons are set ups. While striving to do as well as or better than others can motivate us to study, practice, or improve, it tricks us into reaching for the wrong goal.  Yes, winning is usually more fun than losing. But winning alone, without also doing our best, enjoying the fun, or achieving some growth through the experience, is often hollow and unfulfilling.  And if our sole trophy is the sense of being better than someone else, the joy we feel quickly fades, leaving us with the anxiety that we may not come out on top next time.  The pressure to continue to triumph may even undermine our further attempts to succeed.

Freeing ourselves from the trap of comparison is simple – although not as easy as we might hope. The hard part is challenging the belief that our worth or importance is tied to being equal to or better than someone else.  The first step in changing this pattern is to recognize when we’re comparing.  This gives us the opportunity to ask some important questions: What feels joyful, interesting, or meaningful in doing this? In what ways will I learn and grow through this experience or effort?”  We can then refocus our attention on that. The metrics we measure ourselves by must always reflect our values and bring us a sense of fulfillment; they must reward our efforts, celebrate our growth, and allow us to feel more connected to who we are and what matters to us.  In this way, our efforts are never eclipsed by another’s and we remain focused on the right goals – following our passion, learning and growing, and experiencing the adventure and exhilaration of living an authentic life.



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What will YOU choose? A physician coach chooses joy

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, is thought to have said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to
Options Just Ahead on Yellow Highway Signchoose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom.”  Unfortunately, our responses are often unconsciously triggered by prior experiences.  If we were rejected by a group in our adolescence, we might feel rejected whenever we don’t feel a warm welcome.  If we experienced dishonesty earlier in our lives, we may find it difficult to trust again. That we are limited to these automatic responses is a myth, as it ignores the space between stimulus and response. Realizing that can bring us not only a greater range of potential responses, but true freedom in our lives.

As a relatively new bass guitar player, it felt both exciting and terrifying to play in a band with experienced musicians.  I worried that the professionals, after investing so much time and energy and dedicating their career to this pursuit, would feel disrespected.  Who was I to think I was good enough to play with them?   I worried I would ruin the sound, depriving our guests of the delight of hearing really great music.  As a high school cello student, I played in an orchestra far above my skill level.  I reveled in the beauty of the music, and during passages I couldn’t play well I kept my bow an inch above the strings so I wouldn’t create dissonant sounds.  As the only bass guitar in the band, that option wasn’t available. And yes, I worried that I would make a fool of myself.  “She’s awful!” I imagined people whispering.  Yet, the draw of being surrounded by the music I love and being a part of its creation was too much for me to pass up.

Making a mistake was a given – there was no way I could know how to adapt to live musicians who, unlike the YouTube videos I practiced along with, played things differently every time. I knew I would screw up, and probably many times.  And I decided that, in every moment I remembered I had a choice, I would ignore any negative feelings and instead choose joy.

The time came to take the stage along with the band.  Having rehearsed my first song over 100 times, I felt I knew it well.  I looked at my friends in the audience, surveyed my bandmates, and suddenly realized that they had already started playing! Choosing joy, I quickly jumped in and began playing my part, exhilarated to be contributing the Flex3.1.19JOYbeautiful, resonant bass notes to the song.  A short time later, I noticed the pianist motioning to me and realized I had missed the place in the music where the key changes.  I was playing all the wrong notes!  Again, I chose to be amused by my inexperience rather than go down the path of negative self-talk, and chose the joy of learning from this new experience.  Later, I noticed the drummer exaggerate his movement so I would know when to play the last note, rather than coming in at the wrong time as I did during rehearsal.  I chose the joy of feeling supported, enhanced by gratitude for his kindness.

It would be dishonest to say I don’t have feelings of inadequacy, not measuring up, or feeling like a fraud.  We all struggle with those at times.  What has become clear is that, while we have these human feelings, we can choose to put our attention on another feeling instead.  There are so many options available to us – love, awe, curiosity, compassion, contentment – the list is long.  I chose joy.  What will you choose?

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Want more resilience? Physician coaching helps you find the strength in holding opposites

Lengthening and stretching the body is one goal of yoga practice.  As you stretch your arms up toward the sky, you also imagine pushing your legs down into the Silhouette of a beautiful Yoga womanearth.  We are definitely not used to this habit of moving in two different directions at once.  In fact, we are encouraged from an early age to decide on one path and move in that direction only.  Young athletes are advised to concentrate on one sport, lest their potential competitors improve and leave them behind.  As medical students, we are encouraged to decide on a specialty early in our training, so we can do research and add clinical experience to our CV and thus appear to be a more dedicated applicant for residency.  We expect our politicians to be sure of their positions and uni-dimensional in their stances on issues or we judge them to be “wishy-washy” or not committed to the cause.  By not allowing ourselves to stretch into other directions, we contract and weaken.  We don’t learn to appreciate, engage and benefit from the full range of our capabilities. We fail to develop the trust and confidence in ourselves that only comes from knowing how far we can stretch.  Ask any yogi and they will tell you how much space and strength develop when we learn to grow in opposite directions.

