One full dose of Shame, STAT!

“You’re going to be fired… Nobody is going to want to work with you… You’re going to be blacklisted from the Spine service… Everybody knows you f*cked up… Don’t look directly at anyone… Just act sorry and seem apologetic in every action you take.”

SHAME SHAME SHAME. It penetrates every thought and every interaction I have. It’s like tinnitus – ringing in my ears – that I can’t just shut out if I think about it hard enough. And no matter how hard I try to just ‘get over it,’ the devastating aftermath of making a mistake colors my field of vision a shitty brown. It seems impossible to imagine there can be a shred of dignity and grace after making a mistake at work…a giant announcement that I am fallible and imperfect.

The mistake I made at work happened to be with a very intimidating spine surgeon we’ll call Dr. Spine. The patient in question was not harmed and the surgery was successful.

I, on the other hand, was the victim of my own self-loathing and self-pity, berating my own spirit with harsh criticism and replaying conversations and encounters over and over again. The weeks that followed the ‘incident’ at work involved punitive conversations with my manager. I talked to many of the seasoned nurses to retell my story of the incident and the follow-up meetings with my manager, desperately searching for a nugget validation. I martyred myself to the point of anxiety and depression. I was afraid to go to work and see my manager or Dr. Spine. All I wanted was to wipe the slate clean.

After conversations with friends in my recovery community, it became clear that the only ‘grown up’ option was to let go of the story and move forward. Of course, I could continue reliving the incident and manufacturing my own misery on a daily basis, to the detriment of my work performance. Or, I could put one foot of the other, begin anew each day, and do my best to care for my patients. It meant doing all the things I really didn’t want to do: looking people in the eyes, asking for help when needed, and recognizing the beauty of being humble. I was taught early in recovery that humility was not about being subservient, but about being aware of one’s assets and liabilities – being right-sized.

Nothing to keep us more right-sized than a full dose of shame! Well, I am a human being who made a mistake, but as a spiritual being I understand that making mistakes is part of life. Unfortunately in healthcare, mistakes can be permanent, horrifying, and often unforgivable. How can I bring my spiritual perspective into this healthcare institution?! It seems the first step is to stop the shame. Just like probiotics help neutralize the effects of antibiotics, I need to take something to recover from the strong dose of shame. Experience has taught me that the antidote is usually the opposite: acts that build joy, self-esteem, and, self-worth. And so that has been my challenge ever since – to  take each day as an opportunity to build these attributes, one encounter at a time.

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