Frustration in the clinic


I’m prompted to write this post because it’s something I see in social media so often – a clinician gets frustrated. Things don’t work. The person getting treatment doesn’t respond in the way that was expected. The person doesn’t look like what the clinician usually sees. The evidence doesn’t fit with practice. All the things! So I thought today I’d write about emotions and thoughts that might turn up – and what might underlie those feelings. (For people living with pain – we also have frustration in the clinic. Things don’t work out. The therapist isn’t what we expected. I’ll write more about this soon!)

Emotions are a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements (https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion). From a cognitive behavioural perspective, an event happens, we appraise it (judge it), and we experience an emotion – then we do something as a response. It’s much more complex than this, and each part interacts with the others – so we end up with a big diagram looking something like this: (from – https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Cognitive-behavioral-therapy-model-of-depression_fig1_338695579).

Instead of “depressive”, just put in “beliefs/expectations about who I am and what I can expect from myself”. This is a pretty generic model in CBT, and is well-established even if there are plenty of arguments about accuracy and adequacy!

Clinicians generally want to help. Yes, some are in it for fame or fortune (choose something else, kthx), but on the whole people enter a clinical profession because they think they can do some good, and people will “get better.” Our communities hold long-standing expectations about what seeing a health professional should entail: read Benedetti’s “The Patient’s Brain” for a much more detailed description of the historical and evolutionary basis for a therapeutic encounter.

Why does this matter? Because it sets the scene for how we think a therapeutic encounter should go.

Rules and assumptions about what “ought” to, or “should” happen often underlie emotions.

We’re happy when all the things line up and the patient does what we expect of patients while the clinician does things that work. When things don’t go to plan (ie our expectations are violated) that’s when we get some feelings, and they can be pretty big.

What do we expect from patients?

Despite moves towards person-centred care where patients are seen as people and clinicians offer options rather than dictate orders, our societies still hold expectations about the roles a patient and a clinician should play.

Patients are expected to seek help when they’re sick. They’re expected to be truthful about their symptoms, and tell clinicians everything that is relevant about their condition – AND about any other aspect of their health, even if it’s not immediately relevant to their current problem. Symptoms experienced by patients are expected to be what the clinician expects, and the disease a patient has should fit within “typical” parameters (usually based on males). Patients are also expected to follow instructions, not do things that go against instructions, and of course, to get better. Patients are meant to be grateful for their treatment, even if it’s disruptive, has unpleasant side effects, or isn’t 100% effective. Patients should do their best all the time.

As a corollary, clinicians have a huge number of expectations they take on (and are given!). Some of us have these explicitly handed to us during our training, while others find they’re an implicit set of assumptions that we adopt, perhaps in the guise of “being professional.”

What do we expect from clinicians?

Clinicians expect to be in control in the clinical encounter. We’re expected to know what to ask about, and from this, what to test for. We’re expected to have the answers, and be right. We’re also expected to be calm, caring and focused – even when our personal lives are topsy-turvy. We’re meant to know what the patient wants, and how to give that to them. We’re also expected to be up-to-date, do no harm, change our practice according to evidence (even when that evidence is contradictory, or just emerging), and to stay interested in our work even if we’ve been doing it for years.

We’re expected to know our scope of practice, but practice using a broad “whole person” framework even if we were never trained to do this. We think we should be compassionate and caring, even if we were selected for training on the basis of our academic prowess and not on emotional literacy. We must take on responsibility for outcomes, even though we’re not there to “make sure” the patient “does what they’re told” in their own time. We assume when we tell someone to do something, they’ll drop everything in their life to do it – because their health should matter most, and even when other things in their life matter more.

Clinicians can be expected to practice independently from the moment they qualify, and are either “right” or “wrong” and never shades of in between. Clinicians expect that if something goes wrong, and the person doesn’t get better, it’s either the person’s fault (they didn’t do what they should have done), or the clinician has done something wrong and made a wrong diagnosis, or chosen the wrong treatment (or the treatment was right but the intensity was wrong…. so just do it again). And clinicians shouldn’t ask for emotional help because that means they’re “too emotionally invested” or “not distanced enough.”