When we deny ourselves the experience of exploring other options, opinions, or activities, we also prevent ourselves from developing the resilience that’s necessary to adapt and adjust to what life brings. Instead of being resilient, we become brittle.  The truth is that we are all much more complex and colorful than the uni-dimensional version we allow the world to see.  To maintain this facade, we often need to neglect important parts of ourselves.  We become disconnected from all that we are, and that disconnection leads to burnout.

David Richo’s Practice of Befriending the Shadow offers a method for stretching our minds and spirits, much like yoga stretches our bodies.  Richo asks if we can be “committed in a relationship while still remaining free,” “angry at someone while still remaining loving toward this person,” ” aware of my faults while still remaining high in self esteem,” “responsibly in control of myself while still remaining spontaneous,” “flexible while still remaining true to my standards.” Many of us may wonder if this is possible; we may even feel an instant resistance to this idea.  All too often, we fall into an “either/or” or “all or none” stance that forces us to turn our backs on an entire side of our personality or option for our life.  We are unable to forgive a person for their mistake and lose valuable friendships.  One error causes us to lose our self-esteem and self-confidence. Our lives become more stressful as we fear that one spontaneous act or relaxation of our rules may call our character into question.

We can challenge our habit of closing ourselves off and, instead, intentionally begin to stretch ourselves.  What’s something you’ve wanted to do, but told yourself you can’t because it wouldn’t be in keeping with the persona you let the world see?     Would you be willing to discuss an issue you feel strongly about with someone who holds the opposite opinion, bringing an open mind and honestly hoping to discover something you might agree with?  Is there someone who has angered you, with whom you might have a conversation to hear their side of the story?  Have you doubted your ability because you’re not perfect? What do you know about your capabilities and successes that you might employ as a counterbalance?

By making a conscious effort to look at the other side – to stretch ourselves in both directions – we make more space in our lives, become more resilient, and strengthen our ability to live full and rich lives.

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Announcing the True Story Group Coaching Program for Women Physicians!

Women physicians are a unique group.  We’re smart, caring and talented.  Many of us wonder why we’re not as happy as we thought we’d be.  We used our intellect to succeed in a challenging course of study, only to find ourselves in a career that is fraught with biases that limit our opportunities, work that doesn’t stimulate us, and demands that leave little time or energy for the excitement and promise we imagined life would hold.  In our dreams, we were helping people, making a difference, and living with passion. Now, we wonder why the life we lead has so little joy. We try to solve this dilemma with the same skills that allowed us to succeed in school – hard work, perseverance, ignoring our desires and needs.  When this doesn’t work, we feel confused and stuck.

What if you could unlock this mystery and find greater freedom in your life in the next
six months?

Portrait of happy traveler girl with raised up handsThis is why I designed the True Story Physician Coaching Program.  Based on the transformational Break Through to your Great Story program developed by Lucid Living, this new, four-month virtual program is designed specifically for women who want more joy in their life as a physician.  Women who are ready to discard old beliefs that have prevented them from living the life they dreamed of.  Women who are willing to look at the ways in which they have kept themselves trapped in repeating cycles of despair and overwork by telling themselves that “this is just the way things are.”  Women who yearn to create a new story – a story that reflects what is true about their desires, talents, and strengths – and realize their dream of living authentically, with passion and joy.

Designed for busy women physicians, the program includes a preliminary, individual strategy session with me to define your personal goals for the program, eight, 75-minute live group phone calls and two, 60-minute individual coaching sessions.  There will be homework between sessions to aid you in applying what you’re learning to your own life, and a private online group for you to share your insights and receive support from the group in between sessions.  While your time investment will likely be around 5-6 hours/ month, the skills and perspectives you gain may save you countless hours in the future!

To sign up or learn more, email helanefronekmd@gmail.com.  And feel free to forward this to any woman physician who might be interested!

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Welcome, 2019! Your Year in Review

Having lived in the same city for 36 years, I tend to shop at the same places, eat out at the same places, see the same people.  I’m generally happy with that, or I would probably change my habits.  And yet, as we look forward to a new year, most of us hope it will Silhouette freedom young woman Enjoying on the hill and 2019 years while celebrating new year, copy spce.be…happier, healthier, more productive, more prosperous, more fun, filled with more time with the people we love.  Chances are, without an intentional and deliberate approach, 2019 will be a lot like 2018.

