Remove the Shackles of Nurse Martyrdom

By Keith Carlson via Multibriefs

Nurses love to be of service and provide care to those who need it most. Some nurses also seem to experience secondary gain from playing the role of the martyr.

Martyrs give and give until they have nothing left, sacrificing themselves for the good of others. Nurses can fulfill this role easily if they choose to do so.

The good Samaritan martyr

I was once told that a vast number of nurses are adult children of alcoholics. I was also told that a large percentage of those nurses are also the eldest children in their families.

In alcoholic families, the oldest child often takes on the role of savior and hero, acting the role of parent to younger children abandoned by an addicted father or mother. They try to save everyone, and it's no easy task.

I'm no psychoanalyst, but if an adult child of an alcoholic finds a calling in the nursing profession, it seems clear that he or she may likely begin practicing the same kind of self-sacrifice that was a habit in the past.

No matter what type of family a nurse may hail from, self-sacrifice and martyrdom often come with the territory. But can nurse martyrs change?

Stoking the fires

Nurses love to play the martyred hero. How often do we hear the following statements in some form?

  • "Oh, I barely got any sleep; I worked two doubles and spent my day off helping my neighbor."
  • "My 12-hour shift turned into 14 because I couldn't finish my charting on time, and then I helped my friend with a difficult patient. It happens every time."

It even begins in nursing school:

  • "I stayed up all night doing care plans, and then I did an eight-hour shift at the nursing home after class. It's just what I have to do. I'll sleep after graduation."

Nurses identify as martyrs, and they stoke the fires of martyrdom quite readily. If they could only see that self-care and personal boundaries could provide them even more of a well-rounded sense of self.

Removing the shackles

When nurses realize self-preservation is the key to a healthy personal and professional life, they can remove their shackles of martyrdom and begin to live again. When self-care becomes the rallying cry of the nurse, an example is set for the importance of personal boundaries.

Removing the shackles of martyrdom means that the nurse begins to reject the old paradigm of the nurse who never says no, who will work any shift and who will allow anyone to use her as a martyred doormat.

Deciding to reject martyrdom moves the nurse toward health, balance, well-being and a renewed sense of self.

Once removed, the shackles won’t really fit anymore. The nurse is free.

Embracing the new paradigm

Nurses can choose to say no to bullying, incivility, mandatory overtime and poor staffing strategies. They can also say no to incompetent leadership and those who would keep them powerless.

Nurses need a new manifesto of personal wellness, professional empowerment and increased autonomy of thought and action. As nurses embrace this brave new paradigm, the days of the nurse martyr will end, and the days of the nurse healer will begin.

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, has been a nurse since 1996. He is the blogger behind the award-winning blog, Digital Doorway and a widely read freelance nurse writer. Keith is also the co-host of RNFM Radio, a popular Internet radio station devoted to the nursing profession. Under the auspices of Nurse Keith Coaching, Keith's passion is helping nurses and healthcare professionals create ultimate satisfaction in both their personal and professional lives.

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