“I’m Sorry I Have To Hurt You In Order To Heal You”

*Photo credit Monique Feil

I’ve been lucky to mostly avoid hospitals, at least as a patient. Other than childbirth, I was always on the practitioner side of being in hospitals- which is not always a good thing. As portrayed in the movie The Doctor, any doctor who has ever been a patient will become a better doctor, if for no other reason than the empathy being a patient in a traumatizing system elicits.

I have, however, been a recurring dental patient.  Because of some congenital mouth and jaw abnormalities, I had about twenty dental surgeries before the age of 18, which were incredibly traumatic for a young child. Every dental visit since then evokes extreme anxiety, bordering on panic attacks. I know I’m not alone in this. Millions of us have been traumatized by medical or dental settings, including the doctors, nurses, and dentists among us. We’ll be addressing the issue of “medical trauma” in my upcoming online workshop Healing Medical Trauma. Sign up here before we begin May 9.

A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way

At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were still in lockdown and dentists weren’t considered “essential workers,” I had a dental emergency because one of those former dental procedures failed and needed to be replaced. One dental problem cascaded into another, and I wound up having to get many more dental surgeries as soon as the first emergency dentist opened his office again. This was scary to many of my “parts.” Not only can you not wear a mask when you’re getting a dental procedure; it also reactivated all those young dental traumas from my early life.

As soon as the drill began its shrill torture, my body began to shake. Then the dentist, who I’d never met before, began to chastise me for flinching. I flushed with shame and started crying, then I felt humiliated for being so sensitive. The dentist didn’t say or do anything to comfort me, but I was lucky to know how to self-regulate during the procedure- not only by putting in my guided meditation earphones, but by visualizing an Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT) practice that I usually do more somatically than visually.

After calming my nervous system a bit, I was able to identify the part that was crying, offer some comfort to the scared little child that was getting reactivated, and calm the part that felt filled with shame for being so sensitive. In my mind’s eye, I held my parts in my arms and let the little one cry it out. I could feel my nervous system start to calm down right as the dental tech asked me to open my mouth so he could do something that was quite painful.

With the kindest voice, the dental tech said, “I’m sorry I have to hurt you in order to heal you.” He held out a hand, squeezed mine, handed me a tissue, and gazed at me with the tenderest eyes. My dentist didn’t seem to give a shit that I was distressed, but this act of kindness on the part of the dental tech offset some of my dentist’s absence of empathy. Those gentle words were a balm to my physical and emotional pain.

The Paradox of Healing & Harming

As patients, we often need this kind of sensitive acknowledgment of what we’re going through, but sometimes it’s sorely missing. As an OB/GYN, I know that I’ve been guilty of being insensitive when a patient might have needed more sensitivity on my end. There’s no excuse for insensitivity on the part of health care providers- ever. But I can cop to feeling some cognitive dissonance when patients were screaming in pain. How could I be causing so much distress in a patient when I’d suffered through the masochism of medical training in order to relieve the suffering of others, not cause it? How could I resolve my self-image as a healer when it was evident I was also a harmer?

It took me years after leaving the hospital to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that it’s impossible to help others without also sometimes harming them. Even those with the very best intentions- doctors, therapists, nurses- we all both heal and harm. Facing this head on can be a kind of narcissistic injury for some health care providers. If we can’t tolerate that cringey reality, we won’t be capable of extending the kind of empathy my dental tech did.

As health care providers, we need to let ourselves sit with the discomfort that yes, in the process of trying to help others, we often also hurt them. If we can at least be honest about this paradox, we can do less damage. And if we dare to extend an olive branch of compassion, as that sweet dental tech did, we can ameliorate the harm done.

To discuss issues like this and learn the kinds of healing tools I used in the dentist’s chair to relieve some of my distress in the moment, join me and seven other hand-picked healers, for Healing Medical Trauma, a multi-disciplinary approach to healing a vast wound.

Learn more and register before May 9 here.