Thoughts on the profession

Teacher’s Pet Syndrome

Some people read WebMD and suddenly discover that they have multiple serious diagnoses.  Me, I I don’t need WebMD.  I come up with my own fake syndromes all the time.  Today I have diagnosed myself with a serious case of TPS, or Teacher’s Pet Syndrome.

Symptoms of TPS include: fluctuations in self-esteem, general discomfort around uncertainty, and unexplained desire to receive approval.  TPS is usually identified before the age of 10, although some rare cases may have an adult onset.  Once infected with TPS, the patient can experience long phases of disease inactivity, but flare-ups do occur, often without warning.  TPS manifests most seriously when the sufferer encounters questions for which she does not have an answer.  
Today, I suppressed a mild TPS flare up.  My client asked me to check a bump on the back of her neck.  “I mean, I know you’re not a doctor and you can’t diagnose,” she said, “But I just want to know what you think.  If you think I should see my doctor or whatever.” I was seized with uncertainty.  I palpated the bump on her neck.  I had no idea what I was feeling.  I just didn’t know, and this made me extremely nervous. As a person who knows lots of other stuff, and enjoys teaching this stuff to people, it feels distinctly unsafe to admit when something is beyond me.
But it is even more unsafe not to admit when something is beyond me.  So, with my heart racing, I told her, “I don’t know what that could be, but if you’re concerned about it, you should see your physician.” My misguided TPS instincts wanted to make up a plausible story about what it was, so that I could receive even more approval for the knowledge I have acquired.  Had I done so, I could have persuaded her not to see her physician at all, and who knows what that bump could have been.  
I often tell my students to be confident in what they say, even if what they say is “I don’t know.”  The point is that you don’t build trust by making up semi-plausible explanations about health questions outside your scope.  You build trust by admitting when something is beyond your expertise, and gently suggesting someone seek the advice of a professional who knows.  
I am happy to say that my TPS is largely in remission now, so I will be saying “I don’t know” whenever it is appropriate — because I am confident in my knowledge, and in my limitations.

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