New Nurses: How to Stop Feeling Like An Idiot


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Are you dreading your next shift as a new nurse because you feel like an idiot? I have been in your shoes and I’m telling you, it gets better. But I guess you’re having a hard time believing me, right?

Feeling like an idiot as a new nurse is normal. Feelings of being an imposter, incompetence, anxiety and stress are common too. But asking for help, taking your time, being a sponge, reading new policies and often just having a go to person will help you find your feet, build confidence and resistance.

You’ve spent this time studying, dedicating every spare minute to focusing on your future nursing career, only to feel like you’re at rock bottom. This post will give the confidence boost you need to keep going and make it through these tough early months. Get ready to kickstart your nursing career!

This is part 3 of an exciting 3 part new nursing series I wish I had access to when I first started my nursing career. Part one is called Being a New Nurse is Hard. How to Stop Feeling Incompetent and part two is titled How do Nurses not get Sick? 10 Tips to Staying Healthy (click the titles to check them out). I hope you love it.

Why You’re Not an Idiot as a New Nurse

An idiot does everything incorrectly, without asking for help, and then tells everyone why they’re right.

Is this you? Didn’t think so. 

Let’s break that down a bit more.

“….does everything incorrectly without asking for help”

Graduate nurses are known for asking a lot of questions so this couldn’t possibly be true. Plus, they are generally too afraid to make a mistake often putting off a task because they don’t know how to do it.

If you’re starting to feel hot, flushed and your is heart-pounding … ask for help.

You’re new and are not supposed to know it all.

As a Clinical Nurse Educator, I get worried when I ask a graduate how they are going and if they need help and the response is “Nah, I’m doing okay.”

You should always have a question if you are critically thinking. There is ZERO CHANCE you know how everything links together just yet. Even the most experienced nurses in your unit won’t know everything.

Next Time You Have to Do Something Brand New…

For the first time – Read the policy / guideline and understand why the procedure is being done. Then observe, ask questions, take notes and watch how your buddy reassures and educates the patient. Be proactive.

The second time – Again, understand why the procedure was ordered, linking the test or procedure to the potential working diagnosis. Talk about the process outside the patient’s room before you do it, then go ahead and give it a go yourself but have somebody directly observing you.

The third time – Try it on your own with help readily available.

For every time after that – Continue to make tweaks, improve techniques and importantly, if you’re feeling any doubt in your gut, stop. Confirm with whoever the order is from (doctor, pharmacy, radiology, speech therapy, physio or even just bounce the idea with your charge nurse). Don’t just do it and hope for the best.

You don’t have to swim with the sharks just because you may be thrown there.Yellow fluid Sample | New nurse confidenceWhat do I do with it now? How do I write the pathology slip? Where does it go? How long do the results take to come back? There is NEVER a dumb question in my eyes.

Why You Might be Feeling Like an Idiot as a New Nurse

Starting anything new can be a daunting experience. You are the “new kid” who should be asking a lot of questions and spends time by yourself as you try to make some friends.

Every single nurse you are working alongside has been in the exact same position as you. They have felt those nerves and the butterflies in their stomach just like you are now.

Time is the magical thing that is going to make you feel part of the team, but often it can move painfully slow as a new nurse. To help speed things up, I have divided the remainder of this post into different areas listed below which often bring out feelings of insecurity for new nurses.

You’ll find scattered throughout these sections real-life stories and examples of how to build confidence whilst developing your nursing skills.

  • Feeling like an imposter. “I am not smart / good / clever enough for this job.”
  • Giving report / handover. Overcoming feelings of inadequacy.
  • Showing neutral emotions. The importance of developing a poker face and why it’s important.
  • Professionalism. Why it matters and tips to making a good first impression.

Let’s dive in.

Avoid Feeling Like an Imposter as a New Nurse

When I first got the job as one of the educators in the Emergency Department I experienced a huge amount of self-doubt. It wasn’t until one of my nursing mates introduced me to a concept called Imposter Syndrome that I realized I wasn’t alone.

