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Handling Stress
Staying Positive in a Negative World
How new nurses can banish their negative self-talk.

Everyone has to work to stay positive. It’s human nature to focus on what went wrong. As a new nurse faced with situations that are terrifying and challenging, you have to work doubly hard at it.

All new nurses have been there: at a point of giving up because they’ve repeatedly told themselves they know nothing and will never get it all right. But you will. It just takes some time. Most seasoned nurses say you start to feel comfortable after one year and that it takes a full two years before you start feeling a sense of competency.

That’s a long time to feel like a bungling, blundering mess, though. So, stop your negative self-talk. By intentionally staying positive, you will see the progress you’re making and enjoy the magic of the new nurse days. Here’s how:

Give Yourself a Break: First, you know more than you realize. Remember that. Yes, you’ve got a lot to learn, but don’t be so hard on yourself. School was Phase 1 of your education, and your first job is Phase 2. It’s important to have realistic expectations of what you know and what you still need to learn—and will learn on the job. So, give yourself a break.

Record Your Progress: When you’re struggling every day—feeling like you’re not making any progress-- it’s important to focus on what you learned at the end of each day. This will help remind you that every single day you are more experienced than you were the previous day. If you can, it’s good to keep a journal, in which you reflect on your progress.

As you write about your experiences, it forces you to reflect on what you’re doing well, what you’ve learned, and the challenges that you’ve faced. It helps you see where you are now and where you still want to go.

Often we forget how far we’ve already come. When you review your journal three months later, you see that some of the fears you once had are minimal now. But you wouldn’t necessarily realize that unless you were writing it down. Don’t worry about perfection – even just a couple paragraphs that describe your feelings and what you learned that day will suffice.

Remember Your Magical Nursing Moments: I recommend keeping a “positive notebook”—which is different than your progress journal. In this notebook, include your “magical nursing moments”: positive things people said to you; inspirational quotes; experiences that you had when you really felt like you made a difference; or, stories about when you made a breakthrough with your learning or self confidence.

When these “magical nursing moments” occur, it’s important to record them. Otherwise the tendency is for the positive stuff to fade away and the negative stuff to take over. Keep it in one place so that each day you can look at it and focus on those positive things.

Help Student Nurses: Go out of your way to help students when they come on the unit; that will immediately give you a basis for comparison. Working with a student gives you a sense of perspective. You realize that you have progressed beyond the student phase. Sometimes people say, “I’m going to treat the student nurses the way I was treated.” And of course, if they haven’t been treated well, they might decide to pass that on. But you can break that cycle and change your working environment from one that is hostile to helpful.

Surround Yourself with Positive People: It’s a given that you’ll have to work with people whose personalities you don’t like. But if there’s a negative and nasty person in your unit, work to stay away from him or her. Seek out people who are confident, friendly, and love their work. Those are the people to hang around with and talk to.

When you are forced to work with somebody you don’t especially like--a preceptor maybe-- stay focused on your task and learn as much as you possibly can. And counteract that relationship by seeking positive relationships.

Once you move beyond the negativity and recognize your strengths, there’s a world of opportunity to make a lasting difference . . . in a positive way.

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, has been referred to as the ‘guru’ of career development for nurses. Donna is a professional keynote speaker, author, consultant, and coach. She is author of "Your 1st Year as a Nurse –Making the Transition from Total Novice to Successful Professional" from Three Rivers Press. Her accomplished career combines over 20 years of clinical, managerial and business experience, not to mention her stint as professional singer. She also operates Nurse Connections, a free online newsletter ( Donna’s clinical experience includes emergency and psychiatric nursing. Donna received a diploma in nursing from Holy Name Hospital School of Nursing and holds a BS in Health Care Management from St. Peter’s College and an MA in Corporate and Public Communication from Monmouth University.

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14 Responses to “Staying Positive in a Negative World”

  1. nursingaround Says:

    I particularly like the point about helping a student nurse as it really will give you some perspective on just how much you do know.
    On another note, I do agree that it takes a good two years to get truly competent, but there is a slight danger of becoming too confident, especially if you’ve spent all that time in one unit, eg medical or surgical ward only.

  2. Diane Says:

    I agree it is important to teach yourself to be a positive thinker. A reflective journal is a wonderful way to assist you during your nursing journey. Gosh, So true about “giving yourself a break” because it takes time to truly learn. It is also important for seasoned nurses to assist new nurses.

