I was at SF state last week to assist with a motor learning class. During class I noticed a student who was in tears. I assumed that something was going on in her personal life. As her friends were surrounding her I decided to let the situation go. As the group dialogued about the exercise (learning to braid with four strands), the same girl (composed now) stood up to share. She told the class that the simple braiding exercise was a trigger for her. As she noticed her classmates understanding the instructions to braid she panicked, thinking that she would be the slowest to understand the concept. She explained that this fear stemmed from her fear of being worse by comparison—a fear that she has dealt with her whole life as a twin.
I found this particular student’s candor to be a wonderful reset button in a “fast-forward” world. I could relate all to well to her words. During high school I spent one year in Germany—3 months of those 10 months were the best of my life. The first seven months were some of the hardest. The first half of the year I lived with a family that often criticized my German speaking ability and lifestyle choices. I felt so incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin that I stopped speaking so much, developed a plaguing eating disorder, and questioned my choice to take this step away from home. I remember that the moments I spent comparing myself to others (why couldn’t I get along with my family the way the other exchange students did… why was my German so bad?). Conversely, my choice to move in with a family who clearly loved me and verbally praised my speaking ability made a striking difference in my self-confidence and German.
When deciding to pursue physical therapy, I sunk again into the world of doubt, self-loathing, and comparison with others. Although I had received a top scholarship to join my program in Colorado I struggled to make even average grades. I received my lowest grades in Neuroanatomy and experienced an incredible mental block as the semester continued—some class periods I had to talk myself through the door. It wasn’t until my last year that I began to assume the confidence of a skilled practitioner. Part of my choice to pursue a neurologic residency is to practice this confidence, which actually affects the outcomes that I see with my patients.
Beyond exuding confidence in a way that allows my patients to relax and trust me as their therapist, it is imperative that I develop insight into similar hang-ups that my patients might experience. There are so many overlays and barriers that I encounter daily to true, open communication devoid of comparison, fear, anxiety, or confusion. I recently worked with a 31 year old, status post breast cancer, who was grappling with a diagnosis of a right temporal glioma. I saw her after her excision surgery. Although her outward appearance was chipper, she was clearly fatigued and self-admittedly “confused”. I can only imagine that she fights a comparison game as well… As a successful engineer and mother, why was she dealt the cards of LiFraumeni syndrome? Why can’t she be like everyone else?
In light of my recent experiences it is my intention to show more compassion to both myself and those I work with. I plan to emulate that DPT student by asking my question, no matter how ignorant it might seem or by stopping thoughts of comparison as they arise. When working with my patients on the ICU floor, I will seek to provide outcome measures that show a need for progress but are not self-defeating. I will use my words carefully, expressing confidence in my patients. Always, it is my intention to know the person that I work with in order to best understand their personal hang-ups, heartaches, and aspirations. While I cannot avoid every trigger, I can live in a way that gives grace to myself and those around me… whether we can quickly braid with four strands or not.
PS As a quick follow-up, I was able to tell the student how much her sharing meant to me. She and I are hoping to catch up over coffee at some point soon.