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Healthy Detachment: Tips for Rising Above the Healthcare Noise

Blog Feature3

A nurse's job is to care for patients medically, socially and emotionally. And yet, caring too much can be an occupational hazard that sets you up for burnout. On top of that, nurses deal with (ahem) difficult personalities on a regular basis. So how do you rise above all of that healthcare noise? Clinical social worker, blogger and author Cherilynn Veland, MSW, LCSW, shares some insight into the theory of healthy detachment. Read on to find out what healthy detachment means and why it's important for all nurses to practice. Then learn some simple but powerful tips for practicing in your everyday personal and professional life.

About our expert

Cherilynn Veland is a clinical social worker, blogger and author who specializes in women's self-esteem issues. She has a wealth of experience as a psychotherapist and has done a great deal of work with nurses who struggle with challenges in the hospital setting. Her blog,, is an excellent resource for women (and really, for men, too), who want to feel better about themselves and seek emotional balance.

What is detachment? Why is it important?

Healthy detachment is the process by which we emotionally disconnect from negative, toxic emotions or behaviors in order to protect and care for ourselves. Like a waterskier that can choose to drop the line if the speedboat they are hooked to is going too fast, so can we choose to drop that line. However, learning to detach in a healthy way takes practice and effort.

Why is detachment typically a challenge for nurses?

Nurses have a particularly challenging time detaching in a healthy way for a couple of reasons:

  1. They are typically caring and compassionate. This is a big strength until it comes time to disconnect.
  2. If you don't know how to healthfully detach, you can go too far by cutting yourself off completely from others emotionally or by getting resentful. This can be harmful to one's self even though it is done in an attempt to self-protect.

How are boundary setting and detachment related?

Boundaries are a part of healthy detachment because it is how we separate our self from others. Again, this can be tough for many nurses because of the high degree of caring and compassionate that a nurse's work requires. Turning that caring and compassion inward and toward the self can help in learning how to set better boundaries. It is a process of trial and error for people who aren't good at self-care.

What are some tips you can share with nurses to help them practice healthy detachment?

  • Respond don't react.Wait at least 5 long seconds ("one Mississippi two Mississippi ...") before responding when stressed so you have time to decide how you want to handle your response.
  • Have a plan for what you say and do with difficult people. When I worked in a hospital, we all knew which healthcare workers were going to be difficult. Have a saying you come up with in response to certain demands or attitudes. You are not endorsing or accepting so-and-so's behavior, you are just making silent choices within yourself in how you want to handle it. Knowing you have choices in how to respond somehow helps with detaching from their "stuff."
  • Set an alarm for a mental break and create a routine for that break. For example, going into the bathroom to splash some water on your face and taking 10 deep breaths. An alarm allows for consistency, and a routine can become a comforting ritual that helps you detach more readily.
  • Use the container visualization method. If you have a particularly difficult patient or situation, visualize placing it into a container, then traveling away from you. It could be launching a rocket, floating down a river, setting it on fire, anything to help you visualize letting go of your attachments to the situation.
  • Find a nursing partner you trust who you can connect with regularly to help you "download" and let go of your work challenges. Choose someone who is supportive and understanding.
  • Assess your body language. If someone else is being difficult, stand with your body angled away from them. The physical boundary can help you create an internal boundary as well. You can also aim your focus just above the other person's eyes. This can help minimize the pull of the toxic energy.

Your turn

Do you have healthy detachment skills? What prevents you from setting boundaries?