I have had a couple of conversations with healthcare staff this week, which took me back to a dark place in my career. It made reflect on my journey to where I am now in my career and despite how I felt back then still working for the NHS in the same Hospital Trust. They expressed that they were increasingly questioning what they are doing, and that it is not what they came into the job for. That is exactly how I felt for a large part of my 30s and into my early 40s. At the time it was the system and the people that ran the system that was to blame for how I felt. This is what these people this week were saying to me. The response to the current situation by the health systems and those that managed it was causing their internal conflict with the job that they once loved. They feel as I felt powerless and isolated in a system that rewards positivity and marginalizes negativity. They like me 15 years ago believe that they are being realistic, and patient focused and are being punished for acting negatively. It would have been easy to get sucked into this narrative as you can imagine most of it to be true. However, having lived and experienced emotions similar to what they described I wanted to challenge their story about themselves being the powerless audience of their story, and not playing a part in how it unfolds. Let me explain by describing my experience.
As I was listening to them it really resonated with me. When I was promoted to Charge Nurse of a Children’s ward in my early 30s I had achieved my goal, that I had set myself as an 18-year-old Student Nurse. I had my dream job. I was married with 2 young boys and lived in suburbia. I had made it. I had a very clear fixed story about the kind of manager and leader I was going to be. I was going to be kind and compassionate, I was going to be a friend to the staff. I would never turn into one of those hard-hearted distant managers. I had a created a narrative of myself as a manager. It was fine at first, I was liked by most of the staff. Being a Charge Nurse however is incredibly challenging, and not everything you do or say will work out. Not everyone will like your decisions, including your bosses. I had to make decisions that in my head went against my principles, I would get in to trouble for not addressing situations or completing certain projects. I was being forced to be someone that I wasn’t. I was still hooked on this idea of what I thought a manager should be, especially a Charge Nurse. In hindsight I was stuck on being a Nurse, I wanted to Nurse the team rather than manage them. I was completely unable to unhook myself from this. So, in my eyes I was failing, I was unable to convince people that I was a good manager. I would tell myself I was useless and everyone around me thought I was useless. I started to avoid decisions, the team, my manager. I hid myself away in my office and did meaningless side projects. I became ill, I got back pain, from having such a terrible posture, that I attached myself to, to help me avoid everything that made me feel vulnerable even more. I went off sick a lot! Therefore, I wasn’t doing my job, therefore I became more of a failure. I remember listening to the song ‘Losing My Religion’ and crying thinking yes I have lost my identity as a Nurse. Now I would like to say that was the turning point, which was my road to Damascus, but it wasn’t, life is never that easy or straightforward.
What changed for me was gradual and chaotic. It was not part of some treatment or coaching plan. But now when I look back at it, it does follow the pattern that I use when I coach people, only I will do it intentionally over a few months rather than accidentally over about 5 years! The first thing that happened was, being trained to be a Clinical Supervisor. I really did not want to do it, but I went along and for the first few hours I sat there with my arms crossed determined not to like it. Then it clicked, I started to hear stuff that made sense about values, and about emotional intelligence. I started to listen to what Janis (my mentor, my work mum now) was saying. I had rediscovered what I was good at, emotional intelligence, listening, and empathizing. It was like a lightbulb coming on. I completed the course tried to use it in my workplace, with little success, because I was not ready yet to look at myself completely I was still hooked on my old narratives. I fell back to my old ways of avoiding anything that might cause me pain. Eventually I was redeployed, and I was put at risk. I worked on a project to develop network of safeguarding supervision with the Safeguarding Children team. Bit by bit I started to use some of the skills of reflection and emotional intelligence on myself and started to look inward. Eventually I got a clinical nurse educator job, I started to use my clinical supervision training to support nurses and started to feel more worthy, however I still had this narrative of being a failed leader, and still wanted to avoid situations and experiences that would expose this vulnerability. The system and the people that managed it were still the cause of my pain and I was still the innocent victim, which had no power over what was happening to me. I spent all my energy making plans to avoid feeling like a failure as a Nurse, leader, husband, and role model for my children. A couple of years into being a CNE I found an advert inviting staff to apply for a coaching course, paid for by the Trust with the aim of creating a network of coaches. I had often thought about becoming a Life Coach but never really know how I would go about it. So, I applied and met my now boss Lucy and was accepted onto the course. This was a complete revelation. That first day when I met Anthony (the course tutor) was the day my world changed forever. I sat there and grinned all day. I had found something that completely aligned to what I valued. The ILM 5 course in coaching that I did, gave me permission to look inside, it also gave me the tools and the inspiration to start doing something about my life. Through course I reconnected with the lovely Janis and started working with her on Clinical Supervision, which then reconnected me with the work of Brene Brown, and she was the final key to finding myself and seeing myself as an actor in my life with agency. It was at this point I changed my relationship with my job and myself. Eventually I changed role, gave up my Nursing registration and took up a full-time job in the Organisational Development team.
So how did I find my religion after losing it?
With the help of Anthony, Janis, and Brene I discovered what I valued, I dug deep into what was important to me, and I produce being useful and courageous. For me if I am to be useful to people I have to face situations that make me feel uncomfortable, anxious, and fearful. I have to be courageous to not avoid situations and be useful. When I live up to these values I feel content and fulfilled. All the plans and choices I make are based on these two values. I chose to do this job because it helps me face my anxieties about showing up as a credible, kind, compassionate leader that is responsive to the needs of others and is willing to be flexible in order to be useful, by being courageous.
Next I learned to notice my rumination and how these are often fixed to stories I tell myself and hold to be true. I started using mindfulness techniques to notice thoughts and feelings that are unhelpful or hindering, thoughts and feelings that hook me to old unhelpful stories about my past experiences that might prevent me from doing new things. Now I notice when a thought or emotion pops into my head and I can appraise it and ask if this will serve me well or hinder me. Now I still ruminate, and there are still occasions when I avoid situations, but they are far fewer and short lived. It is a habit that requires practice but is very useful.
I make room for the painful stuff in my life. I know life will not always run smoothly, things will go wrong, I will fail, I will lose people I love. The emotions I feel as a result of these are neither good nor bad, they are just reminding me what is important in my life. They tell me that I am living a full life. It also helps me appraise what part I play in my life. I have a part to play in all the successes and failures I have in my life, or even when nothing happens because I have avoided doing something.
Using all of the above I am able to take meaningful action in my life, to live a value-based life, which is realistic in what I have power over, and what I do not. I am no longer a passive observer, but an actor and writer in my own story.
It was not the system that caused my problems it was my solutions to my perceived problems that caused my actual problems. Once I eventually saw that I could start leading a life that was meaningful and remain working for the same Hospital and remain being useful to and caring for people.
If you feel that you are ‘Losing Your Religion’ you don’t have to muddle your way through, get in touch.