Emotional Equilibrium

Suppose that when you first enter the ward you are wishing with all your

heart you had never decided to become a probationer. Perhaps the white

screen and its possible meaning has so frightened you that your thoughts

refuse to go beyond it. Suppose the very sight of so much sickness has

agitated you instead of strengthening your determination to help nurse

it. That is, suppose your emotions, your feelings, so fill your mind
r /> that perception is necessarily inaccurate and blurred. Then tomorrow

your account of the ward will be hazy, and your desire will probably be

against returning to a place where so many unpleasant feelings were


The emotional balance which refuses to allow feelings to obscure

judgment by leading reason astray is a necessary safeguard for the work

of the nurse. There is little place in the profession for the woman who

is "all sentiment," but perhaps there is less for the one without


Feeling, we found, is the first expression of mind--feeling which in the

early months is entirely selfish. The happiest baby you know is not

sweet and winning to please you, but because he feels comfortable and

happy and cannot keep from expressing it. His universe is his own little

self and you exist only in your relation to him. If you give him

pleasure he likes you; if pain, he does not want you. His mother often

fails to please him, but satisfies him so much more frequently than

anybody else that he loves her best. Then comes nurse or father--if he

proves the satisfactory kind of father, or she a nurse he can love. To

the baby whatever he happens to want is good. What is not desirable is

bad. And such emotional responses are altogether normal in early months,

yes, even until the child is old enough to use reason to choose between

two desires the one that will in the end prove more satisfying. But they

are defects in adult life.

The nurse who would always act as her first feeling dictates would not

be in training many days. Unpleasant sights and sounds, the fear of

making a mistake which might harm a patient, the undesirability of long

hours of hard work in caring for patients who frequently only find fault

with her best efforts, would early decide her in favor of another

life-work. Comparatively few so-called "grown-ups" are guided only by

feeling; and most of those are in institutions that are well

safeguarded. But a great many mature men and women allow feeling to

unduly influence their thinking. The sentimental nurse, for instance,

may find it very difficult to give an ordered hypodermic. The patient

dreads the pain and the nurse fears hurting her. Suppose she were to

fail to give it on such grounds. This is an almost unthinkable case. But

the very nurse who agrees that such an emotional weakling should not be

allowed to train, will help her patient, even when recuperating nicely,

to grow inexcusably self-centered, by sympathizing with every complaint,

warning her at every turn, by allowing her and even encouraging her,

perhaps, to discuss her illness and suffering in the minutest detail.

This nurse is more damaging than the sentimentalist who fails to give

the hypodermic; for that slip is easily discovered, and the transgressor

must immediately reform and obey orders, or be dismissed. But the second

nurse may take perfect care of the sick body, and the doctor never

realize that she is developing the sickness idea in her patient's mind.

In both of these instances reason has followed the leadings of feeling.

It is unpleasant to hurt the patient, and she is disagreeable, too, when

you insist on carrying out the orders. It is easier to agree with her

ideas and sympathize with her troubles, much easier than to find some

other avenue for her thinking, or to search for feeling substitutes. It

is pleasanter right now to allow her mind to slip unmolested into sick

reactions than to lead her, unwilling as she is, into the ways of

health. Reason follows feeling's logic, which suggests that it is much

better for the patient to talk of her ills than to keep them pent up

inside; and judgment is sadly obscured.

The emotionally balanced nurse hears the story once, that she may have

the material for helping the need. Feeling, perhaps deep and genuine

sympathy with a real trouble, is aroused, and rightly. But this brings a

keen desire to help the situation. Reason insists that talking of

sufferings, real or fancied, only makes them more insistently felt; that

there must be some better way to meet them. It suggests various methods

to divert the patient's attention, to change the train of thought until

she is able herself to direct it into healthful channels; judgment

weighs the propositions and decides upon the one which will lead toward

establishing a health attitude.

The nurse is continually meeting the necessity of acting contrary to

fear and discouragement and weariness of spirit. How can she secure

emotional equilibrium for herself?

Keep in mind the fact that most sick people are very suggestible; that

you have a definite responsibility to make your suggestions to your

patient wholesome; and that your mood is a constant suggestion to him.

Remember that he needs your best. Then, if your own trouble seems too

great to bear, determine that, so long as you remain on duty, you will

not let it show. Try an experiment. See if you can go through the day

carrying your load of sorrow, or disappointment or chagrin, with so

serene a face that the sick for whom you are caring will not suspect

that you have a burden at all. That is a triumph worth the striving.

