Manage Stress, Avoid Burnout

Who are you?

You probably have many labels—nurse, wife, mother, sister, aunt (or husband, son, father, brother, uncle), neighbor, or volunteer, for instance. But who are you—really? When the day is done and it’s just you in the mirror, who’s the person behind the labels?

It’s easy to lose a part of the real you, day by day, shift by shift, as you handle one responsibility and run head-on toward the next.
Nurses are natural caretakers, but they aren’t known for extending much care to themselves. If something needs to get done, you’ll do it. You’ll continue to care for everyone on your personal and professional radar screen—as, piece by piece, another part of you slips away.

And if you’re a “working mother” (redundancy alert!), it’s particularly easy to lose sight of who you are inside. Working mothers are easy to spot: they can recite every one of their family member’s likes and dislikes, manage the carpool and sports practice schedules like a military strategist, and remember enough data to freeze most computers. Yet ask them when they last had time for themselves or what makes them truly happy, and you’re likely to get a blank stare.

Why is it important?

Come on—you’ve felt the resentment bubbling up when you don’t have a moment to breathe, when it seems everyone else has their time but your time belongs to everyone else. And you know the discontent you feel isn’t healthy emotionally, physically, or spiritually. It may seem that people see only what you are—not who you are.

Does it really matter if you know who you are? Absolutely. When you understand and recognize the person within, you can walk through life lighter, more satisfied, and more confident.

At first glance it may seem self-indulgent to focus on yourself to find out who you really are, especially when natural and manmade disasters leave many people struggling just to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Nevertheless, for those of us fortunate enough to have secured our most basic physical, social, and safety needs, it’s important to address the need for personal growth. Because that’s how we grow into the person we’re meant to be, which benefits everyone around us.


A gripping need

Many of us aren’t connected to who we are, so we live lives that don’t come close to meeting our personal requirements. We don’t take the time to figure out which values, experiences, and things truly feed our soul and make us happy.

Part of understanding who we are is to examine our met and unmet needs. These needs go beyond those of basic survival, such as food, clothing, and shelter. They’re personal needs, such as the need for respect or approval, the need to feel in control or independent, the need to communicate or find balance. There are hundreds of possible personal needs, some of which will resonate with you.

Most of our needs go unmet because we don’t identify them and make them musts in our lives. But when we ignore them, they may play out in a negative way. Let’s look at an example of how an unmet need might play out:

John is the consummate critical-care nurse, well-educated and highly skilled. However, he tends to brag about his assessments and interventions to anyone who will listen, which is just about everyone on the unit because his voice is so loud. What’s more, he often corrects or criticizes colleagues in front of patients and physicians. Not surprisingly, John’s coworkers try to avoid him and limit their interactions with him.

John is desperately trying to get his need for approval met, but he’s going about it in the wrong way. As a result, he fails to get the approval he seeks, and his need for it grows even stronger and tightens its grip on him.

On the bright side, something positive can grow out of an unmet need. For John, his need for approval is instrumental in his continued search for education and skill development. If he wants to get this need met, he must address it in a healthier way and recognize that approval can’t come at the expense of others’ feelings. If he shows more respect for his colleagues and less false bravado, they’re likely to seek him out as a resource and genuinely offer the approval he desperately seeks. Then the power of that unmet need will loosen its hold on him. He will, at last, be seen for who he really is.

Hello, it’s me!

Who you are matters. It’s part of your life’s journey to figure it out. Beyond figuring out what your met and unmet needs are, here are some additional steps to get you started.

  • Meditate. It’s nearly impossible to find out who you are unless you can clear the “monkey mind”—that incessant inner chatter that second-guesses everything you do. Meditation helps you develop a quiet mind and the ability to let go of persistent thoughts. In this quiet space, you can find many answers.
  • Keep a journal. Take 15 minutes to ask yourself a question and then “free write” your answer. You might ask yourself, “Who am I?” Then without editing yourself, simply write whatever comes to mind. Keep writing for 15 minutes without stopping. Sometimes the best answers come when we think we have nothing more to say. (See Questions to ask yourself by clicking on the PDF icon above.)
  • Carpe diem! Seize the day! Rattle your cage a bit by taking a risk of some sort. We all get stuck in life’s daily grind. When you challenge yourself and get the adrenaline going again, you can open your eyes to new possibilities, allowing you to learn more about who you are. Take a flying lesson, swim with the dolphins, join an adult soccer league, learn to belly dance, take a singing class. The sky’s the limit!
  • Pamper and play with your inner child. What did you love when you were 10 years old? At ages 8 to 10, a person is truly authentic and feels joy just being alive. We all have an inner child that needs to come out to play on a regular basis. So put some fun back in your life.

    You matter

    You do so much for your patients, friends, and loved ones. And your insight and attention have no doubt enhanced the lives of the people around you. But don’t neglect that person looking back at you in the mirror every night.
    Improving the quality of your life relates directly to the focus you put on who you are and what’s important to you. Such personal growth will turn up the volume of your life, expand into the world around you, and bring another dimension to your practice.

    Selected references

    Borgatti J. Frazzled, Fried…Finished? A Guide to Help Nurses Find Balance. Borgatti Communications; 2004.

    Leonard T. The Portable Coach. New York, NY: Scribner; 1998.

    Maslow A. Motivation and Personality. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Harper & Row; 1970.

    Joan C. Borgatti is the owner of Borgatti Communications, which provides writing, editing, and coaching services.

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