When the Nurse is Intimidated by the Patient

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC - 08/10/19

We all know that patients aren’t the only ones who feel intimidated or afraid when dealing with the healthcare system. We nurses can feel intimidated by doctors and others who have more power, influence, or knowledge than us. However, what happens when you’re intimidated by a patient? How do you navigate this feeling and maintain appropriate control over patient care? And how can your feelings be dealt with in a healthy and constructive way?

Why Are You Intimidated?

You may be a young nurse who’s intimidated by older men. Or you may be an older nurse who feels intimidated by patient who themselves are healthcare professionals. Or maybe you work in Los Angeles or New York and you sometimes have celebrity patients. No matter your age, experience, or the situation, efficiently processing those feelings and tending to the task at hand is incredibly important.

If you walked into a psychotherapist’s office wanting to talk about why you feel afraid in the presence of certain patients, the therapist would explore many aspects of your life, history, and behavior, including but not limited to your childhood, your relationships with your parents and authority figures, and all manner of experiences and memories that might be clues for solving the puzzle. The counselor may also point out that the feeling of intimidation is often associated with fear or anxiety.

In the absence of any form of coaching, therapy, or counseling, the ball is in your court to grasp what lies beneath your feelings. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does this patient remind me of someone from my past or present?
  • Is the patient’s age a factor in how I feel?
  • Do I feel competent providing the care this patient needs?
  • Are my feelings about the patient getting in the way of my ability to render care?
  • If the patient appears to be uncomfortable with me in any way, how have I contributed to his or her discomfort?
  • Can I provide safe, competent care to this person or do I need to ask for them to be reassigned?
  • What can I learn from this situation?
  • Is there a way to break through my feelings and come out the other side?

Communication is Key

As a nurse, chances are that you navigate complex relationships and communication regularly, unless you’re lucky enough to work in a vacuum devoid of other people, or you live under a rock.

Compromise, communication, cooperation, and respect are central to your functioning well in any healthcare environment. Whether it’s multidisciplinary collaboration with colleagues or talking with patients and families, you must be able to deal with everyone, even those who don’t like or trust you. Can you win everyone’s trust? Usually not, but you can do your best to make your communication as smooth and seamless as possible.

So, if you’re feeling intimidated by a patient and you’ve asked yourself all the questions listed above, here are some ideas for moving forward:

  • Face your fear head on and talk with the patient about their care. If they appear fearful, anxious, worried, or otherwise disturbed, ask a simple open-ended question or two, such as: “Howare you feeling about your care at this time?”
  • Remember that it’s all about the patient. Is there a way to determine why they’re behaving as they are? What’s the key to breaking through their defenses?
  • If it seems appropriate, sit down with your patient, establish whatever rapport you can, and say something like, “You know, when I enter your room to provide care, I feel some fear in my gut. I don’t understand it, but since we’re stuck with each other for the entirety of my shift, let’s see how we can move things forward. How do you feel we’re doing?” This may disarm the individual enough to instigate a new beginning in your relationship.
  • If you feel you simply cannot provide safe care for this patient, swap with another nurse or ask to be reassigned. However, don’t do this too often: you’ll learn much more if you do the work on yourself and figure out what issues are present and how to change them.

Conquer Your Anxiety

We established earlier that feeling intimidated is linked to anxiety and fear. If this is the case, then conquering your underlying anxiety is crucial. Unprocessed fear can lead you to feeling clumsy and making unnecessary mistakes that will only confirm the reason the patient may already distrust you.

Did you care for your dying grandfather who criticized everything you did? Remember that this patient is a different person and you can work it through to a healthy resolution. Did a similar patient eat you up and spit you out when you were a student nurse? Well, you’re a professional now, and you’re smart and savvy enough to not be intimidated from doing your job.

Confront your feelings, rely on stellar communication, and dig deep to get to the root of patients’ issues, as well as your own. Your nursing care will only improve, as will your ability to negotiate difficult relationships and interactions in both your personal and professional lives.