Then--if you can let it make you a little more comprehending of others'

pain, a little more gentle with the sickest ones, a bit more patient

with the trying ones, more kindly firm with the unco-operative,

realizing that each one of them all has his burden too--you have not

choked feeling, but you have fulfilled reason's counsel: that sick

people are not the ones to help you in your stress; that a good nurse

should rise above personal trouble to the duty at hand. Your judgment

has compared your reasons, and decided that you should act before your

patients as you would if all were well. And will holds you to

emotional equilibrium. Such a thing can be done in a very large measure;

and no better opportunity for emotional control will ever be offered

than the necessity of being calm and serene before your patients, no

matter how you feel.

But, while reason and judgment teach us to control the expression of

certain feelings, they urge that this control be exercised in

transforming those feelings into helpful ones and giving them an

adequate outlet. Such a substitution has been suggested above. Let us

not forget that nothing in existence is of personal value until it gives

some one an emotion; that feeling is the beauty of life; that living,

without the happy, wholesome affective glow, would not be worth the

effort; that beauty and strength and sweetness of feeling make for a

worthy self. Remember, too, that feeling is the curse of life. It is

feeling that would make us give up the whole struggle; and ugliness and

weakness and bitterness of feeling make for a despicable self.

Hope lies for us all in the realization that we can choose our feelings,

our responses. We can be utterly discouraged, and bitter and depressed

at failure; or we can recognize it as a sign-board telling us that the

other way than the one we just followed leads to the goal. And we can

follow its pointing finger with faith in a new attempt because, now, we

know at least how not to go. We can learn despair from all the bitter

and the hateful and the mean; or we can learn that they never could be

called so if there were not the sweet, the lovable, and the generous

with which to compare them. You can learn to search as with a microscope

for all the undesirable traits of your patients, or you can calmly

accept all that assert themselves as undeniable facts, but use your

microscope to find their desirable characteristics which offer

possibilities of being brought to the foreground.

You cannot constructively help yourself or your patient by denying the

existence of the less worthy traits; but you can resolve to call out the

something better. And if you do not find it, as may rarely be the case,

you can refuse to let it make you skeptical of finding it in others. Let

us remember always that, "It is not things or conditions or people that

harm us; it is only the way we respond to them that can hurt." This one

great truth, if really believed and made a part of all our thinking,

would save scores of people from nervous wreckage. It is a favorite

saying of a wise man who has helped a great many people to endure and

take new courage when life seemed too hard to meet.

That big, broken-arm case on the ward cursed you yesterday because you

would not loosen his splints. And you rushed from the room angry and

humiliated, wishing you could quit nursing forever, and asked to be

moved because you had been insulted. But that man cannot harm you. He

has never known a real lady in his life before. His training from

childhood has been to regard women as chattels to do man's bidding; his

experience in life is that they usually do what he asks--women of his

kind. Moreover, he has never had a serious pain before, and it is not to

be endured.

Of course, the man must be dealt with and made to realize the

distinction between his new surroundings and the old. Probably the

intern or the doctor is the one to do it. Also he must be brought to

apologize, or leave the hospital, perhaps. But he did not hurt you. Your

own reaction did that. For outside things or people cannot damage what

we are in ourselves. The way we respond to them does the harm. When you

can control your expression of anger and humiliation, and substitute

for your intense feeling a desire that such a patient may learn that

pain is often the gateway to healing; that some respect for women may be

kindled in him, so that eventually such an outburst in the ward may be

impossible for him or for anyone who heard it; then you are choosing

between emotions the one of helpfulness, for the one of justified

indignation; and feeling has followed reason, rather than leading reason

astray. The judgment which decides you to try methods which will shame

or inspire some manliness into the patient was one influenced by a

well-balanced emotional life.

If we would really acquire emotional poise, there are a few practical,

proved methods we might adopt for ourselves.

When we can hold back the expression of the almost overpowering impulse

or passion of anger and resentment and hurt; absolutely shut tight our

lips until we can think; then wait until we can think without the strain

of intense feeling, we will not only keep ourselves out of trouble, but

will be able to calmly state our position, right the wrong done us if

wrong there was, or recognize that we ourselves were wrong. For we

seldom analyze the situation properly under the influence of strong

feeling. If we want to accomplish anything with our words, let us wait

until we can speak them without having to choke down our sobs or cram

back our hot anger, or forcibly restrain ourselves from tearing things

or slamming doors. After all that "wild fire" of emotion is gone,

judgment will lead us to wisely reasoned action.