Embracing Weakness

imgresLast weekend, I spent the weekend with my wife and a bunch of close friends, immersing ourselves in the enneagram. It’s something I’ve done a bit of before and highly recommend it! The enneagram is an ancient way of understanding the human personality, our instincts, gifts, struggles and strengths. There are several different perspectives on it. There are similarities between the enneagram and various other approaches to understanding ourselves and each other better, like the Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finder etc, all of which I have found really helpful. On Myers-Briggs, I’m an ENFP. My core strengths are ‘believer’, ‘activator’, ‘communicator’, ‘achiever’  and ‘woo’ (the ability to win others over). I love knowing this stuff, especially in team dynamics because it allows each person to play to their strengths and to some extent, cover each others weaknesses.


enneagram-mapWhat I love about the enneagram is that it helps me, more than anything else I know, to face up to my struggles, my shadow, my ego and my unhealthy behaviour patterns without leaving me feeling ashamed or condemned. It helps me get to grips with my blind spots when it comes to my raw instincts and enables me to draw on others for support and help in making healthy changes. For those of you, who have never read anything about it, there are basically 9 personality types, each with 3 basic instinct types attached to them. Understanding your type and your instinct (especially your blind spot) can really help you on a journey towards freedom, wholeness and peace. It made me reflect so much on how I practice as a doctor and how often I might actually try and medicate someone or ‘therapy’ them, to try and soothe their pain when they might just be at a monumentally important moment of transition, discovery or realisation.


I am a type 7, with a wing in 8. The instinct types are either self-preservation (which isimgres actually my blind spot – I’m just not that great at being disciplined in taking care of my basic needs e.g. diet and exercise, or my motivation for doing these things is not self-care!), social adaptation or sexual attraction (that’s my prime driver – rather unfortunately termed, as it doesn’t mean I’m some kind of sex fiend!). Being a type 7 is actually awesome (of course). It means being an optimist, an activator, an enthusiast, a visionary and an adventurer. I see potential in people and possibilities and carry a strong belief that things can and will change for good. For me, life is fun and full of joy and I love to assimilate loads of interesting knowledge, being a generalist (suiting my work as a GP, rather than a specialist)……What’s not to love, right?! But here’s the thing…..


As a type 7, I have a basic need to avoid pain. So, being a doctor is actually one of the best things I could do, as I have to confront pain every day. But when things are painful, I have a tendency to bury things, rather than deal with them. I hate having difficult imgresconversations with people, as I hate causing pain in others. I love to find the next new thing, but this means I get easily distracted, my head is full of new ideas and lots of wonderful imaginings so I find it hard to focus, to stay in the present moment and be at peace. My visionary side can easily lead to idealism and when things don’t turn out the way I had imagined, I can verge towards anger or resentment. Even though I know this about myself, when I am not doing so well, when I am not as healthy as I could be, I see these patterns emerging. And my root struggle (and this is entirely true!) is gluttony! When life is painful, instead of embracing the pain, exploring it and confronting it, I take comfort in eating – (type 7’s often have yo-yo-ing weight or other addictions). I’m on a quest to lose a stone at the moment, but because self-preservation is my blind spot, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds!


Thankfully, there is great hope – as there is for all of us, no matter what type we are. Part of this hope is found in having people of other types around me. My wife, for example, is a type 4 – someone with a creative and sensitive side. She feels pain, not just the pain she experiences, but of those around her, which makes the expression of her emotions very strong. This is an amazing gift for me – it makes me connect with reality. And I am a good gift to her, as I carry a lot of hope. Another beautiful truth in the enneagram, is that my ego, my desire to be self-centred, build the world around me, to remain strong, to be the imagesmost important person in my life, deliberately fools me into suppressing the vulnerable or shadow part of me, which if I embrace, can actually allow me to become a great deal more healed. If I can face up to the little person inside me, that I hide away and try to squash, who feels worried at times that I don’t have enough and that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the build of issues on the inside of me; if I can recognise when I have entered the realm of fake joy and anticipatory energy and instead of veering towards trying to control everything and make everything feel happy but rather admit where I’m really at…..then and only then can I find a place of true contentment, where simplicity is restored, where I can focus, be present and know things are ‘perfect just as they are’…..then I can let go of idealism and enter the realm of sober joy, where truth resonates with hope and allows me to be the very best version of me.


