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The Hidden Trap of Letting a Health(Care) Label Define You

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

by Stephanie MoDavis

It’s easy to fall into the trap of internalizing the label of “patient” or “healthcare provider” as encompassing one’s entire identity. But allowing any narrative to wholly consume our sense of self carries psychological risks that impact care relationships and maybe more importantly personal intrinsic growth.

Extensive research shows that assigning narrow categorizations activates unconscious bias and expectations that color future interactions, both externally and internally. Patients pigeon-holed as the “typical fibro case” or “non-compliant diabetic” report feeling dehumanized when providers engage through these limited filters rather than seeing their complex, dynamic personhood, being open to their subjective experience.

Similarly, scientists, doctors and nurses locked into the “detached expert” archetype often suppress emotional needs for connection. Again this can be a reflection of the inner or unconscious fragmentation we as humans contend with.  As psychologist Carl Rogers noted, “The more I am simply willing to understand, the more therapeutic change seems to follow.” Disconnected clinicians rely on rote protocols rather than building equitable partnerships vital for healing.

Over-attachment to positional status also perpetuates harmful hierarchy. Patients inclined towards learned helplessness cede all authority to providers’ intellectualized expertise. This compliant stance hinders owning one’s inner wisdom and self-efficacy so critical for optimal outcomes. In contrast, providers may become blind in the ways they attempt to connect when they are told what to say rather than putting the work into embodying the “correct” language.

Recently a patient, understanding the attempts toward greater provider empathy, met with a decorated physican. After expressing concerns with a recent proposed treatment protocol, out of context the physician declared, "it must be hard to be a patient." The patient, not looking for sympathy, responded, well it must be hard to be a doctor.” This underscores that providing care requires more than a list of buzz words or actions. Many long term patients are self aware and not in need of victimhood speech. This widens the gap toward authentic communication.

It is quite possible that the work of provider self and psychic development is overshadowed by acts of “service.” But what happens when the authenticity and self awareness the patient brings to the table overshadow that which the provider brings? This breeds communication misunderstandings and can block the power of healing relationships. When we recognize the true potential of authenticity amongst equal partcipants surronding the health process, we can then embody true care. As one "patient" stated,

I've always felt I couldn't be my true self with my providers. The more I am myself, the more uncomfortable I make them.

Conversely, paternalistic clinicians who consciously resist patient empowerment implicitly defend their upper rank rather than fostering collaborative strength. Research shows hierarchy itself breeds toxicity – the lower one’s status, the higher instances of disrespect, stress and poor communication climb. We witness this with colleagues and healthcare teams as well.

The solution lies in recognizing all participants’ inherent and equal worth. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “When we see others as the Buddha sees them, we see the Buddha.” Progress depends not on sterile labels but on nurturing human bonds that invite our natural compassion. While positions naturally differ, relating first as fellow travelers seeking mutual understanding clears space for authentic healing.

All parties must take responsibility for dissolving limiting narratives by consciously cultivating respect, empathy and dignity towards every person. For when we can view life’s essential unity shining through transient roles, wisdom unfolds from a much deeper place.

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