Monday, August 20, 2018

Words as a Barometer of Your Nursing Career

At no matter what point you find yourself in your nursing career, the words you use are powerful. How you talk to your patients and colleagues says a lot about you, and how you talk about your career, your work, and your life says even more. And we also need to consider how you talk to yourself. Are you choosing words that are empowering, positive, and indicative of your passion, expertise, and professionalism? Or are you stuck in a negative and defeatist loop?

We all have bad days, and we also need to be careful when we're at risk of falling into negative language traps that paint us into corners filled with bad feelings, resentment, and negativity -- all of which can contribute to burnout and compassion fatigue.

What words do you choose when it comes to your nursing career and your work as a healthcare professional? Even if things are bad, can you reframe your experience and find ways to see it in a different light?

passion led us here
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Bad Stuff Happens

Let's face it -- there's always bad stuff that can happen in healthcare. Patients die, colleagues freak out and break down, and the shit gets slung in all manner of ways. However, those bad times are the moments when it's most crucial to keep perspective and not lose sight of the bigger picture.

When things are going south, we must try to remember that it's not always this way, and we can turn it around. We can also remember that even the worst shifts will eventually end (like how all bleeding eventually stops).

Having said that, being in the thick of it is never a picnic, and sometimes we just need to moan and complain. Engaging in time-limited bitching sessions is usually fine, especially when we maintain awareness that it's just that: a short-lived session of complaining that will come to a natural end. The negative stuff doesn't usually happen all the time, so we can have a person practice that keeps our complaints from being aired 24/7.

Break the Patterns 

When things are wild and wooly at work, it's a true skill to be able to distinguish what's an anomaly or one-time event from an ongoing pattern.

Are there just too many people on your unit who want to do nothing but drag everyone down with their negativity? Are their bullies who make everyone's lives hell by dint of their unkind words and actions?

If you have a bad day every week or two but the rest isn't so terrible, be sure to recognize and verbalize that reality. Instead of saying or thinking, "Man, work was awful today; I hate my job," you could say or think, "Man, what a rough day -- but most of my workdays aren't that bad. I bet tomorrow will be better."

Catching your proclivity to complain and dismiss out of hand anything good that's recently happened may be a sign that you're burned out and need a break. If you can't see any clear sky amidst the storm clouds of your nursing career, consider whether it's you or it's actually your work environment or colleagues at the heart of the matter.

If the feces is hitting the fan every day and your workplace feels truly out of control, this may be a pattern you don't have the power to change. If you find that there's truly nothing but negative things to say about your work, you either need an attitudinal adjustment or a new job. Complaining once in a while is fine in order to blow off steam, but a pattern of complaining belies something else that's going on and needing to be addressed -- and that can sometimes mean getting the heck out of there.

Words Matter

Using the term "just" to describe anything about your nursing career is a total no-no in my book. "I'm just a nurse" doesn't fly with me -- what are you trying to say when you stick the word "just" into that sentence?

When you say you're "just a nurse", you're automatically diminishing your importance and your impact as a healthcare professional. I've even heard someone say, "Well, I'm just a circulating nurse in the OR." Excuse me? A circulating nurse in the OR? That's a fantastic accomplishment and position to hold! Does a doctor ever say, "I'm just a doctor" or "I'm just a surgeon"?

Saying that you're "just" a nurse gives us a clue that you may be hiding behind being a nurse. This can mean that you're abdicating responsibility because other members of the team are more educated or have more initials after their name than you do. This can also be seen as a cop-out wherein you consciously choose to remain in the shadows. Nurses have historically spent plenty of time in the shadow of physicians over the centuries -- why perpetuate that dynamic now with your choice of vocabulary?

Nurses' resumes and cover letters often belie how nurses feel about themselves, and I've seen plenty of such documents that simply don't reflect the knowledge, skill, and expertise that many nurses are blessed with.

My experience is that nurses are often hesitant to toot their own horns. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Are my resume, cover letters, and LinkedIn profile sufficiently dynamic descriptions of my nursing career? 
  • Do I hold back when I speak or write about my career and who I am as a nurse? If so, why?
  • Am I keeping my light under the proverbial bushel? 
  • How can I up the ante regarding my use of language when talking or writing about my nursing career? 
  • Am I afraid to own my expertise, skill, and knowledge? What am I afraid of? 

The Language Tune-Up

If you need a tune-up of the language you use to describe your own value as a healthcare professional, it's never too late. You can make a conscious choice to take your resume to the next level, learn to sell yourself more powerfully in a job interview, or otherwise showcase who you are and what you bring to the table.

When you catch yourself of a trusted colleague using the word "just" before they say "a nurse", you have some work to do. Name it, call it out, and then make a conscious choice to delete that meaning of the word "just" from your vocabulary. No more hiding or self-deprecation -- your nursing career needs you to step up your language and own who you are.

What you say and how you say it has power. Your ability to speak your truth about being a nurse couldn't be more important since it reflects on your own professionalism -- and the profession itself.

Words as a Career Barometer

If you have nothing positive to say about your job, consider whether it's you or the job. Are you projecting negative feelings about yourself onto your work situation, or do your environment, colleagues, or patients bring out the worst in you?

If you're caring for the wrong patient population and can't stop complaining, that can be changed by seeking new employment or a new assignment. If your colleagues are total Negative Nancys, Debbie Downers, or bullies, maybe you're just stuck in a rotten workplace culture and you need to quit and go elsewhere. And if the administration or managers offer nothing but criticism, there may be no recourse but to fly the coop.

The words you use to describe what you do, who you are, and where you work speak volumes, and they're a barometer of how you truly feel and how you see yourself and your work as a nurse. You have control over the language you use, but not over others' use of words. You can attempt to positively impact your workplace culture, but only to a certain extent (unless you're the CEO or CNO and have more power and influence).

Check your language barometer. Are you choosing to describe your work life in positive, forward-thinking terms? If negativity is the order of the day, is there something you need to change inside yourself, or do you need to escape your current job? Are you burnt to a crisp? Is your current work situation simply untenable? Words can be a powerful barometer of what you need to do in order to take your nursing career -- and your nursing self-esteem -- to the next level.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway. Please visit his online platforms and reach out for his support when you need it most.

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.

As of May of 2018, Keith is the host of Mastering Nursing, an interview-style podcast showcasing inspiring, forward-thinking nurse thought leaders and innovators. 

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. Keith has written for,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University, 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. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives, and his adorable and remarkably intelligent cat, George.

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