AACN News—September 2004—Opinions

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Vol. 21, No. 9, SEPTEMBER 2004

President's Note: Live Your Contribution
Self-Knowledge: More Than a First Step

Every year, Nellcor honors our chapter presidents. It’s one of my favorite NTI events, where we celebrate the can-do optimism of 247 volunteer leaders. The ambience is elegant. The food delicious. And, even better than chocolate decadence, a surprise celebrity guest brings us the gift of personal wisdom.
This year, stage, screen and television star Anna Duke Pearce told us about her angina, five stents and the immeasurable gratitude she has for the nurses who accompanied her on this journey of heart disease. Two of the nurses were in the room. Better known to audiences as Patty Duke, Anna also told us how she came to know Helen Keller, whose life she played on stage and in the Oscar-winning “The Miracle Worker.”

Helen Keller. Blind. Deaf. Unable to speak for many years. And, abundantly generous with a no-nonsense wisdom that stops us in our tracks. Consider her observation.

So much has been given to me, I have not time to ponder over that which has been denied.1

Miss Keller’s wisdom overflows with the courage and optimism that come from self-knowledge. Aware of her uniqueness as a person, she lived her contribution by focusing on what contributed to her success instead of the obstacles in her path. Obstacles get in the way of living our contribution. Expect failure, and we’ll get failure. Unless we view it as a trial or test that can focus us and make us stronger.

How does one get to this spot? Helen Keller offers this witty suggestion:

People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.2

An Honest Appraisal
I could start my thinking with an honest appraisal of the assets I bring to the table. Some assets I was born with—for example, health, intelligence, caring, compassion, curiosity. Others I worked hard to acquire: knowledge about nursing and science, communication skills and clinical judgment. Still others I continue to seek: optimism, enthusiasm, endurance and patience.

My feelings and behavior, along with how others see me, are other assets I bring. They tell me how I tend to interpret different situations and how I’m likely to respond. They also point to what I value, what I seek and what I’m willing to invest in achieving it.

Reflecting on my experience as a bedside nurse, a clinical specialist and an educator, I now recognize how often I learned from difficult patients, needy families and struggling students. Just as I learned a great deal from colleagues who didn’t see things my way. A scared patient awaiting bypass surgery taught me about the danger of postponing important decisions. The emotional tension among his warring children brought home the corrosive impact of unresolved rivalries. And, from the nursing student caring for them, oblivious to the family’s dysfunctional dynamics, I learned how nursing that focuses only on physical care is incomplete and even irresponsible.

Minding Miss Keller’s advice, I can challenge myself to gain self-knowledge by asking questions, by listening, and by reading and continuing my learning. By consciously working to overcome deficits that I know I have and facing the unavoidable conclusion that I must figure out new ways to solve old and new problems.

Five Dimensions
Self-knowledge is personal wisdom. Psychologist Hendrie Weisinger suggests five practical dimensions by which we can increase it.3 First, examine how we make appraisals. Appraisals are the impressions, interpretations, evaluations and expectations of ourselves, others and every situation we experience at work or at home. This helps us to learn how our thoughts influence how we feel, act and react. Besides our own reflection, input from those who know us well and care about our success can be invaluable.

Second, tune in to our senses. Yes, the same five senses we assess in every patient. We use our senses to receive data about people and situations. But sometimes we filter these data with our appraisal. So, we assume the new graduate is so globally inexperienced that we don’t hear him tell us that a patient seems unusually withdrawn today.

Next, get in touch with our feelings. Weisinger reminds us that feelings are our spontaneous emotional responses to how we appraise and interpret situations, as well as what we expect from them. Getting in touch with our feelings alerts us to our comfort with a situation and signals how we’re likely to react.

Then, own up to what our true intentions are, whether short-term or long-term. Sometimes, we have conflicting intentions, like when we want the new physician to succeed, but smile each time she stubs her toe because of her inept communication skills.

Finally, pay attention to our actions. Because our actions are physical, others can observe them and so can we, if we choose to. But we often overlook the nuances. For example, we may explain the complex procedure to a nursing student, yet do so in clipped tones filled with acronyms and clinical jargon.

My First Contribution?
Weisinger suggests five questions I can ask myself several times a day to help me tune into the five dimensions: What am I feeling right now? What appraisals am I making? What do my senses tell me? What do I want? How am I acting?

The answers will go a long way toward strengthening my self-knowledge, the first step toward living my contribution. Without self-knowledge, I’m an empty shell going through the motions. I doubt my purpose. I overlook my gifts. I negate the precious resource I am as a nurse. I kill my own giving spirit and that of others. Self-knowledge helps me to become empowered and to empower others. It reaffirms that I make a difference because I am here today. In fact, self-knowledge isn’t just a first step. It is my first contribution.

What prompted you to start valuing knowledge of your inner self? When did it happen? How has it changed you as a nurse and as a person? I welcome your experience and your wisdom. Please write to me at kathy.mccauley@aacn.org.

1. Keller H. Available at: http://www.inspirational-quotations.com
/famous-quotes.html. Accessed August 7, 2004.
2. Keller H. Available at: http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes
/Helen_Keller. Accessed August 7, 2004.
3. Weisinger H. Emotional Intelligence at Work. San Francisco, Calif. Jossey-Bass; 1998.
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