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How Improv Comedy is Teaching a Pediatrician Empathy

Wendy Schofer, MD explains why Improv Comedy is where she finally learned that playing the perfect doctor isn't helping patients.

June 2, 2023

Last night, I was a nun in New York City, and not a very good one.

I’ve been taking improvisational comedy classes for over a year now. And I still have so much to learn. 

I made praying hands, always looking up to God and wound up in the Empire State Building with my nun-partner, Sister Mary Josephine, you know, to be closer to God.

My mentors stopped the scene and said, “Wendy, we want to see the person who is the nun. No one goes around living their life as that profession. OK, perhaps nuns are an exception. But I’m a shipbuilder and you probably don’t know that because it doesn’t influence how I show up here. That’s not the way that we introduce ourselves.”

My shipbuilding friend apparently never met a physician. Or a professional. Or a mom. While he said, “No one goes around living their life as their profession. No one introduces themselves as what they do…”

Actually, everyone I know does. We are all trying to live as the “World’s Best.” And we are failing at it, because being the prototypical example is boring, and there is no such thing anyway.

Cutting back to my improv mentors, they wanted to know about the person who was the nun, the emotions, what is important to her. Who is this human that happens to be a nun?

It hit me like a ton of bricks. No, the nun isn’t the exception. I’ve been living my life with a set character, wife, mom, pediatrician. I let the role define me. It stifled what is really important: the person who happens to be in this profession.

For years, I walked into a room and introduced myself as a physician, including outside of the medical office. I had worked so freaking hard to become a physician, it became who I was. And as a mother, I would ask myself, “What does a good mother do?” and let that drive my decisions. I played each role one-dimensionally.

Those decisions were not reflective of me, Wendy, the human who just happens to be a mother and a pediatrician. Those decisions did not honor the imperfect human who was being stifled in the roles she was playing because there is no such thing as being a perfect physician or a perfect mother, let alone doing both at the same time.

 

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Last night, my mentor told me, “I don’t care if you ever mention anything about being a nun. I want to know what is important to you. In fact, who are you, Wendy? What is important to you?”

I responded quickly, “Connection.”

“OK, so that’s how you go through life, with connection being the most important thing.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

My mentor asked, “So what about your nun?”

My partner and I were off. We were looking for patterns of emotion, building outward instead of looking for unifying patterns inward, which had been my diagnostic approach in medicine. I wasn’t looking for the right way to play a role. In fact, I leaned into all the quirks of the human who happens to be a nun.

In improv, we are told to “find the weird” in the scene and the character. In real life, the “weird” doesn’t mean finding out how you’re secretly psychotic or have fetishes. The real life version is finding what is uniquely you and leaning into that. Our professions have zero to do with what is unique about us. Instead, it’s about what we are feeling, what is important and what we value.

 

In real life, the “weird” doesn’t mean finding out how you’re secretly psychotic or have fetishes. The real life version is finding what is uniquely you and leaning into that. Share on X

 

That DND interest? Rock climbing? Speaking Swahili as a Kansan? Feeling silly in the middle of an urgent care center? My nun, Sister Jill, happened to be a huge fan of heavy metal bands and was wandering the big city with her bestie, Sister Mary Josephine, looking for anyone with big hair who might be a lead singer and would welcome her on-stage.

When we are being humans who just happen to be physicians, we are welcoming others into our worlds. The same exists in fiction and on the improv comedy stage. No one wants to read or engage with the “World’s Best,” unidimensional character. Instead, we are drawn into the Dr House with his cynicism and snark, the Doc Sharon with her intellectualism as a way to self-protect, and yes, the Dr Schofer who is finding the fun in the mundane, wearing women’s lib T-shirts under her scrubs and badly misquoting 90’s pop culture and song lyrics.

We are all characters, and others are drawn into our shared humanity via empathy. We don’t empathize with the perfect, type-cast characters. We empathize with the human, hurting, broken, unique and silly parts. What I learn on the stage, I apply in real life. As I continue to heal from burnout, I see how I still try to play “World’s Best” on stage and am practicing unlearning what seemed so important to me for so long.

Improv is giving me the opportunity to unlearn the lessons that I thought were so important in medicine: perfectionism, role-playing, finding a singular “right answer” and fixing it. Instead, I’m becoming more of myself: human, imperfect, feeling and connecting.

Wendy Schofer, MD

“Understanding emotional health and habits supports healthy relationships at every size.”

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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2 Responses

  1. I started taking improv 3 months ago and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m already a better listener, more empathetic, and it’s all making me a better doctor.

    1. It’s amazing how we can use these skills elsewhere in our lives: medicine, personal, family and most importantly: to really clarify who we want to be. Enjoy the fun and the benefits!

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