Many of us get stuck, because we’re so intent on preserving the ego projection of ourselves, that we never embrace the weakness inside us that will actually help us become the gift to the world we are really made to be……healing and wholeness is so much more than we allow it to be. What are your root struggles? What do you need to avoid? What are your blind spots? Find out, embrace them and be well.







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3 Keys for the Future of Healthcare

This week I traveled to London for an interview. The lovely team that I work with have nominated me for the HSJ Clinical Leader of the Year award. Unbeknownst to me, this meant presenting myself before a panel of experts and leaders in the field of healthcare to talk about the work we have been doing. It was a privilege to get to do this. One of the questions gave me an opportunity to explore with them what I have learnt that has the capacity to bring transformational change….another was about the nature of leadership (which I will blog on next time).


So, for what it’s worth, here are the 3 key things  which I consider to be vital to unlock the future of sustainable healthcare, just in case they are helpful!


  1. Culture Change 


Much has been written in the press (and quite rightly so) over the last few years about some of the toxic culture that is at work in the NHS. Sometimes the toxicity is to do with power plays, competition, hierarchy, bullying, low morale and substandard care. But in other cases it is to do with a lack of compassion and care towards those who work in the system which causes the other negative behaviours or leads on to emotion fatigue and poor delivery of service.


When I moved into my role as “lead clinical commissioner of maternity services” (we love long titles in the health service!), three and a half years ago, it was just as Sir Bill Kirkup was publishing his report into the University Hospital of Morecambe Bay. It highlighted the failings we had in our maternity and neonatal services that had lead to some extremely sad and unnecessary losses of life. It targeted the negative culture within our teams and directly challenged some of the behaviours. Morale was understandably at an all time low. But there has been a significant change in culture over the last few years. Cultural shift is absolutely possible but involves a willingness to look stupid at times, to persevere when things feel awkward and remain hopeful when the task seems impossible. I believe the secret lies in rehumanising team meetings, connecting at a relational level, being vulnerable with each other, learning from mistakes, challenging unacceptable practice but creating an atmosphere of grace in which people can reflect, learn, grow, develop, change and discover each other with a deeper understanding and eyes that choose to look with kindness. I refuse to start any of the team meetings I chair without checking how people are doing, giving them space to tell a bit of their story. I want to give space for people to encourage each other, say what they love about each other and what they most appreciate about one another’s work. It’s not rocket science. It’s called connection and compassion! I’ve seen it work here in maternity teams, in our health and wellbeing teams and it really can happen anywhere. Without giving it space and time, nothing will change. But where there is a real sense of togetherness and hope, many more things become possible.


2. Community Partnership


Part of our problem in healthcare is our level of expertise. We know far too much. We “know” what’s good for people. We “know” what people and communities need. We “know” what will make them better. BUT we have not yet really learned to LISTEN. I have found it to be a very humbling and necessary experience to shut my mouth, quieten my need to fix and really listen to the people and communities I am looking to serve and live amongst. When our team hosts conversations to listen to people here around their dreams for this area in terms of health and wellbeing, they don’t talk about extra appointments at weekends or shorter waiting times. They talk about dog poo, safe playing spaces for kids, singing, looking after elderly neighbours, help with exercise and eating well, safe places for people with mental health problems to get together and be understood and many other things. I have found that listening builds partnerships. It creates trust. It means that with our communities, we can co-commission things, and we can do things together rather than the experts doing things to them.


If we are going to see the social movement we need around health and wellbeing in this country, we are going to have to let go of some of our “knowing” and be humble enough to learn. We are going to need to partner with people and not do things to them. We are going to need to focus more on prevention than treatment. We are going to need to work differently. Without the vital engagement and listening with and to our communities, we will never achieve the holy grail of a sustainable health service that remains free for everybody. Together, many things become more possible, and we can learn to live in peace.


3.  Collaboration


Every organisation is strapped for cash. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it is the reality of our current economic model. Collaboration and the sharing of resources between partners and organisations is the only way forward. I love sitting in team meetings that involve healthcare – in its different guises – primary, secondary and community services, with social care, the police, the fire service, mental health teams, the voluntary sector, the faith sector, the city and county councils. Creating new cultures, letting down barriers, discovering shared vision, pooling ideas and resources – seriously good for the soul and definitely the future we are looking for.


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