For most of my life, I have relied on my brain for judgment and decision making. The problem is, there’s a lot of noise in my head, and it’s not always pleasant. Like my shitty inner critic telling me I’m not worthy and I’m a fraud, I should shut up and let others, the real experts, tell me what’s what.
I’ve only recently learned there’s a whole other part of me clamoring for attention. And that’s my body—if only I’ll listen.
Did you know our gut has been called our “second brain”? That’s because, equipped with more than 100 million neurons, it relays critical information (mainly via the vagus nerve) to the brain in our heads.
Intuition usually begins in our body: Ever had a gut feeling about someone? Felt butterflies in your stomach when nervous?
Just last week, I went to my yearly cancer “skin check” at my dermatologist’s office in downtown Chicago. She’s a sought-after expert in skin cancer with the renowned Northwestern Hospital. I book appointments a year in advance! (If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, like I do, please get yearly skin checks.)
After the nurse ushered me into the examination room, I was left to strip down to my panties and don the provided hospital gown. Once I was settled on the exam table, a knock at the door revealed not my doctor but two young men. They introduced themselves as a fourth year medical student and a first-year dermatology resident, who were going to do a preview skin check before my doctor came in. The resident took the lead and went over my medical history. Then he, with the med student observing, started a very thorough examination of my body, looking for cancer.
Now I know Northwestern is a teaching hospital and I am fine with helping students learn, but my gut was sending distress signals.
What did I do?
Did I stop them and ask for the doctor or a female nurse to be present? No I did not. I just lay there and let them look at my near-naked body. I asked questions, I cracked jokes, anything to distract myself. Mind you, they were perfectly polite and professional, but I felt way overexposed and uncomfortable.
That feeling nagged at me through the rest of the day and even into the night, when I had a very hard time falling asleep. I kept replaying the situation and wishing I’d said something. I was angry at the staff but mostly at myself. But I also recognized that in that doctor’s office, the voice in my head was colluding to keep me quiet: “Don’t make trouble. Who do you think you are? These are important people who don’t have time for your silly demands.”
The next morning, I decided it wasn’t too late to do something about my discomfort, if not for me, then for other women. I messaged my doctor over the hospital portal:
I wanted to let you know that I felt uncomfortable having two young males, a medical student and a first year resident, examine me yesterday and see me mostly naked. They were perfectly nice and totally professional but it felt weird and I should have asked that a female nurse/aide be present. Wanted to let you know as there might be others who feel uncomfortable but do not speak up. I should have and will in the future. Thank you.
I have been hardwired over decades to be compliant and agreeable, and to disregard my feelings (and my gut) in the process. Especially anger, since I often don’t allow myself to express it.
When I processed this incident with my somatic therapist, Cece, she explained that anger shows up when a boundary has been violated, and she encouraged me to tune into my body so I can learn how to honor that feeling and speak up for myself. It is a practice, as it takes time to rewire our brains (both of them)! Here’s a quick video Cece sent me to demonstrate how hard it can be to change ingrained patterns.
Here’s the message I got back from the doctor’s nurse, Katie:
Our apologies on not feeling comfortable with the male staff! We try our best to ask beforehand, but should this happen again, please do not hesitate to speak up before the exam and I can also put a note that I can see on your chart regarding this!
Hmmm… That was pretty good but was not enough. While I agree that we should all learn to speak up for ourselves, I also feel that the onus should not be entirely on us. So I responded:
Katie, yes, please put a note in my chart. I’d also ask that you make it a practice to have a female present when males are examining any female patient’s body. Many women simply don’t feel comfortable (as I didn’t at the time) speaking up in the moment. And if a woman has any kind of history of abuse, having a male examine her body may be very triggering. Thank you.
She must have passed this on to my doctor, as I finally heard back directly from her:
Thank you so much for sending this note. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I really apologize that it made you feel uncomfortable. That is the very last thing I would want any of my patients to feel. I will definitely make sure this doesn’t happen again, and I will also be very sensitive of this potential situation for any of my female patients in the future.
Thank you for taking the time to let me know, and again, I truly apologize for how it made you feel and for having put you in that situation.
YOUR TURN: Have you had an experience when your gut was telling you something and you listened—or didn’t? Tell us more in the comments.