3 Things I Learned From Quitting Nursing

It's been a year—a whole year!—since I quite my job as a floor nurse. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago that I worked those long shifts and cleaned up poop (among other things) for a living. Yet in other ways, I'm still learning to adapt to a new career and figure out what's best for me. Here are three things I've learned over the past year from quitting nursing.

1. I needed to learn to make mistakes.

As a recovering perfectionist, I hate mistakes. I've always hated them: mistakes in school, mistakes in social situations, and most of all, mistakes on the job. I hated mistakes because for a long time, I didn't believe in unconditional love. I couldn't imagine love not based on performance.

In the hospital, there was a lot of pressure to get things right. It was simply the nature of the job. And while certainly some pressure came from administration, coworkers, and patients and their families, most of it came from me. Part of that originated in natural bent towards perfectionism, and part of it was added on by depression and anxiety.

Eventually, I realized I was at a point in my life where I needed to learn about grace. If I was going to move forward and grow as a person, I needed to learn how to make mistakes. I needed an environment that was more low-stakes when it came to mistakes. I needed to quit working at the hospital.

For the past year, I've kept busy with freelance editing and writing jobs. It's been a beautiful example of how attention to detail matters, but it isn't life or death. It's given me the space to make mistakes and learn how to handle them. To be honest, it's still makes me cringe a little to admit that it's okay to make mistakes (like forgetting about the time difference when scheduling a call), but in the past year I've learned to embrace this part of being human more than I ever have before.

For that alone, quitting nursing has been worth it. But that's only reason number one!

nurse carrying hospital gurney to emergency room

2. It's time to stop hustling.

In many ways, the business world is all about hustling. When I first launched into the world as a freelancer, I bought into it completely. I learned I had to work overtime, network like crazy, and make a name for myself. I thought hustling was simply part of the entrepreneurial spirit.

As time passed, however, I've come to see a bigger picture. Entrepreneurship is much more than hustling. Hard work is definitely part of the package, but chasing success at all costs doesn't have to be. 

For example, as a pragmatic person and introvert, "networking" often seemed forced. When I focused on networking, I felt like I need to express interest in people of influence just in case they could help me later in life. I felt like I always had a hidden agenda. I know networking isn't like this for everyone, but I've learned I simply don't have the social capacity to connect with everyone—and usually the people I'm naturally drawn to are not the wealthy and well-connected (you know, the people you're supposed to network with so they can get you great, well-paying jobs).

I quit nursing to find a truer version of myself, and hustling was taking me away from that. If I feel like a fraud networking the usual way, it's not worth it. If I feel like I'm losing myself in pursuit of an audience and more "likes" or "views," it's not worth it. If I start to care more about the numbers than about the people they represent, it's not worth it.

I realized it's time to stop hustling, and it's a lesson I keep learning again and again. The data says I should be less successful since I stopped hustling, but I've found the opposite to be true. I may not be making as much money, but I consider a life of authenticity and integrity to be far more successful than losing my sense of self for potential riches.

3. Quitting my job didn't solve all my problems.

When I was working as a nurse, I would rise early before my shift, brew a cup of coffee, and then sink to the floor, totally overwhelmed with the thought of the day ahead of me. I'd sit there, with my back against the wall, and voice desperate prayers for help to get me through the day.

A few days ago, I found myself sinking once again to the floor in my kitchen, overwhelmed by life. With my back against the refrigerator, I was breathing out prayers for help when I realized I was feeling the same way I had when worked at the hospital. Even though I had radically changed my lifestyle, there I was, feeling the exact same way as the year before. I was discouraged and frustrated, to say the least. 

Yet wise words from a friend came to mind in that moment; he had mentioned that measuring progress by feelings wasn't always accurate. Measuring progress by what we've learned and how we've grown, however, was completely different. It was then I remembered I had radically changed my lifestyle so that I would be healthier, not so that I would feel better. While the change in career did decrease my anxiety and depression, it wasn't a quick fix to the hard work of getting to know myself and learning to listen to my emotions.

It did, however, provide a healthier environment to work through the hard parts of life. Another thing I've learned is that part of learning to love and care for myself means creating a healthy, nurturing environment. From quitting nursing to drawing boundaries to joining a gym, each choice I make to create a healthy environment has the potential to change my life. 

When I look back on the past year, it hasn't all been chocolate and naps (because aren't those things better than butterflies and rainbows?). It's been tough, and it still is, but in many ways, quitting nursing has allowed me to learn who I am as a child of God. It's allowed me to embrace grace through trial and error, explore the world and principles of freelancers, and celebrate progress in a more meaningful way. I've grown and changed and learned—and that, to me, makes quitting nursing absolutely worth it.

