Speak up, but don’t offend anyone

Last week, I was at the grocery store checkout with my 6 month old son, Austin. He was fussing in his car seat because he needed to sleep. After ringing through my groceries, bagging them and handling my money, the cashier proceeded to walk around the counter and play with my son’s hands and toys in an attempt to stop his crying.

Are you friggin kidding me? I remember thinking. It’s cold and flu season. Don’t you realize how dirty your hands are? Now my son is going to put his hands in his mouth because he’s teething and be exposed to who knows what. 

But I said nothing. Literally, nothing.

I stood there and let it happen, completely flooded with anxiety, confusion and anger. After the cashier stopped touching Austin, all I could do was take him out of his car seat, swaddle him in a blanket and walk out of the store.

Once I got to my car and disinfected his hands, I realized what had happened: I was tangled in a web of shame about speaking up. I was so overwhelmed by unreasonable and unattainable expectations I have about standing up and speaking out that I shut down and froze.

Say what you want to say, but don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

Use your expertise, but don’t be a know-it-all. 

Say something, but don’t be annoying.

Care, but don’t care too much.

Maintain boundaries, but don’t piss people off.

Be protective, but don’t be overprotective.

Stand up for what you believe in, but don’t offend people.

Advocate, but not too hard.

Be brave, but don’t take risks.

If I did speak up, then I risked being criticized, judged and perceived as ‘crazy’. But if I didn’t speak up, then I risked exposing my vulnerable baby to harm. I was ashamed and trapped between two no good options, so I said nothing.

Speaking up is hard for many people, especially women. Not many of us are comfortable taking a stand for something we believe in. We tell ourselves stories that make us afraid to speak up, people close to us teach us not to and we’re surrounded by messages in our culture that work hard to keep us quiet.

How is this relevant to nursing? It’s relevant because none of us are immune to the conflicting expectations upon us about who we should be and how we ought to act, especially when it comes to speaking up. What triggers us to experience shame around speaking up at home can trigger us to feel shame and fear at work.

If we’re afraid of the potential consequences of speaking up, advocating, taking a stand, doing the right thing and questioning authority in our work, what’s at stake? For starters, the wellbeing of the people we care for, the public’s trust in our profession, our own reputation and authenticity.

We can talk about all the things we should do for clients and we can know what’s expected of nurses. We can hear about the importance of advocating, reporting colleagues, questioning unsafe orders, and admitting mistakes. But that won’t get us far unless we learn how to overcome the shame and fear we experience when who we want to be and what we need to say conflicts with expectations that lead us to shut down and stay quiet.

It’s impossible to avoid unattainable expectations and feelings of shame, but it is possible to develop the capacity to move through shame and behave in a way that allows us to be who we want to be.

If we’re going to do the work we need to do as nurses, the only way we’re going to be able to do that is to start talking about shame.