Expectations suck

We all have them. And the ones I’ve listed above, while not always present, often underpin the way we expect clinical encounters to go. Many of them are implicit, so we don’t even realise we hold them – until BAM! Something goes wrong.

When expectations are violated, we feel emotions and some of these can be pretty strong. Many are less strong, just little niggles, little irritations, a bit of cynicism, some disappointment, some frustration. And they go both ways: people seeking help, and people trying to help. Over time, violated expectations feel like your head hitting against a brick wall, or swimming against the tide, or just plain demoralisation or even burnout.

Ways through them

Some of us have professionally-endorsed support systems to help us. Occupational therapists and psychologists have mandatory clinical supervision with someone who is there for you, who supports your development as a clinician, who challenges your assumptions, who pokes and prods at your reactions, who encourages taking a broader view. Individual clinicians in other professions may also pick up on using supervision in this way.

Some of us don’t have that kind of support. So we seek it elsewhere – I suppose, in part, I started writing this blog those years ago to “find my tribe.” Social media is one way we get affirmation, validation and even (sometimes!) great ideas to help us shift our approach.

Some clinicians leave their profession, do something else that’s more lucrative and less emotional effort. Some move out of practice and into academia. Some use “outside work” interests to blow off steam, or give emotional space.

Some of us are a little fused with the assumptions we hold. It’s hard to create a little space around those assumptions, because they’re held so tightly (or they’re so deeply buried). When we do get a tap on the shoulder suggesting our beliefs are out of whack it can feel so terribly humiliating, so inherently WRONG that we shut off, or bite back.

Creating “wiggle room”

Slowing down is a good way to begin creating some space to feel what is showing up when we’re feeling frustration. This could be by taking one or two minutes at the end of a session to be present. Yes, a little mindfulness to notice what is present in the body. To be OK with being aware of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations. NOT TO CHANGE THEM! To simply be with them. (An explanation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9NkUomOO_w). This helps in many ways, but it does not (and isn’t intended to) reduce them. It helps you notice that you’re having feelings. It helps you pay attention to your own state of mind. It can create a moment to ask yourself “I wonder why I feel this way?” It can help you be more present with the next person you see because you’re not carrying those feelings into the next encounter.

Reflective practice is another way to create some space to be human, feel things, be curious about why they happen, and check in with your own values. A great resource that’s freely available is Positive Professional practice: a strength-based reflective practice teaching model – it might be a ‘teaching’ model, but clinicians teach All The Time!

Taking small steps, making small changes

The first step towards making a change is knowing that it’s needed. And the second is knowing that it’s possible. The third? Knowing what to do. I hope these suggestions help a little in this seldom-discussed aspect of practice. My own preference is to question WHY do we hold these expectations? WHO made them a thing? WHAT purpose do they serve? WHEN might those expectations be a good thing – and when might they not? WHERE can we nudge just a little to make change? And preferably, as clinicians, I think it’s OUR job to make the adjustments because we’re not ill or sore or seeking help.

Some references:

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing Clinicians’ Well-Being and Patient-Centered Care Through Mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16. https://doi.org/10.1097/CEH.0000000000000021

Huft, J. (2022). The History and Future of the Sociology of Therapy: a Review and a Research Agenda. The American Sociologist, 53(3), 437-464. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-022-09534-3

McGarry, J., Aubeeluck, A., & De Oliveira, D. (2019). Evaluation of an evidence-based model of safeguarding clinical supervision within one healthcare organization in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 17 Suppl 1, S29-S31. https://doi.org/10.1097/XEB.0000000000000180

Spencer, K. L. (2018). Transforming Patient Compliance Research in an Era of Biomedicalization. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(2), 170-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146518756860

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