Recently, a charge nurse of a busy telemetry unit set up a coaching appointment to talk about a career change. But instead, when she arrived at my office and sat down, tears started streaming down her cheeks even before she could say hello.
After the tears, we sat in a long silence. She did open her mouth several times trying to speak, but couldn’t find the words she wanted.
Then she waved her hands in front of her face, in a manner suggesting she could just wave this away, and said, “I’m fine, Jackie. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”
This nurse was anything but fine. She was skirting the edges of a weariness so deep and long buried that the only refuge she could find was to do what many of us do to avoid facing our own suffering: retreat into saying to ourselves and others, “I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”
With some gentle probing, several common early warning signs that she was close to burnout emerged: changes in sleep patterns, easy to tears, unable to manage the negativity of coworkers, exhaustion, and doubting herself as a capable nurse and her ability to make a difference.
“Health care professionals (HCPs) constitute a somewhat unique group in that they work in complex settings with high-risk decisions, but are also public-facing with an expectation of compassion and sensitivity. This group is at particular risk of emotional exhaustion.” (Sturgess & Poulsen, 2008)
I see this a lot in my office. Healthcare professionals who come in for one thing, but, once they give themselves a moment to pause, experience a depletion so unexpected that without real attention could become dangerous to their health and career.
They quickly see they need some help caring for themselves. They need to find their way through the weariness and experience the demands of work and home, not only differently, but with better skills and tools.
Retreating Into “I’m fine”-ville
“I’m fine”-ville, though, is not the kind of place you want to plan for your retreat.
Every time you say “I’m fine” when you are not, it is more like you are building a fortress around your heart, so you don’t feel the suffering, rather than giving yourself some room to just be.
At some point, when you are not expecting it, that suffering will leak out, breaching the wall through a thin crack in unhelpful ways. Inwardly, it seeps in with feelings of self-doubt, unworthiness, worry, and/or anxiety. Outwardly, it finds its way out through anger, irritation, inappropriate outbursts and untimely tears.
All of these ways of dealing with stress, overwhelm and bone-wearying exhaustion are part of our natural humanness. They’re how we learned to fight, flee, or freeze from real or imagined threats.
But, another part of our humanness is a vast untapped capacity to be present to what is happening with compassion, with patience, and without harsh judgement. This builds resiliency and a greater skillfulness when worries and self-doubts arise or even when that negative person is in your space.
And while there are many kinds of helpful retreats you can go on, like taking a vacation or time in nature, there is another kind of retreat that allows your mind and body to rest, on a regular basis, wherever you are. It’s accessible even while you are at work, running errands, or when doing the dishes or the laundry.
The practice of mindfulness is the retreat itself
This is what the practice of mindfulness has to offer you and why I recommend learning this practice to my clients and colleagues. It’s not the only thing I recommend, of course. Everyone is unique and has their own needs, preferences and lifestyles and together we find the unique additional strategies that work for them.
But the practice of mindfulness is universal. That’s because mindfulness is a study of yourself and the way you uniquely react to situations. This means the way your body tenses or gut clenches, whether you are someone who internalizes your stress by closing off or closing down, or if you are someone who externalizes and lashes out.
Mindfulness is a study and practice that starts with compassion when self-criticism arises, so you can see it for what it is and how it limits you.
Research shows that learning mindfulness not only helps you but also benefits those you work with and those you care for.
Getting out of overwhelm or depletion can seem like a daunting task when you feel overwhelmed or depleted. But it doesn’t have to be.
This is why I created Room to Breathe: Rewiring for Ease — a mindfulness course that’s just for health professionals. With these practices, you don’t strive to be better or do more. You rest in the practices and things change with your willingness to be present.
Once you begin to practice and learn these mindfulness strategies, you begin to see your way through is not as daunting as you imagined.
Learning mindfulness through the Room to Breathe: Rewiring for Ease program means you don’t have to say, “I’m fine,” when you are not. How do we make sure of this?
- The helpful guidance and instruction of someone who knows the challenges and the rewards of working in healthcare
- A supportive community of other health professionals who really get you,
And that actually is the beginning of reclaiming yourself and the energy to do the work you love.
Ask yourself if you’ve been feeling stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, or like the work you love is no longer the work you love to do. Learning the mindfulness practices and concepts in Room to Breathe can help you and those you care about.
With love and thanks for what you do in caring for yourself so you can do your caring work.