Making Asks, Storytelling, and Self-Compassion with Dr. Emily Silverman
Our Women in Medicine Q&A series continues with Dr. Emily Silverman, an internal medicine physician at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital; assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco; and the creator/host of The Nocturnists, a nationally recognized medical storytelling live show and podcast. Dr. Silverman’s writing has been published in The New York Times, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and The Examined Life Journal at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine. She’s currently at work on her first book, with the support of a fellowship from MacDowell. Read on to find out how storytelling made her a better physician, and how her chameleon-like sense of style empowers her.
What inspired you to become a doctor? We want to hear it all: The good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly.
I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor since I was really young. I think the desire was driven by a deep, painful curiosity about reality that started with my own body. I needed to understand what I was and what we are, and I wanted to unravel the mysteries of biology and disease. I also suffered from a major case of achievement-itis, which I'm still recovering from. The altruism piece came later.
Have you ever had to negotiate something at work, and what did you learn from that experience?
I've had to make many asks. Everything I know about asking I learned from Kasia Urbaniak. She teaches these amazing online classes about power and influence. She wrote a book called Unbound which is great, but listening to her speak is even better. Basically, she teaches women to identify and legitimize their desires, to ask for what they want, and to not be afraid to hear "no." She says we should expect a "no," get curious about the "no," explore what the "no" is protecting, and work from there. This turns negotiation into a playful thing.
What inspired you to start The Nocturnists? Do you feel that giving voice to the medical community through storytelling has made you become a better doctor, and if so, how? Have the other participants and audience members shared similar feelings?
The project was born out of my burnout in residency. I wanted to create a space where healthcare workers could drop the dispassionate mask of authority and speak openly about the complexity of working in medicine, the misaligned priorities of American healthcare, and more. Audiences have said they've found joy, catharsis, and connection in the live shows and podcast. Many have said it makes them feel less isolated. As for whether story sense makes you a better doctor, the answer is yes. Storytelling is at the heart of medicine.
What do you love to do outside of your clinical work, and how does your favorite hobby help you be more present or confident at work?
I love the arts in all its permutations: Reading, writing, drawing, painting, listening to music, playing music—badly!—photography, and film. I love going to the theater. Sometimes the realm of the arts feels more real to me than reality itself. I'm also a nerd who loves to learn about physics, cosmology, and spirituality. Show me a YouTube video about a black hole, and I'm hooked.
Talk us through your favorite self-care ritual. Beauty regimens, affirmations, and date-nights are all fair game!
Retail therapy works for me—a new scarf or blouse can really lift me up. I think fashion is a beautiful form of self-expression. As RuPaul says, "You were born naked, and the rest is drag." I also like hot baths, massages, and things that smell good like creams, oils, and candles.
What are some of the other ways you take care of yourself?
Self-talk and self-compassion. Listening to music. A good song can work wonders. Dancing alone. Eating something delicious. Comedy. Laughter is good for you!
What do you wear to work, and how does it make you feel? What would you change about it?
Scrubs and my royal blue Patagonia fleece, of course! On days when I'm feeling more ambitious, I'll reach for high-waisted pants, blouses, loafers, and calf-length dresses. I've become bolder recently with color choices. Fashion sometimes gets a bad rap as being shallow and frivolous, but that’s not the case. Fashion is a powerful thing—a form of play, self-love, and artistic expression.
What does the idea of personal style mean to you, and how do you think your sense of style empowers you?
It's all about feeling good, feeling beautiful, being authentic, and having fun. For me, it varies day to day. Sometimes I put on a delicate dress and float through the day. Sometimes I feel tougher and put on pants and boots. When I do that, I sit with my legs open. It's a different energy. Every day, you can use your style to express a different facet of yourself.
What’s your dream vacation destination?
Italy. The most delicious and sensual place on earth.
What song can you not stop listening to right now?
I can't stop watching this YouTube video of Alicia Keys. It's so magical and intimate. She just vibrates on another level.
What TV show are you currently binging?
During Covid-19, we watched all of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. More recently, I've been re-watching Gilmore Girls, my favorite show from high school. The new series coming out these days haven't captured me as much, although I loved Season 2 of Fleabag and PEN15.
What’s your go-to snack?
Apple slices with honey drizzled on top and Cheez-Its.
What’s the #1 item in your self-care toolkit?
A body of water.
What fictional character do you wish you could meet?
Starbuck from the 2000s re-boot of Battlestar Galactica. She'd take me flying—or beat the shit out of me.
Photographs courtesy of Dr. Silverman.
We love talking with women in medicine who manifest self-care and self-expression. If you know someone who can teach us a thing or two, email us their details!