So, here I am, I burned out, I was on medical leave, June 17, 2004. And I had to ask myself the questions that I had so often asked other people: “Neha, why you? Why burnout, and why now? What message had it come to give you?” The answers didn’t come right away for me. I checked it out with some colleagues, to see if they had ever experienced something like this.
I then began to listen to my mind and my body and I started journaling. And what I read on those pages scared me to death. I didn’t just want to help people before they ended up in the hospital. I wanted to create self-care and healthcare. I wanted to help heal the healers. I wanted to become a master in communication and even combine it with my knowledge of health and I wanted to use that to go and bridge nations — that scared me.
So you can imagine when the call came from Jim Gordon to go to Saudi Arabia, that all of those experiences are what gave me the courage to say yes.
So I’d like to share just a few of those stories while I was there, and I got emotional a little earlier so I’m going to flip through two slides here, and bring you up-to-date.
I landed in Saudi Arabia, and I gave my talk. I gave my talk for Jim Gordon on “Unstuck in Depression.” And it was fantastic. They were gracious and they asked the questions that the Saudi physician asked.
And then, there was a second scheduled talk, which was Clear Direct Communication for the women. I walked in and I saw 200 sets of eyes looking back at me. It was like a sea of black, accented with designer handbags, and shoes. About an hour into my 2-hour-workshop I started hearing a familiar voice in my head, “You don’t know what you are talking about, everyone told you this wouldn’t translate cross-culturally. What are you doing?”
And in that moment I realized how much I depend on nonverbal communication in your facial expressions to know that I am connecting and engaging with you.
So I could have just road it out for the next hour, but I probably wouldn’t have given a very good talk, so I stopped and I said, “I wanted to check and see am I on track, is this useful to you?”
They erupted with, “Dr Sangwan, Dr Sangwan this is so important, we never learned this. Continue, please continue.”
So as I continued we had — I finally relaxed, and I probably started to enjoy it as much as they were. But the most important thing that I didn’t realize was how relevant this would be to my work back home. People in the same room, no body language, creating all sorts of miscommunication and judgments in their heads, but if they didn’t check out would become a big problem. A huge parallel.
Another story that I’d like to tell you about, that had a huge impact on me, was my interaction with doctor Abdullah. He was the chairman of the conference. He asked me if he could consult me about something that was weighing heavy on his heart. “Neha, you remind me of my daughter, except you are very different than she is. You’re incredibly strong, you travel the world, and you speak at international conferences. I see you taking on challenges with ease. My daughter on the other hand, she is weak. Whenever she faces a challenge I know that she’s weak, because she cries. I’m only afraid, that she is not going to make it in the world. Is there any way that you can help her?”
I thought for a moment, I had known him for about seven days. So, I said, “Dr. Abdullah, what if I don’t think that this is about your daughter?”
“Well then, who would it be about?”, he asked.
“Well, I’ve been in your country for seven days now, and I have watched you flawlessly orchestrate a conference of international scientists. I’ve spoken to your colleagues, and your patients, who speak incredibly highly of you. And I’ve even spent time with your family, they too revere you. I am curious if you love your daughter so much, that in the face of her tears, it’s one of the only times in the world, that you’re not in control?”
The longest 60 seconds of silence in my life, happened following that comment. And then he said very thoughtfully, “This is absolutely correct, thank you my friend. I have much to learn about communication.”
You know it’s interesting, I think as our society we are pretty biased against tears, cross culturally. That we have a lot of judgments about whether they make us weak, or it’s just showing emotion. There’s some recent medical research out now, that shows that tears are actually healing. William Frey out of Minnesota now reports that you can measure stress hormone in tears. And endorphins are actually released when you have a good cry. And endorphins are the feel-good hormones that you get after you exercise, so listen — cry away, you’re going to feel good.
The last story I’d like to tell you about is, I had a rare opportunity to chat with Prince Abdul Aziz. And he asked me, “Neha, what is it that the media has taught you about our culture that you find to be true? And what is it that you find not to be true?”
“Well what I find to be true is that the separation of men and women, both at the conference and at the society, is real. What I find not to be true is that I don’t — that you and everyone I’ve met this week have treated me with so much honor and respect, I didn’t expect that.
My parents were raised in India amongst a lot of Hindu-Muslim conflict and they feared for my safety. They also worried that I might not assimilate very well in a culture that was so different from the one I had been raised in. My colleagues told me, that I would feel like a second class citizen. Because I was a woman. I have not had that experience.
The second thing that I find not to be completely true — I’m sure there’s some truth — is that the women they told me — Okay, let me tell you again. The second thing that I find that the media says that might not be totally true, the women that I spoke with actually told me, that they love their abayas, and burqas. They say, “Dr Neha, it’s our fashion, we get rhinestones on it, we get Chanel abayas, we love our abayas, and you know what else it does? We feel like precious jewels, because we don’t have to deal with that unwanted attention from the men”. Ughh.