Self-forgiveness, self-healing and the doctor’s dilemmaBy Rafael Castillo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Last week, we discussed in this column the powerful healing effect of forgiving other people who may have wronged us in whatever way. I received quite a number of feedback through my e-mail and via text messages.
Dr. Abet Atilano from the University of Santo Tomas Hospital, says: “I agree a hundred percent with your observation! I’m beginning to feel better now as I’m slowly learning to forgive…,” and he gives a list of people who have wronged humanity or the Filipino people—the likes of Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and even some local corrupt politicians such as a former president charged with multiple cases of plunder.
A reader from Pangasinan, who requests not to be identified, shares that she used to be a physical and mental wreck because she couldn’t forgive her philandering husband; and worse, she couldn’t find the guts to confront him. She finally came to her senses and “held the bull by its horns,” as she describes it. They underwent counseling, and by the way she sounded, it looks like everything is fine in their marriage life and with her health. “My insomnia, ulcer symptoms, and even itchiness in the body vanished even if I don’t take anything for them anymore,” she says.
Learn how to forgive ourselves
Edwin Reyes of Quezon City shares something very important, which is actually the other side of the act of forgiving. “We should learn how to forgive ourselves, too, just as we forgive others when they do us some wrong,” he says. I can’t agree with him more, for indeed, feelings of guilt and over expression of remorse for whatever wrong one may have done in the past can also create havoc—not only in one’s nerves, but physical health, too.
Dr. Tim Ong, a doctor who coaches people to deal with all sorts of emotional conflicts, writes in his blogsite that he has a poster in the waiting room of his clinic that says “Self-forgiveness is essential for healing.” He always asks patients to read it so they would “realize that some physical illnesses are just manifestations of unresolved emotions and conflicts.”
He explains that in many instances, these unresolved emotions have to do with anger and self-blame, which are actually two sides of the same coin. “The difference is that with anger, we direct the negative emotion outward at an external object or person while we direct it inwardly at ourselves in self-blame,” Dr. Tim says.
Both emotions are trigger factors that may actually lead to various symptoms, and if unresolved, to more complicated medical problems. Some researchers even believe that these negative emotions are closely linked with cancer.
Doctors should also exercise self-forgiveness, Dr. Tim advises. It’s true that doctors carry on their shoulders a heavy responsibility such that their role is described as playing the role of “little gods.” They make vital decisions for their patients and some of these decisions can spell the difference between life and death. And not too infrequently, despite best efforts, the patients deteriorate, and may even die. After all, the science of medicine has no answers yet for all medical problems.
Many doctors, especially the ones who are still new in medical practice, would spend sleepless nights asking themselves where they could have gone wrong. Would the patient have lived had they decided on another treatment or another path of intervention? The questions just won’t cease in one’s mind, and no answer seems to be good enough. I have heard of a few doctors who have decided to quit medical practice and just embark on another career because of this dilemma.
“No doctor with a conscience can continue to provide quality healthcare to his patients if he allows such guilt to haunt him indefinitely” Dr. Tim reminds. “Self-blame in such a case is not only harmful to the doctor himself but to the patients he has to treat every day.”
That is the reason a doctor usually undergoes several more years of residency and fellowship training after nine years of medical education to hone his or her decision-making ability further. And the longer one has been in medical practice, the better one becomes in tempering the science of medicine, so one does not only decide by the books, but by the wisdom of his experience. And part of this wisdom is knowing that doctors are not the real healers, but are just instruments of the One above.
Realizing this, the doctor should not take the glory when a patient with critical illness lives; nor should he grieve, question and blame himself, when such patient dies.