There are typically two types of people in life: those who give, and those who take. Most of us are a bit of a mix of both ends and land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But with everything going on lately, I thought this topic was pretty fitting, people who are sacrificing their lives for others and putting their well being and safety first, and what not.
For myself, I became a nurse because I wanted to help others. So I guess a giver so to speak. My own experiences on the other side of the bed were a big part of choosing my profession. I knew I always wanted to work with kids, but my journey into nursing primarily evolved from meeting so many of the wonderful people who cared for me when I was younger and wanting to pay that forward.
If you had asked me if I expected to have experienced the things I have through my fairly short career thus far in nursing, I would have told you no. To be perfectly honest, I had a decent idea of what being in the hospital environment and what being a nurse entailed but I had no idea how much emotional toll it would take on me in such a short period of time.
While it is in my nature to care so much about others and put them first, I was constantly putting everyone else’s needs above my own because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. While sometimes this may be the “right” or “easy” thing to do, in the long run you’re not doing yourself any favours.
In my first two years as a nurse, I was faced with some situations that both broke my heart and pushed me to my limits. Not just the sad stuff that makes you want to sit in your car for 25 minutes in your parking garage after your shift because you don’t know how to process it, but the moments which shake you to your core. I vividly remember going out of my way to support that family, and they pulled the rug out from under me. It crushed me. And it made me question my competency as a nurse and wonder “was I really cut out for the job I thought I loved so much?”
Last year, it turned me into a literal ball of anxiety- I was almost constantly worrying about something work related ALL the time. Worried I would make/ had made a mistake, worried about my colleagues’ perceptions of me, worried that I wasn’t good enough or that I was not making the right life decisions for myself. Hypercritical of all my interactions with people, playing things over and over again in my head. And I’m here to tell you that will make you absolutely crazy. I ruined relationships with people that I genuinely care(d) about because I let things get so out of control.
Fast forward to a few years into my nursing career and I have learned so many other lessons. While every day is not perfect I am able to focus on the parts of my job that allow me to feel that I can help others. I’m also a lot better at recognizing the things and situations that trigger me, instead of pushing those feelings down and ending up on the brink of a breakdown like I experienced back then. Last year I deleted all my social media for a bit and made some tough decisions about who the people are that I really want in my life. The people who build me up and help me learn from my mistakes, embrace my flaws. I feel grateful to have learned these hard lessons early on in my life. It has made me focus on what’s really important to me and what I value.
Through all of this, I also learned through all of this, that burnout is very real. It doesn’t just come from the sheer number of hours you are working, but instead from how those things that you worry about or feel anxious about and take home at the end of your shift. The things running through your head when you’re laying in bed trying to fall asleep before your alarm wakes you up in 5 hours to go back to work in the morning. Because I truly believe that things happen for a reason, I have to believe that I have gone through what I have to learn from it.
One of my biggest takeaways has been that nobody will look out for you if you don’t do that for yourself. People can support you, celebrate you, appreciate you- but you have to look for yourself. Being the person that I am, I forget to do this a lot, and have made a really conscious effort the last year or two to strike a better “balance” in my life rather than channel all my energy into work. Because I enjoy being a busy person and having things to do, I am notorious for not saying “no” to things when I should. Man, is that hard for me.
I have a habit of channeling myself into projects and work because it’s where I feel like I can be the most productive and have the most control. You can control organizing every detail of an event but it is a lot harder to control things in a relationship for example, so in a lot of ways it is so much easier for me. But there comes a time, where the reliable, dependable person you are who puts everyone else at the top of your “to do” list before your own needs, it’ll catch up to you. You’re only one person. And you’re only HUMAN.
Every semester when I teach, I talk with my students about self- care. This was not something that I ever learned about in school particularly, and we are really good at saying we talk about it, but we don’t really. Because in my worst moments I didn’t actually really know where to turn, who to talk to. In those moments you feel judged and isolated and you shouldn’t have to jump through a million hoops to get the support that you need. Normally in our teaching sessions, there will be at least one situation a term with child or family that is related to grief, maybe loss, and often death and dying. While these are certainly not the only reasons to struggle, they are new triggers that as a new nurse (and quite frankly just as a person), your brain just doesn’t know how to digest.
There is a misconception that nurses (and just healthcare workers in general) are robots. We step up in crisis, and do the things we need to do, because that is our job. We hold the hands of the dying patients admitted with COVID because they have no family there. We make the memory boxes for childrens’ families when they experience a loss with joy knowing that they will treasure them forever. But that doesn’t mean that as we drive home with our windshields blurred by the tears that won’t stop coming. And just because our shift ends, doesn’t mean we don’t take things home with us.
What I always remind my students is that we are humans FIRST and nurses second. And you can’t give and give and give to everyone else when your own cup is empty. Everyone deals with loss, fatigue and grief in their own way. But nobody teaches or tells you that you need to learn that about yourself. Know what your triggers are, acknowledge how and why you are feeling this way, and know what things bring you joy and make you truly happy to balance out the rest. Make a conscious effort to do these things and take time for yourself (always, but especially when times get tough).
More than ever right now, we are running on empty. Exhausted, overworked, and mentally consumed by the chaos going on in the world. But take a moment today to remember what fills up your cup.