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The Nurse Who Lost Her Super

At my alma mater, it’s a tradition for each graduating nursing class to design a t-shirt and wear it to the nursing convocation their last semester. The shirt my graduating class designed had the Superman logo on it, except with “RN” in place of “S.” Underneath the logo it said, “What’s your superpower?”

We all laughed and joked about how nursing was a superpower. Secretly we believed it was true — it took extraordinary work, perseverance, and the grace of God to get through the nursing program. 

A few weeks ago, I sat in my bed contemplating an important realization and confession: I am a nurse. And I am not a superhero.

When I started my job, I had healthy expectations: I would have questions — a lot of them — and I would struggle at first, and I would have grace on myself, and things would eventually get better.

But somewhere along the way, perfectionism got the better of me. My desire to be a “good nurse” morphed into a desire to be a perfect nurse. I began to think it was possible not to forget a single thing in a day, for all my patients to like me, to be on top of things all day long. I wanted to be a perfect nurse. I wanted to be a superhero.

Outside of the hospital, I have been on a journey away from finding my worth in performance (the essence of perfectionism) to finding worth in who I am. I learned the reason I grieved so deeply for patients I saw in Cambodia (patients whose names I didn't even know) was that I believed they had inherent worth and value just because they were human beings; they were God’s creation. Through this I came to understand that I, too, have inherent worth and value for the same simple reason. This brought freedom from striving for worth and allowed me to embrace imperfections, grace, and Gospel anew.

Yet in the hospital setting, as stress set in, I lost track of my healthy desire to be a good nurse and bought into the alluring illusion of perfectionism once again. I began to believe it was possible to be a perfect nurse if I just tried hard enough or had enough experience. Of course, this led to a great big let-down when I failed to live up to my superhero standards. Things happened that I didn’t want to happen, things both under and out of my control. Family members got angry, patients fell, charting was delayed, meds were given late — just to name a few.

Thus I asked this question: if I could not be a super nurse or a superhero, then what was I as a nurse?

Here’s the definition I came up with: I am a human helping other humans.

I am no better than the sick patient lying in the hospital bed. I have no magical capabilities due to completing nursing school. I don’t have a 64 gig memory stick in my head to keep track of all the things I’m doing or am asked to do (maybe it would take 128 gigs, anyway). I forget things. I make mistakes. I say things I shouldn’t, or maybe I don’t say things I should. I have to fight to maintain patience or keep my cool. I give all I can, and sometimes that isn’t enough.

To my patients, I’m sorry when I fail you. That isn’t fair to you.

To my fellow nurses, we have unrealistic expectations set up for us from many different sources. In a way, we encourage these unrealistic expectations. We put “I’m a nurse. What’s your superpower?” on mugs and t-shirts and all kinds of nursing paraphernalia. We glorify nursing. I’m not talking about appreciating nursing; I’m talking about taking such pride in our work that we begin to believe that we are or should be more capable and intelligent than non-nurses.

Though this makes us feel special and important and needed, when we buy into the dangerous lie that we have superpowers, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

We may not even recognize this disappointment, but it steadily adds to the detrimental cycle of striving for worth. As nurses, we face massive expectations from those around us. Why add to them and sabotage our profession by becoming the frontline advocates for enforcing those unrealistic expectations upon ourselves? 

Are our actions important? Absolutely. Are there things we do that no one will ever understand except other nurses? Yes. Does what we do at work define who we are as people? No.

Though this post is primarily about nursing, the premise is true for other professions and roles. When we believe we can be perfect super-nurses or super-teachers or super-writers or super-______ (fill in the blank), we are guaranteed only one thing: failure.

When we identify ourselves as our profession before identifying ourselves as humans, we are bound to fall. As someone recently reminded me, we are human beings, not human doings.

When we identify first as humans rather than as nurses/accountants/managers/etc., we gain permission to fail and make mistakes and learn and grow and be enough all in the midst of our imperfections. Isn’t that the best kind of nurse, the best kind of professional? The one who isn’t perfect but who is always learning and improving?

So, let’s not be superheroes. Let’s not pretend we’re superheroes. Let’s not spend our lives striving to achieve superhero status. Let’s be humans. And let’s help other humans the best we can.


What are some unrealistic expectations you face on a regular basis?

How do you respond to these expectations?

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