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Is Resentment the Ugly Stepsister to Perfectionism? Why Challenging Patients Can Trigger Resentment in Doctors and Nurses

I have a secret. It’s one I think many physicians and nurses share. Sometimes, when I’m stretched too thin — overbooked, hungry, tired, fielding yet another appeal to an insurance company in the middle of a clinic day — I find myself momentarily resenting the patients on my schedule.

As soon as this happens, I feel immediate guilt. These are the worst moments of my day. Why the heck would I resent my patients? They’re the entire reason I’m there. I wouldn’t be a physician without patients to care for. I became a physician, and completed subspecialty training, to help patients. People.

Recently, I started thinking more about this emotion of resentment. What exactly is it, and where does it come from? Is what I’m feeling actually resentment? Or is it something else?

Two books I’ve recently read have helped me explore the complicated emotion of resentment and how it might play a role in burnout for both physicians and nurses.

First, Brené Brown’s most recent book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, provides a roadmap for 87 of our human emotions. (That’s right — 87!)

One emotion of the 87 that she shares has been a particular struggle for her has been our good old friend, resentment.

In her book, Dr Brown shares that she initially considered resentment to belong to the anger family of emotion. As I read this, I agreed. When I feel resentful, I associate that with feeling angry.

But she then writes about her discovery that resentment, in fact, belongs to the envy family. She explains how this discovery shook her world. I had to close the book for a moment at this point.

Wait a minute, I thought. If resentment is in the envy family, why do we (physicians) often find ourselves resenting patients who take up our time? What are we envious of?

I took some time to think about how this might be true. Could it be that I’m envious they have the time I don’t have? I want to have all the time in the world to answer their questions, but the reality is I don’t.

Or maybe it’s because sometimes I feel the patient is expecting me to offer them something more than is available. A cure when there might be none.

But is this actually true? Or is this my unrealistic expectation of myself?

Here’s how Brené Brown defines resentment in her book: “Resentment is the feeling of frustration, judgment, anger, ‘better than,’ and/or hidden envy related to perceived unfairness or injustice. It’s an emotion that we often experience when we fail to set boundaries or ask for what we need, or when expectations let us down because they were based on things we can’t control, like what other people think, what they feel, or how they’re going to react.”

Wow, I thought, Healthcare checks all of these boxes.

  • Perceived unfairness of work schedules? Check.

  • Perceived injustice? Of course — we see that in our dealings with insurance company denials every day.

But those are both extrinsic. What about the intrinsic factors she’s calling us out on here?

  • Do we, as physicians, fail to set boundaries?

  • Do we fail to ask for what we need?

Hard yes and yes. (Do we even know, as physicians, what our own boundaries are?)

And the last one:

  • Do our expectations of how our clinic day will go let us down every day because they’re based on things we can’t control?

My brain had to repeat the critical parts of that: Expectations let us down when they’re based on things we can’t control.

But wait, my brain argued back; I’m the physician, I thought I was supposed to get to control things.

Next, the revelation: Could it be that a key to experiencing less resentment is accepting how much control we don’t have in a typical day?

And a corollary: How much does resentment factor into burnout? (To read more on my personal journey with burnout, see this piece).

It so happens that around this same time, I was reading another excellent book, Changing How We Think About Difficult Patients: A Guide for Physicians and Healthcare Professionals, by Joan Naidorf, DO.

Dr Naidorf is an emergency medicine physician of 30 years who wrote the book to “provid[e] insight and tools to manage our negative thoughts about difficult patients” and help “beleaguered colleagues…return to their benevolent guiding principles and find more enjoyment in their vitally important careers.”

As I read Dr Naidorf’s book, I thus did so with the mindset of wanting to further understand for myself where this specific emotion of resentment toward our “difficult” patients could come from and how to best understand it in order to get past it.

Naidorf writes, “Challenging patients will never stop appearing… You cannot change them or control them—the only person you can control is you.”

I wondered how much the resentment we might involuntarily feel at being asked to see a “difficult” patient has nothing to do with the patient but everything to do with it making us feel not in control of the situation.

Naidorf also writes, “Negative thoughts about challenging patients can cause, in otherwise capable clinicians, a sense of inadequacy and incompetence.”

Do we perhaps resent our challenging patients because of the negative thoughts they sometimes trigger in us? If so, how does this relate to envy, as Dr Brown asserts resentment is tied to? Is it triggering us to feel inadequate?

“[Difficult patients] often make us question ourselves,” Naidorf writes, “and we need to feel comfortable with the answers.”

Again, the discrepancy between expectations and reality creates the negative emotion.

Or, as Naidorf writes, “What if you could stop judging others so harshly and accept them exactly as they are?”

Hmmm, I thought, then the cessation of harsh judgment and implementation of acceptance would have to apply to us too. The elusive concept of self-compassion.

Maybe the resentment/envy comes from us not allowing ourselves to behave in this way because to do so would allow too much vulnerability. Something most of us were conditioned to avoid to survive medical training.

Dr Brown also writes about an “aha” moment she had in her struggle to understand resentment. “I’m not mad because you’re resting. I’m mad because I’m so bone tired and I want to rest. But, unlike you, I’m going to pretend that I don’t need to.”

I felt all too seen in that passage. Could it be my old nemesis, perfectionism, creeping its way back in? Is resentment the ugly stepsister to perfectionism?

Perhaps challenging patients can engender resentment because they make us feel like we’re not living up to our own unrealistic expectations. And in that case, we need to change our unrealistic expectations for ourselves.

Dr Naidorf’s book explores much more on the complex matter of what makes a “difficult” patient, but I chose to focus here only on the resentment piece as a tie-in to Dr Brown’s book. I highly recommend both books for further reading to help physicians and nurses navigate the complex emotions our jobs can trigger.

Most importantly, recognizing that we have these transient negative emotions does not make us bad people or healthcare professionals. It only makes us human.

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About Dr Jennifer Lycette
Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, is a rural community hematologist-oncologist, mom of three, and recovering perfectionist who’s writing her way back from physician burnout, one word at a time. Her essays have been published in
The Intima, The New England Journal of Medicine,
JAMA Oncology,
Journal of Clinical Oncology,
The ASCO Post, and more. Connect with her on Twitter
@JL_Lycette or her

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