Not everything is broken. To heal, find the parts that are not.
Years ago, in the studio where I apprenticed as a Pilates instructor, a woman in her early 70’s, bent and arthritic, walked slowly across the carpeted studio floor toward our Master Teacher Romana.
Romana, herself 80 and one of Joseph Pilates original five apprentices, spent the entire lesson with the woman focusing on making minor adjustments to movements made with her feet, legs, and torso. At the end of the lesson, the woman (I kid you not) sat up tall, and strode out of the studio. Romana, catching me staring wide-eyed and amazed, winked.
Romana saw what most of us didn’t that day; the parts not broken.
I was a nurse then, too, teaching holistic nursing concepts and practices to hospital-based nurses, but something in Romana’s approach, easy, confident and essentially microscopic, transformed how I approach my work with health professionals, teams and organizations to this day.
I seek the parts not broken to mend the parts that are.
This idea of focusing on what’s not broken, is a bit antithetical to our healthcare practices.
After all, people arrive at our doorstep, or we travel to theirs, because something is wrong, broken, and needs fixing. Leaders look for broken systems and processes and work to fix those.
But in the same way that a broken bone indeed needs to be properly set, what happens all around that fragile matrix knitting itself back together, can make, or break, a person’s recovery to health.
In the landscape of the human life, each one of us is more than what is broken.
Holistic Nurse Theorist Margaret Newman defines health as “expanding consciousness”*. More than a disease state, it’s discovering a wider expression of health with the other person; what gives them meaning, purpose and vitality. In Newman’s view, someone can be dying and still have health.
Romana knew this too. The “bent” woman herself may have had doubts about what lay within, but Romana saw her totality, the tall graceful woman as well as the bent and struggling one.
Romana served the whole person through the physical practice of Pilates. She was not sweet or even kind. She was keen and insistent and could draw out of me a focus of attention and intention from spirit to mind and then to my body that I didn’t know possible.
In the language of Pilates, we focus on stabilizer muscles (like the core) to help the mover muscles (our limbs) move with greater flexibility and alignment.
In the language of Positive Psychology and Motivation Interviewing, it’s seeking out people’s mental, emotional and spiritual strengths, in service to greater mental, emotional and spiritual alignment and flexibility.
While it’s part of human nature to focus on what’s wrong, seeing the parts not broken is essential for the healing work we do.
And we can start this practice with ourselves.
Can you name your strengths?
In coaching a nurse client recently, I asked her within the context of seeing her value as a case manager, to tell me her strengths. She named one, hesitantly. “I love working with my patients.”
I’m not sure that’s a strength. It’s invaluable to the care we provide, for sure. But we were in search of how she contributed to the care of the patient, her department and her whole organization. Every day.
I listed 10 of her strengths. Insightful, sees the big picture, persistent, sees the good in others, respectful, honest, looks for solutions, adaptable, supportive and resourceful. I could go on.
She said she never knew this before or saw these qualities as her strengths.
She could, however, tell me the many places she believed she fell short.
She’s not unusual. Many nurses I know can’t name their strengths. Several years ago, I couldn’t either until my leadership coach, Susanna Maida (reweavingtheworld.com) took me through an extensive leadership assessment process.
It’s harmful to yourself to only know the parts that are broken, imperfect and full of doubt–especially as nurses–as naming our strengths and contributions strengthens not only our patients, but our profession as well.
How to shift your focus from the broken part to the parts that don’t need fixing?
Here is a lovely practice you can do for yourself with those you live and work with. In a quiet moment, ask a colleague, friend or family member to share with you what they see as your strengths. Write them down.
Make sure to pause and soak it in. Hold their offering reverently. Don’t say anything, except thank you. Make sure that you don’t deny it or discard it.
You need to know these and own them.
If you need specific examples, ask for them. They will be able to give this to you.
And then, perhaps, at another time you arrange, you do the same for this person.
Take this list and begin to know yourself through this lens. In moments of doubt, frustrations or feeling undervalued, remember these aspects of yourself can be a stabilizer, can help you to remember to let your strengths support the parts that feel broken.
Then as you work with patients, families, staff and clients, look for their strengths and call them out. It’s easy to find them once you start looking.
With much love,
* Newman, Margaret A. (1994). Health as Expanding Consciousness. NLN Press.
Here are more tools to tend to yourself while working.