By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN
Too often, I hear nurses say, “We don’t get the respect we deserve.” Most of us blame it on an uninformed media or insensitive administrators. But stop and think about it: The way you speak about yourself and your profession may be contributing to the problem.
How many times have you said, “I’m just a nurse” or “I’m only an RN?” These statements imply that you’re in some way inferior and on the low rung of the ladder. Although you may feel that way, stop and think about what it took for you to call yourself an RN. Think of the years of grueling education, clinical experience, exams, presentations, and practicums, not to mention the rigorous state exam you had to pass to get licensed. Add to that the enormous difference you make in the lives of patients and families and your contributions to society as a whole. What would this world be like without nurses? Think about it, and you’ll never say “just” or “only” again when you refer to yourself or your profession.
The saying, “Nurses eat their young,” makes me cringe every time I hear it. Yet, hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear it or read it on the Internet. We’ve heard this phrase repeated so often that many of us take it as gospel. Consider, for a moment, the implications. First, it’s a generalization, and generalizations are never true of every person or situation they typify. Second, don’t propose to speak for your entire profession by making such a statement. You don’t have that right, and it’s wrong. It’s hurtful to many nurses who go out of their way to help new grads, bend over backwards to assist a colleague, and are nothing but helpful and giving to their peers.
Here’s another oft-repeated statement: “We are our own worst enemy.” Say it often enough and you’ll have everyone around you believing it. And then you can use it as an excuse to stay in a rut, be miserable and depressed, and look at your coworkers with disdain. Each time you repeat that phrase, you further convince yourself and those around you that it’s credible.
“Nurses are so passive. They never do anything.” I don’t know whom you’re referring to, but the nurses I know are doing research, writing articles, publishing magazines, successfully running for Congress, starting businesses, fighting to get a local law changed for more humane treatment of the homeless, demonstrating against unfair insurance practices, and running community-based clinics. If you think nurses are too passive, you need to look elsewhere for your information.
Here’s the ultimate put-down: “I would never advise my daughter/son to go into nursing,” or “Nursing is a lousy profession.” You may have had a less-than-positive experience in your professional life, but many RNs are celebrating nursing every day. Just read any edition of Nursing Spectrum and you’ll see these nurses on every page.
Negative phrases send a dangerous message to the general public, to others in the health profession, and to nurses themselves. We often don’t realize that the way we speak about ourselves and our profession has a profound impact on our image, our opinion of ourselves, our ability to cope with the stress of our job, and our ability to look upon our profession and our work with pride and purpose.
If you’ve ever said any of the negative statements I’ve described — and almost every nurse has at some point — then you’re contributing to a less-than-desirable image of the profession. You’re promoting a negative mentality, perpetuating myths, and contributing to the problem.
How can you break the cycle?
• Change your language. If every nurse made a commitment to do this, we’d see dramatic differences. The next time someone asks what you do, say proudly, “I’m a nurse,” and think about all that it means.
• When you witness negative behavior, consider the people and the circumstances. Don’t indict the whole profession. Be just as quick to notice and point out positive interactions between coworkers. Sometimes we only see what we choose to focus on. When you look for the positive, that becomes your reality.
• Change the negative images by example. Extend yourself to a new grad or a new employee. Look for ways to help a colleague. When other nurses are promoted to management, celebrate their accomplishment and support them.
• Get involved in positive nursing activities through professional associations. When you get out and meet other nurses, you’ll be amazed at the generosity of spirit and camaraderie you experience.
• Start working on your own professional development by taking a class, enrolling in school, or spending some time in the public library. When you take action to improve your skills and knowledge, you increase your self-esteem and feel better about yourself.
• If you’re unhappy in your career or your job, do something about it — don’t disparage it. You can make a million excuses for your situation, or you can be proactive and move forward. Go to career fairs and conventions. See what’s happening in your profession and what other opportunities exist. Brush up on your job-finding skills and get yourself out there. Is it scary? Sure, but it’s worth it. The only good thing about hitting your head against the wall is how good it feels when you stop.
• At the end of each day, think of one thing you did to make a difference and one colleague you helped. Make this a daily habit. Maybe start keeping a journal.
• If you’re bored, seek out new challenges. Make a bad situation better, rather than grousing about the rut you’re in and making everyone around you miserable.
It all starts with you. Change your language, change your habits, and change your focus. Do you want to be a part of the problem or part of the solution? The choice is yours: But remember, either way, your actions have an impact on your entire profession.
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