The Separated Self: Thoughts on Compartmentalization

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When we enter professional life, we are taught to present only the parts of ourselves that represent our professional accomplishments. In our resume, we list academics, jobs, and various skills, but it is frowned upon if we mention our age, family status, or non-professional interests like athletics, art, or music. As women especially, we have to be careful to downplay the roles we play as mothers. We have to appear as much like men as possible. It does not matter that as moms we are responsible, sometimes solely responsible, for the care and upbringing of future adults. We dare not mention it professionally, lest we be accused of being a woman and placed on the mommy track. It does not matter that raising children to be happy, healthy adults is an enormous responsibility, one that is perhaps more difficult than any professional achievement, and yet, in order to ‘fit in’, we are supposed to deny that portion of ourselves.

Similarly, as professionals we are supposed to downplay non-professional avocations like sports, music, art, or other endeavors; unless of course, one’s profession is that avocation. Then, however, one is granted permission to speak about those activities, but not others. Actors, musicians and athletes are not allowed to have thoughts and opinions about politics or economics or anything outside their designated professional expertise. How many times have you seen an actor or an athlete provide a thoughtful commentary on a topic unrelated their profession, but have his/her arguments dismissed not on the basis of the merits of the argument, but solely by the basis of it being outside their perceived expertise? It is as if we cannot be more than our job descriptions.

When I was younger, I bought into this notion of professional compartmentalization, and to a large degree, something called the ‘eminence of experts’ factor. I thought that there was a professional self, a mom self, an athlete self and so on. I also thought that only the experts in a particular field were worthy of attention. And then I had kids and was faced with the reality that I had to navigate a whole new world of responsibility, one that involved medical decisions, education, politics, psychology and the entire menagerie of other disciplines necessary to raise healthy kids. Gradually, the walls that neatly divided the various compartments of my life began to crumble. It did not happen overnight. In fact, I didn’t even realize that it was happening. It was longer still before I recognized that all of these selves that we construct and the rules that we employ to keep these aspects of ourselves separated, were not only untenable but dangerous to our health and our family’s health.

And you know what happened when the walls came down? Not only was I happier, and my family healthier but, in many ways, we were all just a little bit smarter. I now had a solid foundation from which to pursue my research. My kids, my life, my avocations informed not only the direction of the work but the breadth and depth at which I approached it. There were no more compartments limiting what questions I could ask or to whom I could listen for answers. Indeed, over the years, the patients who told me their stories, informed as much or more of my research as the so-called experts.

Now when I introduce myself before giving an academic talk, I introduce my whole self, as a mom, a jock, a researcher and writer. As a professional woman with a doctorate, it is almost heretical to introduce oneself as a mom, but I am mom, first and foremost, and that counts for something. Even though my children are now grown, having raised children informs everything I do. It is a part of my being that cannot and will not dissociate from myself. When I study adverse medication and vaccine reactions in children and adults, the connection with other parents is my foundation. I believe their symptoms because I can feel their pain. “What if it were my child” – is never far from my mind. Sure that is a bias, but I think it is a bias worth holding onto. In fact, I think the whole notion of complete objectivity in science, particularly clinical science, is hogwash and a fallacious one at that. There is always bias. Objectivity itself is a bias. To be objective, one has to choose not to ask certain questions, not to see what is before in order to uphold the objectivity bias, but that is longer philosophical discussion. Let us just say that if more folks were connected to the humanity of others e.g. recognized themselves or their children in others, we would never allow some of these pharmaceuticals or environmental chemicals onto the market.

When I introduce myself, I also mention that I am jock. Though not quite as taboo as one’s maternal status, it is still outside the norm for professional women to recognize their athletic passions. Again, however, that is part of who I am. Much of my perspective on life, and thus, much of my research, is informed by my lifelong participation in competitive athletics. As an athlete, for example, my perspective on pain, injury, and recovery is entirely different than that promoted by conventional medicine and non-athletes. While rest is necessitated with some injuries and illnesses for a period of time, overall, the goal is to return to activity as quickly as possible, to retrain the injury and not just bandage it or dose it with a medication. And pain, well, that is not always meant to be avoided.

Finally, when I list some of the articles I have written, I list the ones that show who I am as a person as much as my intellectual competence. In other words, the articles I choose have a fair degree of snark and passion behind them. Why? Because I want the audience to know who I am and what informs my decisions about my research, and quite frankly, those are the things I want to know about other researchers and physicians. A simple list of accomplishments tells me nothing of how another person thinks, and for me, that type of information is as important as the fact that they can think.

I believe that the compartmentalization of our different selves has been detrimental to the pursuit of medical science. When separate ourselves and our humanity from the science, we lose the very point of medicine and medical science, to help people heal and live healthy. When we lose our human connection to the science and replace it with surrogate markers of success, whether they are molecular, economic or even political, we bias the data, despite admonitions of objectivity. The goal becomes to achieve success via those markers versus to truly understand the illness or the patient. When we lose humanity, it becomes difficult to see, or more accurately, feel the pain of the patient that stands before us, particularly when his/her pain does not fit the markers that we have built our careers on. We begin to question the veracity of his or her symptoms, because we deal only with surrogate markers and not with the human standing before us. When we cannot acknowledge our different selves, how can we fully acknowledge others? We cannot. That is why compartmentalization is dangerous.

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