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?