The despair of nurses breaks my heart. Despite the fact that there are 3.8 million nurses in the US, we feel alone.
How is this even possible?
Don’t believe me? See if any of this sounds familiar.
- I feel like I am treated like I am disposable.
- Admin has no idea what we actually do or need.
- Nurse to patient ratios are ridiculous.
- This is unsafe practice and I am afraid for my license.
- What happened to the joy I used to have?
- I feel like I don’t care anymore.
- Is everyone this tired and stressed?
- Why is it so hard for me to do what every other nurse is doing?
- I am on the verge of burnout and I have only been doing this for x amount of years!
- I don’t know if I can keep doing this.
I didn’t make up these statements. They are direct quotes from real nurses, nurses who are afraid that the career that they chose from a place of excitement and dedication was the wrong choice, or unsustainable, or costing them their soul. And this is just what I heard this week.
I’m here to tell you, you are not alone.
But I also know that it is easy to FEEL alone in the midst of getting through your day to day work commitments, especially when this underlying feeling of dissatisfaction is weighing you down, like a ball and chain, making it that much harder to keep going.
I had a revelation this week in my own struggles. In my desire to help, I have signed up for multiple professional activities over the course of the next year. As part of that, I have a number of deadlines all of which seem to be due in the next 3 weeks. Then I spent a week on jury duty and my life came to a grinding halt. What I thought had been a great idea at the time was putting me over the edge. In the midst of trying to take care of all my patients’ needs (since I was out of the office) and meeting the deadlines, I found myself back to the 4am wakings with thoughts running 100miles an hour. I found myself eating girl scout cookies even though I have been off of sugar for 6 weeks. I found myself contemplating not participating to the fullest in opportunities that I really wanted to be involved in.
I was torn.
And then, on top of it all, I was beating myself up for not being able to snap out of it. After all, I’m the coach, this is what I do. This is what I help other people do.
I tried to meditate. It helped some.
I tried to get outside. It helped some.
I tried to take some non-crucial things off my schedule. It helped some.
But the deep feeling of anxiety in my chest didn’t go away. That heavy, buzzy feeling that feels intolerable? Yup- it stayed. And it made me feel like I could cry at any moment.
We can’t “action” ourselves out of anxiety. This is why all of the things I did only helped some.
So, I talked to my coach about it. I know that all feelings come from my thoughts and yet when I dove into it, the thought was “I don’t want to let them down.”
It sounds like a nice thought, a motivating thought, but it was killing me. I didn’t want to let down the people who were counting on me. I want to be the person who doesn’t let people down.
And so I had a problem. The thought “I don’t want to let them down” was causing me incredible anxiety but yet it wasn’t a thought I wanted to negotiate. I don’t want to be the person who misses deadlines or takes a week to answer emails. I don’t want to not be involved in these things. The work is important.
But I also didn’t want to feel the way I was.
So we had to keep digging. And that’s when I had the revelation (there was no beam of light from the sky- sorry). I realized that all of those sentences about what I don’t want to be were really about me letting myself down. I have no control at all over how other people will react or feel if I’m not involved or get something done at a B- level instead of an A+. Heck, B- work might make them really happy because then they don’t have to do it. It was the all-or-nothing standard that I was setting for myself that was the problem, not the work.
Now all I needed to solve for was the idea of letting myself down.
And this is 100% up to me.
What if I decided that I could never let myself down? Not because I am perfect but because I know my intentions; my intentions to keep growing and trying new things, my intention to help other people, even if imperfectly.
The heavy, buzzy feeling lightened a little. The urge to cry went down a notch. Finally.
So what does this have to do with the despair of nursing? I think it is exactly the same. We have all these outside forces making things difficult: staffing ratios, patient frustrations and expectations, complaints, physical fatigue, lack of acknowledgement. But the real problem is we feel like this is making it impossible to be a good nurse, to give good patient care.
And we feel like we are letting other people down… or more accurately, we feel like we are letting ourselves down. We don’t want to be subpar nurses. We don’t want to be stretched so thin that we can’t give a high level of care. It makes sense to hold the work situation accountable for how we feel, but then we are powerless to change it.
And the 4 am wakings and the sugar cravings get worse.
What if you decided that you can’t let yourself down? That even in the worst situation what you are doing is important, and enough: that you will always do the best work a nurse can do in the situation you are in. What if we gave up the impossible ideal of “the best nursing care possible in a utopian world” and embraced the ideal of showing up with the intention to give the best nursing care possible in the current reality? What if defining our worth, and importance, and satisfaction was actually totally up to us and not admin or patients or anyone else?
I know it seems too good to be true that a simple change in thinking can mitigate the stress of work. But it’s not. It takes some practice and some constant reminding (and sometimes a meltdown about jury duty) but it is literally a game changer.
Do you have anything to lose by trying this? By spending some time observing what you are actually thinking through your day that is feeding the buzzing anxiety?
Deciding that you can’t let yourself down is where it starts.
As Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
If you still feel overwhelmed by it all, reach out. I am here to help you navigate it. We all need support.