Nurses: What We Leave at the Door


By Keith Carlson, RN, BSN

As nurses, when we are preparing to walk into an exam room, a hospital room, or a patient’s home, we bring with us a veritable toolbox of skills, ranging from biopsychosocial analysis to keen physical assessment skills. We are trained to look at the whole patient, the family system, and the multifaceted aspects of patients’ lives.


However, we can also walk through that door with judgments, suspicions, preconceived beliefs, fears, projections, and a host of other “baggage” that may or may not serve the therapeutic relationship—nor our patient’s chances of healing.

In my own work, I have witnessed patients and their families engaged in drug addiction, prostitution, child neglect, elder abuse, financial exploitation, and numerous other social conditions or actions that could often make my skin crawl. I also witnessed patients simply making poor choices, living in squalid conditions, refusing treatment, and otherwise choosing chaos over order, illness over health, and hell over healing.

When possible and necessary, I would intervene, and sometimes that meant calling the police or the local protective service organization. Sometimes it meant just listening and trying to get to the root of the behavior. At others, it was a call to a therapist, a psychiatrist, or a drug counselor.

No matter the situation, we health care providers bring to the situation our own life experiences, our own traumas, and a unique personal history. In this line of work, transference and projection are not just quaint vocabulary terms memorized during a requisite Psych 101 class, and if you’re a nurse and you can’t tell me what projection and transference are, then it’s time to do some brushing up. (Perhaps that Psych 101 textbook is still in your garage somewhere.)

No matter where you are in the course of your career, you are subject to the same psychological forces as a novice nurse, and at times it is exactly our experience as seasoned nurses that can harm us the most. Cynicism, jadedness, and a sense of “I’ve seen it all before” can actually get in the way of our seeing the patient for who they are in the first place, so looking beyond our experience with fresh eyes and an open heart can work wonders for actually “seeing” the patient or situation in front of our very noses.

Before you walk in that door, think about what it is that you bring to the therapeutic relationship and the situaton at hand. What is the baggage that might get in the way? What are the stresses and worries from outside of work that need to be set aside? And once you’re in that room, keep a sharp eye out for those projections, that sneaky transference, and the judgments that undermine your ability to be objective and most clinically effective.

And remember to ask yourself: What am I bringing to this encounter? What are the skills that I most need to activate at this time? And what do I need to leave outside that door?