    I remember my first job as an LPN (I took the career ladder approach). After a few weeks I really wanted to quit but thank goodness I had a wonderful Nursing Supervisor who called my home and spoke to my mother and told her I better not quit! Looking back I can laugh at it all but at the time I was oh so serious. My frist nursing job turned out to be my favorite and my nursing supervisor turned out to be a life-long friend who has since passed away but I think of her fondly.

    I wish all new nurses good luck.

    Regards, Diane

  3. Sharon LaCroix Says:

    I have been a nurse for 25 years and still wonder at times if “I’m doing it right”. I find talking with other nurses at my job to be supportive. It’s great to find out we are all thinking/worrying about the same things.

  4. Paula Says:

    I too have been in nursing more than 25 years and this is good advice. We are all in this together and we need each other

  5. Natasha Says:

    Yes, help us students! We appreciate you for it- no one can do what you can do for us, be our light in the confusing world of healthcare. When I have had a good buddy RN who really cares, it totally overshadows negativity!

  6. Mr Ian Says:

    One issue that isn’t directly addressed in this thread that always seems to cause serious heartache in nursing is “How to cope with seemingly imbecilic/aggressive/intolerant managers or administrators”.

    I only have one method taught to me by a worthy and wise charge nurse which suits for every such occasion. It works best immediately just after a notable event from said manager/administrator.

    1. Take a pencil in your non-dominant hand.
    2. Tap yourself on the head for up to 10 minutes (depending on severity of the event) until all emotion has passed and you become aware of the gentle repetitive taps on your head or longer if desired.
    3. Take pencil in dominant hand.
    4. Calculate your hourly/minutely rate
    5. Write down exactly how much the manager/administrator just paid you for doing that.

    It never fails to raise a smile again and is relatively confrontation free. 🙂

  7. linda Says:

    right now i am the negative one, i will be leaving this job in a couple of months but i am still irritated by the job. I feel bad for my co-workers because i cannot tell them, meanwhile i am sure i am coming across as negative and annoyed, how can i resolve this so i am not a ‘downer”, i don’t say negative things but i know my face does not lie

  8. Jeff Says:

    Great article. This is good advice for people in any stressful occupation and nursing may be the most stressful. Thanks.


  9. mapenzi Says:

    I like the part where it says about writing a journal about your fears and when you review them in a future date, they seem minimal. That happens alot to me.

  10. michelle ceo Says:

    I am happy in my fifties, (55) and work @ a county nursing home as an L.P.N.. have three years in, just getting my stride. I will never feel too confident. i am allways eager to learn. i laugh and am in service to my folk. I have created a niche for myself in a small community. I have been battered, beaten, set-up, thrown under the train. I get up and do it again, with a smile on my face. Nursing is a calling and i am at peace. I was a cook for thrty years stressfull too, worked out just as God planned it. oh and the staff that were evil all gone now, God don’t like ugly, rock on

  11. YUT Says:

    I’ve heard nurses say they have been working on a certain floor for 3 years and still don’t feel 100% comfortable. Overworked to say the least.

  12. rondodondo Says:

    “Magical Nursing Moments” that’s whats wrong with this profession. Too much hearts and flowers and not enough reality in school. This type of thing perpetuates the notion that nurses can only apply cold wash cloths and warm up a patients dinner, and why we are not treated like professionals…..

  13. Sara Says:

    Nursing school was not hearts & flowers. We had a lot of reality in nursing school. I think the worst non-reality was only managing 2 patients (maybe 3) and not dealing with multiple patients. But…such is the nature of nursing school. You can only get so much, or nursing school would be as long as medical school…and you still wouldn’t get everything covered!

    It is really difficult to stay positive as a new grad RN on an extremely busy floor (what floor isn’t?) My saving grace is talking to other new grads and being able to laugh at our mistakes or silly questions or realize that we are not alone in our struggles.

    I have also been looking at “a complaint free world” (website and book). Haven’t read the book yet, but great concept. Takes people years to go 21 days without complaining…at this point I feel it is totally impossible. But the site gives tips on changing extremely negative situations into positive ones…although it doesn’t always work! At least being conscious of it is better than nothing I suppose…

  14. Hollie Says:

    Love the magical moment idea I will be starting this one and great point regarding student nurses we have all been there are know the feeling, why learn if your not willing to share your knowledge

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