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  • Writer's pictureMegan Filoramo

You can't take a break

One of the most common complaints in nursing is the inability to take a break. Like every nurse there were years that I said on a daily basis “I can’t even get a break to pee.”

And the worst part is, even if you don’t have to pee, the knowledge that you can’t take a break hangs over you like a black cloud. It’s like running on a hamster wheel instead of running somewhere with a finish line.

We don’t see a way out because the second part of the sentence, “I can’t get a break”, is “because I have no one to cover me.”

I know all of this is old news to you.

What surprised me this week, is that this belief can bleed into the rest of your life. We take something that was probably 100% true in a hospital setting and apply it erroneously to other settings.

Not sure what I am talking about? Full disclosure, this took some serious self-evaluation for me to realize especially since I haven't been in an inpatient setting for years. (I didn't even realize I was doing this.)

It’s similar to the idea that we carry programming that we learn in our childhood with us into adulthood, good, bad or otherwise. I’m not going to lie, I’ve always kind of resisted the idea that my past dictates my present but unfortunately, denial can only carry you for so long. It is just the nature of our experiences, they build on each other, each one changing us a little bit. The good news is, once we realize what we are carrying from experience to experience, we can decide whether or not to keep carrying it.

Ok, back to nursing.

This idea of “I can’t take a break, I have no one to cover me” can sneak its way into our home lives.

Don’t believe me?

When was the last time you gave yourself a break?

Not a planned lunch with friends but a true stop-in-the-middle-of-what-you-are-doing break?

Not a walk-with-your-partner but a rejection of a self-imposed obligation break?

Not a full stop because you are forced to, because you can’t take one more step, but a true, compassionate, understanding-that-you-are-stressed-out break?

What’s that? You can’t remember ever doing this?

I know.

It’s ok.

It’s just a faulty application of one principle to the wrong situation. It’s like starting an antibiotic empirically but then not changing when you get the cultures back.

The belief that we need to keep going without stopping is the empiric antibiotic; it is initially self-protective. But the culture results are in, we need to give ourselves a break.

What comes up for you if I tell you that you need to take a break? What would you make it mean about yourself if you took a break?

As I was reflecting on this today, I took the example of this weekly post. What if I gave myself a break from writing it? Just the thought of it gave me severe anxiety, like chest-tightening, palpitation anxiety. I have put out a weekly post for the last 136 weeks. Is someone going to die if I intentionally took a break this week? Nope.

But that’s what it feels like when I think about it.

This is just one example of how I am bringing old programming forward, the programming of “I can’t take a break”. And it makes sense because taking a break when you have 11 patients relying on you and no one to cover you is dangerous, for your patients and yourself. But writing a post and caring for 11 post-surgical patients do not carry the same amount of risk.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think I am alone in this.

I see a lot of nurses struggling with the idea of doing it all, of getting everything done, of not taking a break.

I see a lot of nurses who don’t stop until they are forced to, until their body or soul comes crashing up against a brick wall.

And it makes me sad, because it is compassion and drive and misapplied beliefs that have us running headfirst into the wall.

Just changing the misapplied beliefs can stop us before the collision.

It doesn’t have to be hard, but it does have to be practiced. (I will let you know how my practice goes.)

Step 1: Search to see if you are doing this to yourself. Do you believe you can’t take a break? Do you hold yourself to standards that feel always out of reach?

Step 2: Do not beat yourself up. Just like an innocent child can carry untrue beliefs about themselves and expectations into their adulthood, we can carry thoughts and beliefs about who we need to be from nursing into our personal lives. It doesn’t make us bad; it makes us normal.

Have some compassion for yourself the same way you would have some compassion for the patient who is trying to get their head around a new diagnosis.

Step 3: Decide what it would even look like to take a break. What would that mean for you? What obligation are you treating as a life-or-death decision and not a choice?

Step 4: Choose a belief that feels better. Yup, you can just make one up and practice it. What belief could you create that protects the way you feel about yourself?

Step 5: Don’t run headfirst into the wall.

So obviously I opted to write this post. I didn’t want or need a break from this. But here are some of the other beliefs I tried on this week.

  • I will get all the things done that I want to do, and I will let the rest go.

  • Nothing bad will happen if I take a break. (I was surprised when I came up with this one that I felt such relief).

  • My value doesn’t lie in what I get done or don’t get done.

Try taking a break when you need it.

You have my permission to try it, nothing bad will happen.

Let’s keep all the beliefs in the appropriate setting so we can minimize the running into walls.

I’m here if you need me.

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