Letters from Maine

In search of an ear


On our way up north to go backcountry skiing with another couple, we stopped at a roadside restaurant/tavern for lunch. We seated ourselves and, after a long 10 minutes, our waitperson arrived like a tornado, looking frazzled. She offered an apology and the first installment of her tale of woe. Before taking our order, she explained it all began when her car wouldn’t start, and then her day care provider called to say that she was sick and our server would have to find some other arrangement for the day. When our meal finally arrived, it looked appetizing but didn’t quite match our order. Again, our waitperson apologized, adding that it has been a particularly hard week because her husband was out of town and not around to help with her three children.

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Had we been dining at a high-end restaurant with a white tablecloth and a candle, we would have considered our server’s behavior unprofessional and off-putting. However, we were in no hurry as the light snow had turned to a ski-unfriendly drizzle. While our original intent had been to simply have lunch, we accepted our role as a sympathetic audience for this unfortunate woman. In fact, we asked a few open-ended questions to help the cathartic process along.

The need to share one’s troubles seems to be a universal human trait. Our server had no illusions that we were going to provide any solutions to her problems. Nor was she seeking any expression of sympathy beyond our patience. However, I’m sure that unburdening herself by telling the story made her feel better, at least temporarily. Hopefully, there would be additional understanding diners to help her through the day.

For many people, the workplace serves as a therapeutic outlet where they can share their troubles and concerns. At times, the whining can be annoying to coworkers but in general, woe sharing is a harmless and valuable perk of having a job. Unless, of course, one’s job is primarily serving the public.

As physicians we are accustomed listening to our patients’ troubles. However, our job is not one of those that affords much opportunity to unburden ourselves of our own concerns. The patients assume that we are the problem solvers and don’t have any of our own. Or, if we do have some troubles, their office visit is not the time for us to share them.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The occasional sharing, such as that we are running late because we’ve had a flat on the way to the office, is harmless and can remind patients that we are human. But one must be careful stay off the slippery slope that leads to unprofessional oversharing.

Without that luxury of a workplace that allows for occasional catharsis, physicians have an additional risk for burnout. There are no easy solutions. Sharing with patients is unprofessional. Our peers are as busy as we are and probably don’t have the time to listen. Or at least they don’t seem to have the time. And then there is that ego-vulnerability issue where we are hesitant to reveal to anyone, be they staff or peers, that we have a soft underbelly.

I don’t have any easy answers to the problem beyond the usual suggestion that, when your troubles seem overwhelming, find someone with whom you can share your story, such as clergy, counselor, or mental health worker. Personally, I have to admit that, when my bad day was the result of an accumulation of minor bumps, I would follow our waitperson’s example and share them selectively with patients whom I deluded myself into believing had the time and concern to listen. It probably was unprofessional, but it made me feel better.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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