Healthcare Professional Burnout and Resilience

The Stigma of Being a Superfeeler

There are certain traits that are rewarded by our culture and certain traits that are stigmatized. Take, for example, a child who is labeled as “sensitive.” Being sensitive is something that we often discourage. I hear it all the time from parents when they bring their child to see me. We tell our kids to “toughen up” and grow a “thicker skin.”

What happens over time, however, is that such children begin to dislike a part of themselves. This stigma becomes internalized over time. If being sensitive is bad and sensitive people are bad…then I must be bad too. Internalized stigma can have a powerful influence on shaping an individual’s self-esteem as they grow into their teen years. Sometimes, the stigma of being sensitive can discourage very bright children from certain helping professions.

Within health care, sensitivity stigma takes on a whole different meaning. I remember one of my first encounters as a third-year medical student. A patient was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer and was dying. My preceptor encouraged me to visit her yet I felt paralyzed with fear that I would not be able to handle the emotions in this situation. I tried to share this with friends and colleagues and was told that I needed to be stronger and stop being “so sensitive.”

I approached much of my medical training with a new resolve, I was going to be compassionate on the inside but neutral on the outside. I even remember arguing with residency classmates about crying in front of patients. “How could you do that?” I argued, “It is so unprofessional.”

My AMS Phoenix sponsored work on reducing stigma helped reconcile the personal and professional tensions within. One of the earliest discoveries from my research was that well-intentioned physicians and nurses will avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable and ineffective. In healthcare, we all live in a toxic soup where being emotional or being comfortable with emotions is highly discouraged and stigmatized as weakness or being “unprofessional.” Yet our patients often tell us that when they can see our humanity, they feel a connection that immeasurably improves the quality of their care. The curriculum we have developed focuses on fighting against automatic avoidance behaviors by promoting openness and engagement through core empathy and perspective taking skills.

Breaking down the impenetrable layers of defense we build through our training can not only improve things for our patients; they can also improve things for our organizations and ourselves. With health worker burnout reaching epic proportions, we must fight the stigma against self-care that leads to poor mental health outcomes for ourselves and our colleagues. Within our organizations, the courage to be vulnerable is an increasingly recognized superpower that helps foster healthier, more inclusive and productive working environments.

Clinically, I refer to sensitive kids as “superfeelers.” Instead of framing their sensitivity as a weakness, I teach them that being sensitive is a super power. But with great power, comes great responsibility. In addition to knowing that they have a unique ability to feel the emotions of others that will help them be better helpers, carers and leaders, the challenge for a superfeeler is to hone their powers by learning to self-regulate. We teach them to learn to feel their emotions without letting them hijack their brain.

Next time you come across a superfeeler, think back about your healthcare experiences and the importance of sharing humanity between individuals within these encounters. Lets celebrate the superfeelers among us and start seeing sensitivity as a superpower.

About the author

Dr. Javeed Sukhera

Dr. Javeed Sukhera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University and practices Psychiatry at London Health Sciences Centre. He is a 2015 AMS Phoenix Fellow.

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One thought on “The Stigma of Being a Superfeeler

  • A really great article that I relate to very much … it is indeed a superpower which I thinks makes us activly human. Otherwise we are just machines doing mecical work. Thank you very much.

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