How to Develop Your Nursing Identity

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC - 06/08/19

Your identity as a nurse is multifaceted and based upon a variety of factors that define you as a healthcare and nursing professional. A strong nursing identity helps you determine who you are, the values that you stand for, and how you want to show up in the world. This is a process that lasts your entire career.

Your “Nursesness” 101

When you make the decision to attend nursing school and register for your prerequisite courses, your journey has begun. Once you’re in school, you quickly learn how certain student nurses may engage with their own “nurseness”, and you’ll have glimpses of your colleagues’ futures: this one is a natural leader; that one will likely be a bully and “Queen Bee”; and that one will probably do the minimum required and go home. It takes all kinds, and nurses are as diverse as the general population.

When you graduate from nursing school, you’ll observe your colleagues, learn from your mentors and preceptors, and absorb the knowledge, insights, and experience of others who’ve been around the block more than you -- this is natural and expected.

As you develop your own brand of “nurseness”, this is largely defined by your values and how you see the world around you and interact with it. Of course, your skills and knowledge also make you the nurse who you are; and if you choose an area of specialty practice, this further defines your place in the world of nursing and the wider healthcare universe.

Moving Further Into Your True Nurse Self

Once you’ve worked a year or two and earned your stripes as a professional, you’ll likely reject certain attitudes and embody others.

You may be turned off by the spiteful and catty remarks made by the nurses who huddle in the cafeteria gossiping. You may admire and emulate nurses who walk their talk around leadership, compassion, kindness, and holistic care. You’ll develop your own views, opinions, and practices that further define who you are and what you represent when you report to the ICU, clock in to the dialysis unit, or enter a patient’s home for hospice care.

Diving deeper into your nursing identity means understanding yourself and not allowing contradictory forces to turn you into one of those bitter, burned out nurses who rail against the system and contribute little to team cohesion and high-level performance.

This process is yours and yours alone, and it’s up to you to own it and make it an expression of your professional. Individuation.

Strategies for Fanning the Flame of Your Identity

If you want to fan the flames of your nursing identity, there are plenty of practices you can employ to do so:

  • Consume podcasts, TED Talks, and videos that discuss the meaning and importance of your work in nursing
  • Keep a journal of your experiences as a nurse for periodic reflection on your journey
  • Pursue a specialty that speaks to your heart and intellect
  • Use continuing education courses to study subjects that really matter to you rather than just taking random courses to fulfill your CEU requirements
  • Request a colleague you truly admire and respect to be your mentor for a period of time so that you can have their support in further defining who you are and what you want out of your career
  • Work with a career coach or counselor to dig deeper into your motivations and goals
  • Attend conferences, seminars, and webinars that offer the potential for career growth and inspiration
  • Pursue higher education or certification if that path calls your name
  • Build your professional network via both online and in-person contacts; your network is your personal brain trust of wisdom and insight
  • Periodically review where your career has taken you and where you’re going next

Your nursing identity isn’t set in stone; it’s a malleable and exciting continuum that begins when you start taking those prerequisite courses and doesn’t end when you retire. After all, once a nurse, always a nurse; that identity will hold fast even after when you leave the workforce. 

Go forth and continue to mold your nursing identity, understanding that it will naturally morph with time. The shifts and changes in the way you see yourself as a nurse offer an ongoing exercise in acceptance, forward thinking, and being open and curious about what the next chapter will bring.