About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

Calling All Depolarizers! Part 2: Confident Humility

 

…”So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general? Or in family conflict and workplace politics? I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.” Let’s talk about the first, which can be thought of as confident humility:

Premise:  I resist/reject/assail challenges to my beliefs and positions because I worry that those challenges will change my beliefs and positions.  If my beliefs are changed, then what does that mean?  Am I weak?  A hypocrite?  Uncommitted?  What will others think of me?  Will I get kicked out of my tribe? Or, maybe I just think I’m right, and I’m simply not open to the possible value of any other perspective? Or I’m afraid that if I’m not right, then I’m just wrong, and that feels too uncomfortable and I don’t want to go there. 

Question:  When does it feel safe to reconsider or challenge some belief I have?   

Answer:  When I don’t have a strong personal investment in my belief—it isn’t material to my identity, tribal membership, or survival, real or perceived.  In his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein summarizes eloquently the psychological research suggesting that when we perceive threats to our identity (eg gender, sexuality, sports fandom, family, nationality, political party, or other), our response is primarily emotional.  The existential discomfort (experienced as real limbic threat) causes us to reject the challenge, be it information, policies, or other people, employing confirmation bias, rationalization, and other mental self-preservation tactics. 

So, does this mean that we must dilute or divest our personal identities in order to depolarize? Certainly not. I think it does, however, require some honest reflection on how we define and relate to our various identities. Why do we get emotionally agitated about certain topics and not others? Why do debates about abortion cause some people such agitation, and some people not? Why gun control? Immigration? Transgender and sexuality issues? What is it about any particular topic, and how I identify with it, that triggers me? How does it define my in- and out-groups? And how does this constellation of thought, emotion, and behavior affect my personal well-being, relationships, social standing and security? As a result, how to I contribute to divisions or affiliations in my own social circles, and society at large through my words and actions? How much do I care about that last part?

Intrinsic psychological safety means feeling solidly grounded in my core values and the practices that manifest them—it’s a sense of quiet, confident, unassailability.  To me it means cultivating a growth mindset, confident that I am at the same time rooted down and branching out- embracing and navigating the paradox of personal conviction and intellectual humility and flexibility.  Challenging my beliefs then becomes a personal practice of learning, integrating, and cultivating complexity and depth to my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives.  I stir and knead, exercise and expand my mental elasticity and range.  Rather than diluting my positions, all of this training can actually strengthen my understanding, expression, and agility in defense of them.  It gives me the confidence to seek and welcome challenges, knowing that I have enough internal clarity to maintain my core values and also integrate important nuances that may edify them. It is a product of disciplined self-development.

In confident humility mindset, I understand that my position is not, in fact, the only ‘right’ one; it is simply one of many. “Everybody’s right, and only partially,” was one of my first life coaching lessons back in 2005, and has served me well. This mindset allows us to think of ourselves and our opinions as ‘also right.’ It frees us from the burden of having to prove ourselves or exert power over others to convert them. It opens space and time to find middle paths for creativity, collaboration, and connection.

Wonderful!  Now we know how to depolarize ourselves—how to gracefully (even joyfully) integrate personal conviction and intellectual flexibility, perhaps even to move towards advocacy without alienation.  So what holds us back from practicing these skills outwardly, vocally, especially within our own tribes?  Tune in to Part 3 on Extrinsic Psychological Safety, to consider consequences and rewards of standing up and speaking out. 

Calling All Depolarizers!  Part 1:  Who Are They (We)?

Whom in your circles would you identify as depolarizers, political or otherwise, either naturally and/or by effortful intention? 

What makes them so, and how do you think they would respond to a call to communion with fellow depolarizers?  What would that call even sound like?

How much do you see yourself as a depolarizer?

We could consider ‘boundary spanner’ as a synonym to ‘depolarizer.’  These people see and understand, at least partially, more than one side of an issue or conflict.  More importantly, they respect and value each perspective.  They listen empathetically, validate our feelings, and express (or at least seek) understanding, even if they disagree with our beliefs or positions.  Talking to them, we feel seen, heard, understood, and accepted—even loved.  Our breathing slows, our muscles relax.  What happens next is the best part—we ourselves may become more likely to also listen, empathize, understand, and validate opinions or experiences other than our own.  And voilà, we de-escalate, and the distance between us diminishes.

Effective depolarizers practice three key skills:

  1. Self-awareness: Of their own biases, triggers, core values, tendencies in conversation and groups, etc. They own these traits/patterns, and acknowledge them freely, visibly, without judgement or shame. They understand how these traits may skew their perspectives.
  2. Self-regulation: They manage their own personality traits and biases, set and maintain healthy boundaries, attune to their own needs and honor them, also out loud and visibly. They monitor the heat and tension of interactions in service of maintaining healthy relationship and personal integrity at the same time.
  3. They ask excellent questions, based on deep listening and sincere curiosity, and that are meant to deepen/broaden/add texture to conversation in relationship and connection. Their questions defuse and disarm, and invite calmer, more thoughtful reflection and engagement.

Hostage negotiators deploy these skills with precision in very high stakes encounters.  Then again, so do effective divorce mediators, middle school teachers, and parents of toddlers and adolescents, no?

So really, don’t we all have a little depolarizer in us somewhere? Do we not all have the innate capacity to relate to all other humans, to connect, through our shared needs and experiences? It is not that depolarizers have no convictions, are wishy-washy on issues, and can just be swayed from one side to another and back again. It’s that they (we) do not constantly need to be right, to convince everybody to see the world as we do, to persuade or convert. We advance our causes in various ways, not the least of which is enrolling others by way of coalition building around shared interests and goals. Depolarizers amplify connections rather than sow divisions. We focus more on growing ‘us’ than demonizing ‘them’.

