Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Virtue of Admitting Weaknesses

I think it is a virtue to admit areas of weakness.  In our modern, competitive world, we are encouraged never to admit our shortcomings.  On a résumé or CV, the standard practice is to provide a list of our accomplishments, awards, and strengths, but never to discuss weaknesses!   In current events today, we can find many examples of public figures who not only would never admit any sort of weakness, but who boast about themselves almost constantly!   Admissions of weakness could seem like manifestations of low self-esteem, low confidence, or proof of incompetence.  

I think it is a strength to be able to admit weaknesses!  It is a protection against poor decision-making, and a protection against cognitive biases, to always contemplate weaknesses or mistakes in your planning.  For example, Kahneman described a technique called a "pre-mortem" which calls for us to anticipate or imagine that our plans had failed badly, and then to imagine the sequence of events that could have led to the failure.   Too often, groups are so excited about new plans that they are blinded by "groupthink" and do not consider adverse consequences.  While this often happens in business planning, it frequently occurs in our personal lives as well.  

In medical training, it can be important to show confidence.  But imagine how dangerous it is for patient care when a trainee is reluctant to admit a weakness in performing a medical procedure!  In this case, it is a sign of strong professionalism and leadership to admit that you don’t know.  Ironically, it can require great confidence and self-esteem to be able to convey these weaknesses honestly.  

 In the spirit of admitting weaknesses, I would like to list a few things that I don't think I'm very good at, in my professional life: 

1) teaching meditation.  I know that meditation skills can be important and powerful.  I encourage almost all my patients to learn about meditation, and to consider investing a lot of time practicing meditation skills.  I think I am good at philosophizing about meditation...but not really good at meditation itself! Mind you, I do think that my philosophizing has a meditative quality--at least it does for me! 

I am willing and eager to learn more about meditation, but I also know that a good meditation teacher or group would be more effective and helpful for my patients to learn meditation skills.  I feel the same way about some other related activities such as yoga. 

2) being a very organized, methodical teacher (e.g. for CBT exercises).  I love intellectual dialogue, and I enjoy trying to give encouraging, creative feedback...but I know that sometimes a good teacher needs to be very organized, consistent, strict, and focused on a task...My style tends to more informal, with variations of focus from week to week, according to my patients’ wishes.     Also, I tend to question things a lot, including the process of things, so I think I would find a highly regimented style to be too restricted.  Some patients who desire a more strictly regimented approach might get frustrated with me.  At other times, maybe I don’t use time as efficiently as I could.  

I am willing to learn more about becoming a better and more organized teacher--but I also recognize that I have limitations with those skills, and that there are others who could do a better job than I could.  

3) "Networking" with community resources.  I have a tendency to have a bit of a "monastic" style.  While I encourage patients to inform themselves about community resources, and to make use of them, I tend to prefer spending most of the time working one-on-one with my patients, instead of spending time developing relationships or engaging professional peers in other parts of the community.  For similar reasons, I prefer to do a lot of my continuing education activities on my own, through reading and writing, rather than signing up for conferences.  

I realize that we all need a balance between "alone time" and "group time" in our lives.  This applies to professional life as well--different professionals may like or need different amounts of interaction with professional peers.   I think it is unhealthy for anyone to be too extreme in this balance, but on the other hand I do think it is important and good to honour your own personal style.  

The practice of psychiatry nowadays tends to favour more "community networking" and less of a "monastic" style.  I see that this can be valuable, because it could lead to more of an experience of a collaborative therapeutic community.    For me, I guess my lack of inclination to network this way is a weakness...but I hope some might find it a welcome strength that I value the one-on-one experience as highly as I do.

4) not empathizing enough.  Sometimes I focus too much on intellectual dialog, on problem-solving attempts, on being calmly attentive, etc. – but then I don’t say an empathic comment that needed to be said.  Here, I need to be more diligent to work on this, but also maybe to admit that this happens more often than I care to admit.  

I have a variety of other weaknesses.   I encourage a practice of being honest about our weaknesses, not in a resigned or self-deprecating way, but in a way which helps us acknowledge our humanity and our fallibility.  

Ironically, I am concerned that I might sound boastful -- I am boasting that I can talk about my weaknesses!  Maybe my own boastfulness is another weakness, to be worked on.
Also, in conjunction with admitting weakness, I think it is good to acknowledge that some of our strengths actually depend on the weaknesses!  Maybe my weakness regarding networking comes along with a strength for valuing one-on-one therapeutic relationships...perhaps some of your weaknesses which you struggle with are part of a larger picture of having strengths which could allow you greater meaning and purpose in life.

With the admission of weaknesses, I think it is also good to be open-minded about working on them.  Not necessarily with a goal to become a different person--it is important to "be yourself"--but with a goal of spending a little bit of time and attention on our weaknesses in a constructive way.  For me, this means that I need to spend a little bit more time learning about meditation.  I need to consciously say more empathic remarks.   I need to maybe sign up for a few more conferences.  And I need to push myself a little bit to attend more meetings with colleagues in the community.   But I can’t let these goals interfere with the aspects of my professional life that I already enjoy and feel comfortable with. 

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