When we think about having “more” of something, we need to know our starting point.  What made us happy and where was happiness missing?  In what ways do we feel unhealthy now?  What opportunities exist for us to become more productive or prosperous?  What was fun and in what ways can we fill 2019 with more of that? Who are the important people in our lives and how can we connect more?

I offer this Year in Review as a structure for you to take stock of your experience of 2018. Each question will prompt you to discover something important about the year you’ve lived and encourage you to create a vision and goals for the year ahead.  Each of us has the opportunity to make 2019 MORE of everything we want.  It just requires our attention, creativity, and commitment.

  1. Whom did I meet this year that is now in my life?   What do I value about this relationship?  If I’ve learned something significant from this person, how can I put it to use in other areas of my life?  In what ways do I want to develop this relationship in the coming year?
  2. How did I honor myself by attending to my mental, physical and spiritual health?  How might I make my own health a priority in 2019?
  3. What did I do that completely surprised me?  What allowed me to do this? As we know ourselves better, we become more confident and are able to use our talents in more intentional and productive ways.  Since you surprised yourself by doing this (and are obviously more capable than you thought!), what else might you want to do?
  4. What is the biggest challenge I faced?  What was difficult about this?  What internal and external supports helped me overcome this challenge?  How might I put these supports to use with other challenges I’m facing?
  5. In what area(s) of my life did I make progress?  What’s the next step I want to take with this?
  6. What am I still tolerating?  What do I want to do about that?
  7. Whom did I help?  What talents and skills did I use? Where else might they be of service?
  8. What am I most grateful for?  How might I show my appreciation or experience more of this in the coming year?
  9. What were the most fun times I had? How can I have more fun in 2019?
  10. In what ways do I want the coming year to be the same?  How do I want it to be different? What is the first step I can take toward that end?

With my warmest wishes for a year of authentically being you – bringing your desires, passions, and gifts to every area of your life.  The world is in need of everything you can offer.  And in this way, 2019 will be filled with more of everything you want.


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I am here. I am seen. Let 2019 be the year of authenticity, encourages a physician coach.

As I sit in our Cape Town hotel, I’m reminded of a story in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, where Peter Senge describes a South African tribe whose members greet each other not with, “Hello,” but by saying, “I see you.” In response to this is, the other person replies, “I am here.”  There’s a lot of substance in this interaction.

Most people yearn to be seen and to be here, living their life fully and authentically.

Searching for the right one Magnifying glass focusing on red manI can offer innumerable examples of people NOT being seen.  Physicians who aren’t valued for their excellent patient care because they are viewed as less productive than some of their peers.  Budding leaders who are passed over because those in leadership positions don’t take the time to notice their skills and desire to contribute.  Even our daughter’s basketball coach, who never appreciated which players were best at guarding, dribbling or sinking 3-point shots and let the talents of the girls go unutilized.  It’s frustrating to not have people recognize what we have to offer – to not “see” us.  It makes us doubt our own value.  We wonder if we’re not seen because there’s nothing remarkable to see.

But being seen is just half of the equation.  What about the part when we say, “I am here?”  The part when we show up authentically and contribute in meaningful ways.

Much has been written about what holds us back from bursting out as the full version of ourselves.  We fear we won’t be good enough or won’t be accepted.  We secretly believe we’ve managed to fool people by hiding who we are and that, if they discover what’s lurking behind the facade we present to the world, they won’t like or respect us.  The truth is, as Dr. Seuss so aptly advised,  “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I’ve written before about my beloved cousin, who stayed hidden for decades.  Now living as the transgender woman she is, she is a dynamic and positive force in her community, bringing people together to support important causes.  While there have been difficulties in her transition, the aliveness with which she now lives is inspiring and she has found acceptance and a sense of purpose that eluded her for many years.  Until she decided to allow herself to be known, no one could actually “see” her. The “catch-22” is that, while we desperately want people to see and accept us, when we pretend to be someone we’re not, we never allow that to happen.  We distrust any acceptance we receive because we secretly know that it is not our true self who is being accepted.

The new year offers us a natural point in time to consider how we want our life to be different.  As we prepare to usher in 2019, what aspect of yourself do you really want people to recognize?  How can you let people know what you have to offer?  In what way can you “be here” so that others can “see” the real you?   Only by showing up as our authentic self can we bring our gifts to the world, connect with others and be accepted.  Imagine how exciting 2019 will be if we each commit to living like that.

To be here.  And to be seen.


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