Un-sticking the Regulator

I grew up in a fiery household. My parents clashed with one another, often. And yet, despite this we had a steady stream of visitors who seemed to find comfort within our chaos.

My Mum would be the one inviting them in. She'd offer the shoulder to cry on, the emotional support to anyone who needed it. She even invited someone for Christmas lunch she met in the queue at the supermarket one time. My Dad, forever the extreme rationalist, would offer the practical assistance. Provide the framework for enacting change. I saw how people benefited from both of my parents. I also saw how they each could get hurt by their extreme positions; Dad from being too guarded and Mum not guarded enough.

Despite my gender, I am much more wired like my Dad, but I have always had great admiration for my Mum. I recognised early on that if I wanted to be of service to others then I needed a way to achieve some sort of balance between the emotional and rational approach. And I wanted to be in service of others, without question.

I've always been pretty good at internally regulating this balance in my personal life, but my professional life has been a different story. When I started working in a hospital my internal regulator turned fully toward the rational and there it stayed.

It was a natural response to the environment I suppose. Steep learning curve, mistakes that can end up in harming someone or at the very least hurt your reputation. Focusing on the technical suited me well and I was rewarded for my rationalist approach. It helped form a protective mechanism which enabled me to work in emotionally challenging areas like the paediatric intensive care unit and not get consumed by it. And PICU was full of sad stories.

One day when I was visiting PICU I came across a situation that put a great big dent in my protective shield. I saw a mother sitting and cradling her small baby, all swaddled up in hospital blankets as newborns often are. But I could see that this baby was no longer living. It had died earlier that day and she was spending her last moments with it before saying goodbye. Sitting silently in her sorrow.

I was asked by the nurse if I could organise the antibiotics for the family. They needed to be treated for whooping cough. I felt as though she wasn't just asking me to organise medication, she was tasking me with delivering the family a physical token of the fact that one of them was the responsible for that baby's death.

As much as I would've liked to avoid doing this, my rational nature won out. Thinking through the scenario it became clear to me that if I wanted to do my job of providing them with the information they needed then I couldn't ask them to collect their medication from the dispensary like everyone else. They didn't need to be around other people, and I couldn't risk someone inadvertently adding to their distress. I had to deliver it to them in person. I needed to understand their situation and tailor my approach accordingly.

When I brought the medication to the family I found a group of people who were completely and utterly exhausted. Too exhausted to be emotional. Nothing left to fake a smile. An empty kind of shared silence that I'd never encountered before. They didn't need any small talk. They didn't need any attempts at sympathy or empty platitudes from me. All I had to do was quietly and respectfully provide them with their drugs, basic instructions and written information they could refer to later. Let them get out of there as quickly as possible.

That day I experienced something that I'd only really known intellectually up until then. When your business is dealing with people the most rational thing you can possibly do is consider their emotional perspective. Its not about being fluffy, it just makes sense.

I was reminded of what I learned growing up that day and started to use my internal regulator in my professional world. I'd like to say it got fully recalibrated then and there, but it was more like it got unstuck. Bit by bit, with practice I get better at using it to dial up the right mix of emotional and rational approach to suit the situation in front of me. I don't always get it right, but one thing's for sure, I've become a more compassionate and effective professional because of it.