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Nursing, Care Giving & Burnout

I grew up with a mother who was a Registered Nurse (RN). I recall being a curious adolescent and asking my mom why nurses always seemed so anxious and unhappy? Without hesitation she flatly stated, “Because we have to work with doctors.” She seemed to reflect and then sadly she said, “And we don’t treat each other very well.”

As a therapist and addictions counselor I’m aware that a very disproportionate percentage of nurses and caregivers (RNs, LPNs, CNAs and DSPs) come from families overshadowed by abuse and addiction. It makes sense – we grew up taking care of people and we went on to do it for a living. The pitfall is we join organizations that tend to be every bit as sick as the families we survived.

Nobody told us what we were getting into and we had such good intentions…  We found ourselves serving bureaucracies in which patient care and outcomes mean little more than earning/upholding a JACO (Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals Organization) certification.

Most of us give our best. The need is overwhelming, the working conditions are horrid and management seems to understand nothing about what we do. At the end of the day, we have at best a warm feeling in our hearts and pain in our backs. It takes a toll because we’re sandwiched in the middle of those who walk on water and those who truly hate their jobs. The folks we relate to are wounded just like us and this plays out in a myriad of unhealthy ways.

The hierarchy of health care is alive and unwell. The further down the ladder you are, the more you do directly to care for folks, the less voice you have and the less supported you are. What most often gets to us though is the folks who work peripherally to us. We alternately befriend and betray. We worry about each other and become frustrated when our colleagues won’t allow us to protect them from themselves.

The biggest difficulty is that we who were taught so fully and unfairly to care for others were not taught to care for ourselves. We seek to earn worth, acceptance and love. We compete for the doctor’s attention and approval in exactly the same way we did for dad’s. We look to our older colleagues and charge nurses as mother figures and find ourselves enmeshed, abused, or dismissed. It all feels so familiar and yet it remains a mystery in which we cannot ascertain what we did so wrong that we should be treated as we are.

Nurses have no monopoly here. The truth is, most of us in the helping and healing professions fall short in self care and unwittingly, we’re working through the same dynamics and conflicts we experienced in our families of origin. This guarantees burnout because it fuels our inner conflicts and feeds our demons. Deep within us there is a very small voice that demands, “When do I get mine?”

Subconsciously, we’re playing out the same story and looking for a different outcome. In our dreams there are promotions, healthy friendships and healing for ourselves. We’re overwhelmed with recognition, appreciation, and praise. We serve every patient to their complete satisfaction and become an important part of their healing. We work for supportive people who genuinely care about our well being. It’s great until we wake up.

There’s a tipping point in our careers where we choose a way of being in order to survive. Some of us become jaded and angry. Some of us become morbidly obese and others get cosmetic surgeries galore. Most of us settle into far less of a career and life than we wanted.

The salience of anxiety disorders and depression amongst nurses is staggering, as are rates of drug addiction and alcoholism. We’re facilitating better health in others as we eat antacids by the pound and only dream of a good night’s sleep. We are all wounded healers. Our work does not define us. We are more than what we do.

Answer that voice within that asks for your heart’s yearning and let’s work together. There are healthy healers amongst us and we want so much to help you claim what we received. All of us want to inspire ripple effects. If we connect to each other meaningfully, the effects will be far reaching and beautiful.

It’s not selfish to take care of ourselves. It’s not selfish to get the help we need. Reach out. Connect. Heal.

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