Monday, January 03, 2022

The Nurse, the Martyr, and the Oxygen Mask

Over the years, I’ve known a plethora nurses. I’ve known new nurses, seasoned nurses, frightened nurses, burned-out nurses, and nurses who were so jaded they couldn’t even see their patients if they were right in front of their noses. I’ve known nurses who clocked out at the end of their shift and never looked back, and I’ve known others who consistently clocked out two hours late and then were up all night hoping their patients were OK. It takes all kinds, and some suffer unnecessarily more than others. 

oxygen mask

Many of us are nurses because we’re caring people, and when someone asks why we became a nurse, we might say something like, “Oh, I like to help people”. And that sounds nice. But we know there’s more to it than that, don’t we?

Now, when we like to help people, that can truly be a double-edged sword, can’t it? We care, we care some more, and then we find that we’re caring so much that we can’t—or don’t—think or care about much else. We eat poorly, we sleep even worse than we eat, and maybe we drink, smoke, or don’t exercise because we’re too busy caring.

Maybe, because we’re so caring, everyone around us at home and in our neighborhoods feels free to ask us to care some more. And we do. Again and again.

And then, one day, we wake up after all of this time caring for others so well, and we realize that we haven’t been caring for ourselves. We’re tired, we’re depressed, we’re overweight, and our relationships have actually suffered (perhaps because we were busy caring so much about everyone but ourselves).

Take “Nurse Jackie”, for instance. Maybe you’ve seen it and maybe you haven’t. I know I castigated the show here on Digital Doorway back in its first season, but it turns out that the series made some powerful points about nursing and healthcare, as unrealistic as it may often be. Nurse Jackie cared a lot and often went (sometimes terribly unrealistically) the extra mile: stealing meds for patients, giving them money, visiting them at home, and otherwise doing what she felt was right. Meanwhile, she lied to everyone in her personal and professional lives, and more or less continued to nurse a pretty hefty addiction that contributed mightily to her demise. 

So, what addictions are you nursing? Is it an addiction to caring? An addiction to being needed? Or is it an addiction to being so busy that your thoughts, emotions, needs and desires are completely sublimated to your identity as a nurse and a caring person?

I’m speaking from experience, here, folks. I’ve been there. I’ve been burnt out. I’ve ignored my body, eschewed my spiritual growth, and otherwise thrown a wrench into my life in the service of being a caring, compassionate nurse.

In the end, it all comes down to that same old tired cliché of oxygen mask. Remember? When you get on a plane and the flight attendant demonstrates how to put on your oxygen mask in case of a sudden change in cabin pressure, they always say to put your own mask on first before you try to help anyone else. And why? Because you’re useless to those who depend on you if you’re not caring for yourself. It may be a cliché, but oftentimes clichés are clichés for a reason. 

So if some of us are prone to embody the archetype of the nurse as hero or martyr, we’re always free to do that, but we can also rise above the caricatures and stereotypes and do something radical by honoring ourselves along the way.

Yes, we can choose to be the walking wounded, or we can choose to be the walking well, living our lives with integrity, and making our own self-care and wellness of equal importance to all of those others whom we serve and care for.

It’s nice to be needed, and it’s nice to be loved and appreciated. But if we’re getting so-called "secondary gain” out of being a nurse martyr, then at some point we need to wake up, smell the coffee, and put our own well-being back on the front burner.

In the course of my career, I’ve been all over this particular map, and part of my personal mission is about creating a life that’s balanced, sane, healthy, and focused on my own wellness as much as anyone else’s. Sure, I still catch myself trying to be the “uber nurse” helping everyone and doing everything and more. But that’s the point: I catch myself, redirect my energy and make sure that I’m not burning my wick at three ends with no thought of the ‘morrow, as they say.

So, choose health. Choose your own well-being. Choose to do enough, but not too much. And choose to be the kind of nurse who cares for his- or herself in order to care for others more effectively. It’s the right thing to do, and that proverbial oxygen mask will serve you—and others—for years to come.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a Board Certified Nurse Coach offering holistic career development for nurses and healthcare professionals. All things Nurse Keith can be found at

Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the  nursing profession. written for,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University,, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog,, American Nurse Today, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. 

Living in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, Keith shares a magical life with his partner, Shada McKenzie, a gifted, empathic, and highly skilled traditional astrologer and reader of the tarot. They regularly cavort with their remarkably adorable animal companions, George, Buck, and Lorca. You can find George the Cat on Instagram using the hashtag #georgethecatsantafe. You can find Buck and Lorca where tasty treats and fun walks can be found. 


Elizabeth Scala said...

Hi there Keith,
Great post! I couldn't agree with you more. I also have been at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. I like your wording of "catching" yourself more quickly and shifting the energy from caring ONLY for others to having that balance (care for self & others). Caring for self will only make us better, more productive, and healthier, happier professionals.

I do have a question for you though- what about the nurses who say or think that they don't have the support in their role for self-care. Meaning, with financial pressures, fiscal crises, and staffing issues- what about the nurse that says- "all I do is work and that's what's expected of me and my work doesn't value self-care and no one cares and it's looked down upon..." and so on and so forth.

We can care for ourselves, but what about when the external environment doesn't support that? What then? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.


Keith "Nurse Keith" Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC said...

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful comment, Elizabeth.

As for your question, taking responsibility for our own self-care is paramount, even when we don't feel supported by others.

Many of us (myself included) can hold various external factors responsible for our personal situation(s), but no matter how unsupported we feel, it's up to us to manifest that support for ourselves, in the end.

I have honestly previously cast myself in what I would call the "victim" role in the "victim/perpetrator" matrix. It was easy to do, but I eventually had to see that I had the power (and responsibility) to extricate myself from that self-appointed role.

Having said that, there are always allies that we can recruit to our team, including friends, loved ones, coaches, therapists, and others. And when there's little or no support at work, we simply have to go against the grain and care for ourselves anyway, even if it's in small ways. And if the culture at a particular workplace is unhealthy enough to devalue you to the extent where you're hurting yourself, then it's time to move on to a healthier environment.