Emma Lecture | The Other Shift
I’m terrified doing this lecture and felt like a HUGE imposter…

It’s basically when you think your level of knowledge and experience is not enough for the position you’re in. 

I’m guessing this sounds like you. 

I often hear new nurses say, “Am I even qualified for this job?” We often laugh after saying this but the feelings are very real and shouldn’t be ignored.

If you’re feeling like this, take a look at this video below which explains imposter syndrome and what you can do about it.  This changed the game for me.

How to Give an Impressive Nursing Report / Handover

As a current nursing educator, one of the most intimidating issues graduate nurses and those in nursing school talk about is giving handover / report.

This could be to either other nursing, medical or allied health staff within your unit / ward or for a different part of the hospital or facility.

Without adequate preparation and the use of a structured approach, new and even experienced nurses, can feel inadequate when asked specific questions about a patient under their care.

There are many different techniques you can use to prepare and deliver your handover / report. One of the popular tools is ISBAR, which I find to be the most useful way. It’s clear, quick to prepare and readily available.

Here is how it’s broken down:

I – Identify: Who you are and what is your role?

S – Situation: What is going on with the patient?

B – Background: What is the relevant clinical background / context?

A – Assessment: What have you found? What do you think the problem is? What is the patients likely or confirmed diagnosis?

R – Recommendation: What would you recommend? In the case of handover, this could be what the doctors have ordered, what are they waiting for and what is stopping the patient from progressing ie, MRI, CT, labs reports, etc. (sourceOpens in a new tab.)

As well as developing your handover / report tool, there are a few more things you might like to consider to limit confusion and / or a follow-up phone call:

  • Have you printed / obtained all the appropriate paperwork necessary for ongoing care? Think spinal clearance forms, stickers, past history and referral documentation.
  • Have you packaged the patient’s belongings together? Are all their valuables and medications packed and ready for transport?
  • Is your patient on any isolation precautions requiring specific Personal Protective Equipment?
  • Does your patient need a specific bed or mattress, for example if they are a high falls risk? Or does your patient need a pressure foam mattress because they are at a high risk of pressure injuries?
  • Be concise – you only have a short period of time to capture their attention so stick to the relevant details. (sourceOpens in a new tab.)
  • What is the persons name and direct phone number you are giving report to? If report gets interrupted for whatever reason, you can quickly call back and resume the conversation.

Giving Report Tip:
If you receive a phone call from somebody wanting report / handover from a patient they are about to receive from you, STOP. Gather your thoughts and get organized. If you need to call them back, that’s okay (just don’t forget to take down their name and direct phone number). Go to a quiet place, ensuring confidentiality is maintained and make sure you have all the information and charts handy.

Male Nurse | New Nurse Confidence Booster Why Your Not an Idiot

New Nurse Facial Expressions

I previously touched on this point in my first post, Being a New Nurse is Hard. How to Stop Feeling Incompetent, but I wanted to expand a little further.

To feel less like an “idiot” as a new nurse, it’s all about the poker face.

Nurses are in a beautiful but often tricky position because people let you intimately into their lives, telling you and showing you things you don’t often see (or even want to see).

Like a bucket of vomit at the triage desk to show how ‘sick’ they are…

If I was to ask you what’s the weirdest, grossest, smelliest, most absurd or strangest thing you’ve seen in your nursing career, what would it be? How did you act when you saw it for the first time?

We not only need to remain straight-faced but we need to show empathy and compassion all at the same time. Don’t be scared.

Developing this skill takes time, but the better you become at showing the appropriate emotion to a situation, the better your assessment will be.

Why? The patient will feel comfortable and be willing to disclose information they otherwise would be too embarrassed to share. 

Here is a script which could help:

  • If a wound / injury looks sore or infected: “Oh XXX (patients name) that looks really sore, can you tell me a bit about XXX (burn/wound/injury)”
  • If a wound smells: “I notice the wound smells a little bit, how long has this been happening? Let’s see what we can do to make this more comfortable”
  • If a patient is angry: “X (patients name) I can see you are angry and to be honest, I would be too. The situation sucks. How can I help in trying to resolve this problem?

