Nurses are generally very good at caring for others, and many of us fall flat on our faces when it comes to caring for ourselves. So, aren't we going against the popular wisdom of the "oxygen mask theory" when we give and give without meeting our own needs?
Just the other day on RN.FM Radio, we were talking about nurse self care and burnout prevention, and a traveling Labor and Delivery nurse who had worked 100 hours in eight days called into the studio. Describing the situation on Twitter and on our #RNFMRADIO Tweetchat, we cajoled her into coming on the live show, and she agreed to do so. As she verbalized a deep commitment to work and family, she confessed to rarely doing anything for herself, focusing instead on the care of others, both at home and at work. She also described the guilt that she feels if she doesn't work so hard, guilt over not being there for the new mothers who need her, or the new nurses who require her skilled mentoring.
While it's laudable to be dedicated to caring for others---whether they be patients, family members, colleagues or friends---we nurses can often care about others to a fault. Denying self care and working long hours while tending to patients is a dangerous and volatile mixture, as well as a fairly solid recipe for burnout and compassion fatigue, especially if you consistently deny your needs once you punch the clock and head home.
Put on Your Own Mask First
We all pretty much know the drill. When flight attendants demonstrate how to don an oxygen mask in case of a sudden drop in cabin pressure during a flight, they always warn us that it's the recommended practice to put on your own mask before helping others. This is a helpful metaphor, and one that we can apply almost universally to our lives, whether we're nurses or not.
Nurses are generally of personality types that like to serve and help others. Compassion, service, caring and giving are often seen as part and parcel of nursing (although these terms in no way define everything there is to know about nurses, of course), and like the caller to RN.FM Radio on Monday night, we can often give relentlessly without any thought for our own well-being.
As a coach for nurses, I tell my clients that self care must come first. A healthy and balanced nurse knows how to care for him- or herself, and if this is where a coaching client is lacking, this is a life area where we focus a great deal of attention. And while I can't put the oxygen mask on for them, my clients eventually "get" that their own self care is actually the key to being a better nurse---and a happier, healthier person.
Balance, Balance, Balance
Basically, it's all about balance. Work-life balance is a term I use a great deal, and for those of us committed deeply to our work, the scales are sometimes tipped a little too much in the wrong direction. Sound familiar?
Having said that, if the "life" part of that balance equation is also off-balance in and of itself, then we have considerable work to do in making the "life" side of the work/life calculation more balanced, as well. This can be tricky, especially if we're juggling parenting, caregiving of aging parents, work, romantic relationships, friendships, extended family, and all manner of life's complexities.
The Nurse in the Mirror
One universal struggle for many nurses is that they give at work, they give at home, they give at school, and they give some more in whatever other social universe in which they orbit. However, when looking in the mirror, they often see the exhausted face of the last person who gets anything when all the other giving is done. And this is where the rubber meets the proverbial road.
That nurse in the mirror is the most important person in your life---like it or not, admit it or not---and in order to live your optimal life you have to feed, clothe, soothe, entertain and care for this person as if your life depended on it, which it most certainly does.
No one said this was easy, nurses, and no one even mentioned self care in nursing school (did they?), but now that you're out in the mean old world, slogging through the adventure of nursedom (a mighty fine adventure some of the time, I may add), it's time to take back control and consider yourself to be your favorite patient/pet project.
So, look in that mirror again, and if that person looking back at you is impatiently waiting for some true self care, soothing, entertaining and celebrating, make a date to start doing those things---or at least some of them---every day. You'll be a better nurse for it, and you'll also be a happier person while you're at it.