Dealing with Emotional Attachment in Nursing

NursingJuly 30, 2014

Nurses have always been the caring side of the health care profession. They're the ones who comfort a patient after the doctor delivers a devastating diagnosis or hold a patient's hand through a difficult procedure. Those drawn to the profession nearly always have a strong instinct to nurture and a deep sense of compassion. But what happens to nurses if they frequently form a deep emotional attachment to their patients? How do nurses learn to let go?

The High Cost of Caring

You may have heard the term "compassion fatigue" and thought it was just a fancy term for burnout. But compassion fatigue is a real phenomenon and an epidemic in the health care profession, particularly nursing. It's also referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS), and it's no coincidence it sounds very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. It tends to occur in those with a penchant for perfectionism who may be caring for others to their own detriment, plus a lack of healthy coping skills. Unlike a simple case of job burnout, it creates a negative impact on one's personal life. Learning how to avoid compassion fatigue is a critical skill for all nurses to survive in a career that can be so emotionally draining.

Healthy Boundaries

You must learn to set healthy boundaries with your patients from the start. That doesn't mean reducing your job to nothing more than punching the clock and collecting a paycheck, but understanding you're only human and can only do so much. At the end of the shift, you have to learn to let it go. Sure, many nurses can tell stories where they went beyond professional obligations for a special patient, and that's okay every now and then when you form a particularly close bond. But — and this is an important "but" — those should be extraordinary circumstances and not an everyday thing.

There's a principle nurses often teach the caregivers in a family: they have to take care of themselves to be able to take care of their loved ones. Guess what? It applies to nurses, too. When you're working with your patients, give them your very best. But make sure that in your personal life, you give yourself the same treatment. Maintaining your social life and doing fun activities will rejuvenate you personally and professionally.

Finding the Perfect Balance

It's a finer line than you may think between being a cold-hearted nurse just going through the motions and the nurse who becomes so emotionally attached to her patients that she forgets to take care of herself, but it's critical to find that "middle road." It's okay to genuinely care for your patients, but let them go when the care is done, whether they've healed and gone home, or if they pass away. It's okay to show your sadness when a patient dies and to attend a funeral if you've gotten to know them well. A good rule of thumb is if you are comforting the family rather than needing them to comfort you, you're maintaining an appropriate level of professionalism while showing you care.

Dealing with emotional attachment is a skill that can't be taught nursing school. It's one of those things you have to learn on-the-job and fine tune as you go along.

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