The Gift of Reflection

As a nurse one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself is the gift of reflection.  Yes, you heard me right reflection.  Taking the time to reflect gives you the opportunity to grow personally and professionally through every experience that you encounter.

Over the years of inspiring and mentoring nurses I have called this gift “swamp work.”  Borrowing this analogy indicates that doing reflection is not always easy or pleasant.  Take a moment to think about a swamp….it’s mucky, sluggish, buggy, icky, has snakes and alligators on the one hand, on the other it can be quiet, reflective, beautiful and so peaceful.  Swamp work is necessary to bring forward key lessons that we will miss if we don’t take time out to reflect daily.  Yes, I said daily.  

A fundamental principle that I teach others by is that there is no learning without action.  Truth is there is no key learning without reflection either.  Reflection starts from the space of curiosity, asking lots and lots of questions.  Here are some to get your practice of reflection started:

  • What did I learn about myself? Or about my practice today?
  • What do I wish I would have known today before having 20/20 vision now?
  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?  
  • What symptoms did I miss before watching the patient quickly deteriorate?
  • What will I do the same or differently the next time I find myself in a similar situation?
  • How do I feel about this experience?
  • How did I show up?  Was I supportive and helpful, or crabby and spiteful?  If the latter, what had me triggered?  What does that say to me about me?
  • How can I be more proactive vs. reactive in the future?
  • How will I communicate with Dr. X when he yells at me next time?

This list could go on and on, but I anticipate that you get the drift.

Whenever we ask our brains a question it searches for the answer.  One of the hardest times to reflect is after making a mistake.  The judger in our brain becomes so loud and often we berate ourselves over and over again.  It is imperative to interrupt the judger, telling it to shut-up for a bit while taking the opportunity to reflect on what can be done differently next time to prevent this experience from happening again.  Does a protocol, guideline or a policy need to be written?  What learning and key lessons need to be taken away from all of this?  This is a much more productive outcome vs. the berating that happens if we allow it.

Just for a moment, imagine a square.  Inside this square represents one’s comfort zone.  Your comfort zone.  Your brain/ego wants to keep you safely inside your comfort zone and will do everything it can in its power to derail any growth effort.  Guess what, growth only happens outside of your comfort zone.  Reflection is all about growth.  Every time you reflect you are pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.  As you near the boundaries, fear often pops up it may sound like….. “just leave it alone, there is nothing good that will come out of this, I really don’t want to go back through this terrible day”, etc. Your brain will do it’s best to derail your reflection efforts.  The key is to push through, reflect and expand your growth!!  Just do it, it is worth it.

It is my professional opinion that as a nurse you should be learning something new about yourself or about practice every single day.  If not, it is time to consider leaving practice, as there is always something new to learn.  I do know for sure that reflection prevents you from becoming complacent and stale in practice.


  • Find a reflection buddy, someone to banter with, someone who has your back, someone you trust and who wants to help you learn and grow regardless of the experience you find yourself in.
  • When in doubt write it out.  If you prefer processing and reflecting alone, writing it out is a great tool.  Free flow journal, brain dump and emotionally “vomit” on the pages.  If you are concerned that someone will read it, take the pages outside and burn them when finished.
  • Share your insights!  Have a voice and be vulnerable to share with others the key lessons you have on the other side of reflection.  This is helpful to others and can even be life-changing.  First, they learn that they are not alone in how they are feeling about their own experiences and secondly, it may prevent them from making a less than stellar move in the future.  
  • Think about what impact you might have on the standards of the care and practice on the other side of reflection.  Does a protocol, guideline or policy and procedure need to be developed or changed based on your new awareness?  What could be put into place to keep your fellow nurse and your patients safer?

What additional tips come to your mind?

Wait no longer, it is time to give yourself the gift of daily reflection.  It is a great investment to your practice and to you growth both personally and professionally.

Written by:  Cella Hartline, RN, BSN

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