So what keeps our inner depolarizer in the closet when it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, immigration, religion, and politics in general?  Or in family conflict and workplace politics?  I posit that it has, at least partially, to do with two levels of psychological safety: intrinsic and extrinsic.  More on these ideas in the next two posts!

May It Be Different This Time

“My name is Dr. Roy Guerrero. I am a board certified pediatrician and I was present at Uvalde Memorial Hospital the day of the massacre on May 24th, 2022 at Robb Elementary School. I was called here today as a witness. But I showed up because I am a doctor. Because how many years ago I swore an oath — An oath to do no harm.

After witnessing first hand the carnage in my hometown of Uvalde, to stay silent would have betrayed that oath. Inaction is harm. Passivity is harm. Delay is harm. So here I am. Not to plead, not to beg or to convince you of anything. But to do my job. And hope that by doing so it inspires the members of this House to do theirs.

I have lived in Uvalde my whole life. In fact, I attended Robb Elementary School myself as a kid. As often is the case with us grown ups, we remember a lot of the good and not so much of the bad. So I don’t recall homework or spelling bees, I remember how much I loved going to school and what a joyful time it was.

Back then we were able to run between classrooms with ease to visit our friends. And I remember the way the cafeteria smelled lunchtime on Hamburger Thursdays.

It was right around lunchtime on a Tuesday that a gunman entered the school through the main door without restriction, massacred 19 students and two teachers and changed the way every student at Robb and their families will remember that school, forever.

I doubt they’ll remember the smell of the cafeteria or the laughter ringing in the hallways. Instead they’ll be haunted by the memory of screams and bloodshed, panic and chaos. Police shouting, parents wailing. I know I will never forget what I saw that day.

For me, that day started like any typical Tuesday at our Pediatric clinic – moms calling for coughs, boogers, sports physicals – right before the summer rush. School was out in two days then summer camps would guarantee some grazes and ankle sprains. Injuries that could be patched up and fixed with a Mickey Mouse sticker as a reward.

Then at 12:30 business as usual stopped and with it my heart. A colleague from a San Antonio trauma center texted me a message: ‘Why are the pediatric surgeons and anesthesiologists on call for a mass shooting in Uvalde?’

I raced to the hospital to find parents outside yelling children’s names in desperation and sobbing as they begged for any news related to their child. Those mother’s cries I will never get out of my head.

As I entered the chaos of the ER, the first casualty I came across was Miah Cerrillo. She was sitting in the hallway. Her face was still, still clearly in shock, but her whole body was shaking from the adrenaline coursing through it. The white Lilo and Stitch shirt she wore was covered in blood and her shoulder was bleeding from a shrapnel injury.

Sweet Miah. I’ve known her my whole life. As a baby she survived major liver surgeries against all odds. And once again she’s here. As a survivor. Inspiring us with her story today and her bravery.

When I saw Miah sitting there, I remembered having seen her parents outside. So after quickly examining two other patients of mine in the hallway with minor injuries, I raced outside to let them know Miah was alive. I wasn’t ready for their next urgent and desperate question: ‘Where’s Elena?’

Elena, is Miah’s 8-year-old sister who was also at Robb at the time of the shooting. I had heard from some nurses that there were “two dead children” who had been moved to the surgical area of the hospital. As I made my way there, I prayed that I wouldn’t find her.

I didn’t find Elena, but what I did find was something no prayer will ever relieve.

Two children, whose bodies had been so pulverized by the bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been so ripped apart, that the only clue as to their identities was the blood spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them. Clinging for life and finding none.

I could only hope these two bodies were a tragic exception to the list of survivors. But as I waited there with my fellow Uvalde doctors, nurses, first responders and hospital staff for other casualties we hoped to save, they never arrived. All that remained was the bodies of 17 more children and the two teachers who cared for them, who dedicated their careers to nurturing and respecting the awesome potential of every single one. Just as we doctors do.

I’ll tell you why I became a pediatrician. Because I knew that children were the best patients. They accept the situation as it’s explained to them. You don’t have to coax them into changing their lifestyles in order to get better or plead them to modify their behavior as you do with adults.

No matter how hard you try to help an adult, their path to healing is always determined by how willing they are to take action. Adults are stubborn. We’re resistant to change even when the change will make things better for ourselves. But especially when we think we’re immune to the fallout.

Why else would there have been such little progress made in Congress to stop gun violence?

Innocent children all over the country today are dead because laws and policy allows people to buy weapons before they’re legally even old enough to buy a pack of beer. They are dead because restrictions have been allowed to lapse. They’re dead because there are no rules about where guns are kept. Because no one is paying attention to who is buying them.

The thing I can’t figure out is whether our politicians are failing us out of stubbornness, passivity or both.

I said before that as grown ups we have a convenient habit of remembering the good and forgetting the bad. Never more so than when it comes to our guns. Once the blood is rinsed away from the bodies of our loved ones, and scrubbed off the floors or the schools and supermarkets and churches, the carnage from each scene is erased from our collective conscience and we return once again to nostalgia.

To the rose tinted view of our second amendment as a perfect instrument of American life, no matter how many lives are lost.

I chose to be a pediatrician. I chose to take care of children. Keeping them safe from preventable diseases I can do. Keeping them safe from bacteria and brittle bones I can do. But making sure our children are safe from guns, that’s the job of our politicians and leaders.

In this case, you are the doctors and our country is the patient. We are lying on the operating table, riddled with bullets like the children of Robb Elementary and so many other schools. We are bleeding out and you are not there.

My oath as a doctor means that I signed up to save lives. I do my job. And I guess it turns out that I am here to plead. To beg. To please, please do yours.”

– Dr. Roy Guerrero, Pediatrician, Uvalde, TX