If something really shocks you, acknowledge the event or situation, working with your patient to find a solution, even if it’s only temporary. Sometimes just saying words of support for your patient is all you need to do.

If something is blowing your mind, maybe in a wound, the amount of blood, the smell, etc… focus on using words to make the patient feel comfortable.

If you can’t find the “right thing to say” sometimes it’s often better not saying anything at all. It will stop you from saying something inappropriate or potentially hurtful. Silence is okay.

Give the patient a notepad and a pen and allow them to think of their own questions for when they are ready.

shocked nurse

Why Professionalism Matters for New Nurses

We all want to fit in with our new team, ward or department. We don’t want to “make waves” and most of us don’t want to be the new nurse that everyone is talking about for the wrong reasons.

Here are some tips on making sure you do everything you can to make a good first impression.

It’s okay if you are already a few months in to applying these things.

Some say that the first impression counts and I believe that’s true to some extent. However, nursing moves so fast with new people everywhere, the cool thing is there is always time for a fresh start. 

Be Prompt

Show up on time to every shift, study day or orientation. If you’re running late, call to tell the charge nurse or person organizing the event. Making a colleague leave work late because you were unorganized is not a great start.

Starting shift work for the first time can be hard work and I know how confusing it can be. Using a shift work calendar app on your phone can save your butt and help you to show up on time. Here are our favorite shift work calendar apps.

Don’t Interrupt the Person Trying to Explain Something to You

Let the educator finish, then either clarify something or make a comment, but not during. It’s very annoying for your preceptor or educator.

Also, try to resist from saying, “well at X I learned this way!” Take it all in and find what works best for you.

Be Humble and Think About Your ‘Personal Brand’

Don’t ever say, “oh yeah, I know that because I learned at X.

Again, this is pretty annoying for the person trying to teach you because they might be explaining it again because you didn’t quite get it or missed the point the first time. Listen. Take it in.

If what you’re hearing contradicts another method you have heard, decide which is the best fit for you and the patient and consider bouncing ideas off your educator to decide the ultimate outcome. 

Take Away…What do you want people to think when your name comes up? Act in a way you want people to remember you.

Look and Be Prepared for Work

Is your uniform clean?

Have you got your equipment ready and does it work?

Are you mentally ready for work?

If you’re unwell, don’t come to work!

Calling in sick is encouraged if you’re simply not fit to work. It’s much better than working for an hour then having to go home leaving the ward short a staff member. Even if it’s within an hour of start time – call in sick.

If you’re reading this thinking, I do need a new pair of scrubs, we love these Dagacci ScrubsOpens in a new tab. on Amazon.com. They have so many pockets, they don’t feel and look like a big sack and the material is durable after many washes! Check them out here.

Related post: Shift Work While Pregnant: Survival Tips from 46 Busy Moms

Be Prepared for Anything

As a nurse, you never know what you’re going to see today so you need to be well rested and prepared for anything.

Staying up till 4 am on a Saturday night before an early shift starting at 7 am on Sunday may not be the smartest idea as you’ll likely be fatigued and miss important information.

If you are fatigued or simply make a mistake (we all make mistakes) own up to it. Regardless of how big or small the issue is. Don’t blame somebody if you were at fault because it is easier – it will eat you up. Often the situation is not as bad as it seems.

Be the Supportive Colleague You Want From Others

If you want somebody to check your medication, administer a scheduled drug, help you make a bed etc… you need to be open to doing the same for others.

Of course, graduate nurses are given some slack here but if you do have some downtime, help somebody. Be kind. Any help is great help!

“…but they give me nothing”

You’ll come across nurses and other staff who are harder to crack in regards to developing a relationship, but generally, they do come around.

If you act professional, be safe and ask questions after you have done some digging, this can help these relationships blossom.

Stay Away From the Drama

Stay away from gossip and talking about people behind their back. Particularly when it involves social media! This can be dangerous and is easily avoidable.

