When the 21st century dawned several decades ago, the next one hundred years — and the new millennium — were seen as a new beginning, a time of great possibility and expansiveness beckoning us to move forward with confidence as healthcare professionals and citizens.
That newness has been significantly tarnished the challenges of the new century have broken like waves battering the shoreline of our collective and individual psyches. Ongoing war, persecution of the powerless, mass shootings, a rancorous political landscape, a devastating recession, and an unprecedented pandemic have revealed once again that each century brings its own existential angst and vicissitudes to the proverbial table.
As nurses navigating these times of seemingly endless complexity, how do we confront and overcome our own personal existential angst while still caring for our patients, providing for our families, and living the lives we feel guided to create? Self-knowledge is key to such an undertaking, and there are myriad things we can do to deepen that knowledge in service to our own happiness, health, and ultimate success.
Start With the Self
When confronted with uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, looking inside is generally the best place to begin. A central aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and label your own and others’ emotions and respond to them appropriately. If your emotions are swirling and your thinking is cloudy, it’s time to stop, take a breath, slow down, and consider how to make sense of the swirling miasma inside of you. If you succeed in harnessing even one nugget of personal insight, you’re on your way to deeper self-awareness.
You may be able to do this work on your own using techniques and strategies you already have at your disposal, such as books, recordings, podcasts, meditation apps, or courses you’ve previously taken where you were introduced to helpful tools. On the other hand, you may need, for example, the guidance of: a psychotherapist or counselor; a life or career coach; a trusted faith leader; a meditation teacher; a mentor’s input and reflections; or perhaps a workshop, retreat, or seminar that can help you identify what needs the most attention and how to undertake such an emotionally fraught process.
Consider the Context
When angst is running high and your coping abilities challenged, consider the context of your feelings, reactions, and current state of mind, heart, and spirit. Living and working through a life-altering pandemic is itself a form of trauma, and whether you’ve been on the front lines or not, your life has been deeply impacted by the ravages of SARS-CoV-2 on the world around you. We can safely say that no part of our lives has likely escaped the tentacles of the pandemic, making every decision and life situation, no matter how small or big, that much harder to accomplish without concerted effort.
The pandemic has indeed made everything more difficult: we’ve missed our families and friends; we’ve lacked the ability to attend significant events like weddings and funerals; and even shopping and basic aspects of daily survival have been derailed or obstructed in some way.
Aside from the pandemic, we’re also human beings with children, parents, siblings, neighbors, friends, lovers, spouses, and pets; our humanity itself makes us vulnerable to loss, anger, fear, and other so-called “negative” emotions. In a world where everything seems to happen so fast and things can seem wholly out of control, we can spiral into places that are unhealthy, unproductive, and damaging to our self-confidence, and self-esteem; this, in turn, can stymie the setting of important personal and professional goals.
Radical Empathy and Self-Compassion
When considering the context of your distress, consider the context in which you live. If you pull the camera back, and as objectively as possible view the circumstances that directly influence your personal life and your career, this can empower you to summon your capacity for deep empathy and radical self-compassion.
See yourself from a witness perspective; see the amazing nurse and human being you are as you push your way through to the other side of your difficulties; and see how resilient and resourceful you’ve been in the past, and how resourceful you are in this moment and will be in the future.
More waves will certainly batter the shores of your psyche in the days and years to come, and each time you’re able to wade through those turbulent and muddy waters, you will emerge that much stronger for it.
Your self-knowledge is key to your personal happiness, wellness, and professional fulfillment. Embrace self-awareness as a practice and a lifelong mission, and if it’s coupled with the aforementioned radical empathy and self-compassion, there’s no 21st-century angst-infused storm that will be able to impede your ability to navigate such moments with both humility and grace.
Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.
With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.
Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.