10 February 2011

Becoming wholehearted

Recently, I became aware of the work of BrenĂ© Brown, PhD, LMSW, who studies wholeheartedness. The evolution and development of her interests and research career is enlightening and inspiring. For a quick introduction to her work, check out this TED video, where she talks about the power of vulnerability and the importance of human connection. What is most fascinating to me is that she began studying wholeheartedness as a result of her research interest in the concept of shame. I struggle with issues of shame. Everyone does. Brown’s definition? Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.

Brown makes the following points about shame. We all have shame, and it is one of the most primitive human emotions we experience. The only people who do not have shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. We are all afraid to talk about shame. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives. Shame is the opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy. Shame is different than guilt, which is about doing something bad. Shame is a belief that I am bad and not enough.

It was through her study of shame that Brown discovered wholehearted people, individuals who had developed shame resilience. Men and women with high shame resilience have four things in common. They understand shame and recognize what messages and expectations trigger shame for them. They practice critical awareness by reality-checking the messages and expectations that tell us being imperfect means being inadequate. They reach out and share their stories with people they trust. They speak shame. They use the word “shame.” They talk about what they are feeling and ask for what they need.

As I reflect on my nursing career, I realize that many of the dysfunctional dynamics I have observed in individuals, groups and organizations oftentimes involve issues of and responses to shame. I wonder what would happen if we started talking about shame and the effects of shame in our personal and professional lives?

Antidotes to shame involve the following: cultivation of authenticity, self-compassion, a resilient spirit, gratitude and joy, intuition and trusting faith, and creativity. Developing shame resilience also includes letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. It involves cultivating calm and stillness, and letting go of self-doubt and “supposed-to.” It involves cultivating laughter, song and dance, and letting go of being cool and “always in control.”

If you want to learn more about wholeheartedness and developing shame resilience, check out Brown’s work. She is delivering important messages to the world about the power and value of vulnerability, compassion, courage and connection. Nurses everywhere will benefit personally and professionally from her wisdom, advice and careful attention to the research available on the subject of wholeheartedness and authenticity. Developing shame resilience is a practice worth pursuing.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.