The Gift of Unhappiness: A Physician Coach suggests we get better at feeling, not just at feeling better

Many years ago I saw a patient who was anxious about undergoing treatment. She came in wearing boxer shorts purchased by her son that were intended to help her have a Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 11.29.09 AMlighter attitude – they had yellow smiley faces on them with the saying, “Don’t worry…be happy.” While she appreciated her son’s caring, I’m not sure they diminished her discomfort.
We live in a society that emphasizes happiness. Steven Hayes, Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada says, “We believe that the only way to feel good is a bottle in front of me or a frontal lobotomy, and neither is good.” He explains that in our desire to feel good and not feel bad, we focus on not feeling bad, which eventually leads us to not feel at all. We keep ourselves overly busy, overly distracted, and many times overly medicated so we don’t feel anything unpleasant. (Anti-depressant medication can often balance our neurotransmitters and allow us to better cope with our life – then we can critically look at what we can change or need to accept.) Instead, Dr. Hayes encourages us to look at our unhappiness as a “gift.”

Often, when a client is stuck on an issue, I will ask, “what do you want?” The response is usually, “that’s a great question.” As I’ve written about before (see post May 9, 2014), through the course of training and medical practice – or through the course of education and busy lives in any field – we lose our connection with what we really want. So when we feel unhappiness, it is a precious guide that something we care about isn’t happening or is getting stepped on. That unhappiness, according to Dr. Hayes, is “a gift.”

In 2008, I finally admitted to myself that I was unhappy with my practice. Instead of being excited about the patients I might help, I glanced at my schedule each day and counted the number of patients I needed to see before I could go home. Does that sound familiar to you? Although I had been doing this for a number of years, it took a while to muster the courage to acknowledge how unhappy I was. Uncertain what might come of it, I worked with a coach and realized what was missing from my professional life. A few years later, I was trained as a coach and was back, happily seeing patients, teaching medical students, and coaching other physicians who wanted to become happier with their practices and their lives. I love the variety and the fulfillment I get from watching physicians regain their love of being a doctor again. I wouldn’t have my current satisfaction if I hadn’t been willing to feel just how unhappy I was and take the steps to change my life.

If you find yourself unhappy with an aspect of your life, take a moment and ask yourself what that feeling is telling you. What do you really want? What would make that possible? What needs to change for you to have the fulfillment you long for?
Deciding not to ignore our feelings of unhappiness is the first step toward achieving a more satisfying and joyful life.

About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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