Be friendly but try not to get too involved in rumours which can hurt somebody else.

Speak Up If You’re Getting Bullied

You’ve got enough going on! Being bullied as a new nurse is totally unacceptable and needs to be addressed promptly.

But what does this look like? How do you stop them treating you so badly?

I don’t want to put out negative vibes but unfortunately, people can be mean and that’s why it’s important we talk about it here.

I hope this never happens to you, but if it does, you need to speak up and tell somebody. Even if it seems scary. Whether that is your line manager, the nurse in charge of the shift, a colleague, educator or peer supporter / internal support member, you need to build up the confidence in saying enough is enough.

Nobody should come to work and be treated with disrespect, especially from their own colleagues. Speak up. Tell somebody or confront the individual in a time and setting appropriate. If you want support from your manager during this conversation invite them to be part of it, giving them context of the situation beforehand.

Though there are a few “bad eggs” majority of the nurses you’ll meet are kind, compassionate and very funny. I have developed many real, honest friendships with many of the nurses I work with which I believe are now life long friends.

Doctors walking | How to Handle Working Overnight. 9 Night Shift Tips and Tricks

Why You Should Stick With Nursing and Not Quit Just Yet (If Ever…)

Are you thinking about throwing in the towel and giving up?

I know it may seem like a good option, but we both know deep down, it’s not.

Give yourself at least a year (or two) to figure out if it’s for you.

There are so many variables that go into not loving your new nursing job from the ward, your colleagues, your preceptor, the workload, the hospital and even the patients.

Imagine if simply changing one of these things made everything better?

You are not stuck in the ward / department you’re in. But you need to give it time to ‘grow on you’. This could mean 6 months or it could mean a year. Three weeks in is not enough time – sorry.

As I am the ultimate optimist, here is a list of amazing benefits to nursing life you may have forgotten:

  • Leave your job at the door. No reports. No emails. No follow up.
  • Steady, consistent paychecks.
  • Paid vacation days.
  • Making lifelong friends who understand every struggle. 
  • Midweek days off away from traffic and the peak hour rush.
  • Having the best stories at any party.
  • Wearing elastic waist scrubs to work and never having to really think about “work clothes”.

If you need more convincing, here is unique a blog postOpens in a new tab. we wrote about the advantages of shift work.

I know feeling comfortable as a nurse feels like a distant thought, but so was driving, swimming and riding a bike and for most you and you’ve mastered these things.

This is just another bump in the long and winding road. 

Just make sure while you’re feeling flustered and lost, you stick to building on the things you’re good at first, regardless of how basic. Everything else will come in time.

Resources – Where to Now as a New Nurse?

1. The Other Shift  

Throughout nursing school, how much did you learn regarding how to manage life as a shift worker?

I’m betting you’ve never even really spoken about it because I never did. And that’s why we are here!

Our mission is to help shift workers be happy, healthy and in control of their irregular schedules. Please email us at [email protected] with any questions.

Don’t forget to check out our new nurses survival kitOpens in a new tab. too!

Here a few links to get your started:

2. Work out how you learn best

Not everyone learns the same way.

Some people need to hold the tubing and prime with saline the very first time while others need to observe and read the instruction sheet before doing anything.

Don’t assume you know how you learn best. Take a quick quiz here and find out who you are.

3. Use a Brain Sheet / Report Structure Card  

Have you heard of NURSING.com? (NRSNG)

It’s an amazing website full of free content to make you an exceptional nurse. They offer 4 different academies (which require a monthly subscription) from student nurse to new graduate which are well worth looking into. See their popular bundle plan here.

If you’re in the mood for some shopping, their NCLEX book available via HERE is and honestly amazing. Full of helpful cheatsheets to impress everyone on your next nursing shift!

4. Up your Human Anatomy and Physiology Game!

As a college student or new graduate, learning human anatomy and physiology can be a minefield! That is why you’re going to love what I’ve recently discovered.

The Human Anatomy & Physiology Course created by Dr. James Ross contains more than 3,000 pages of course materials typically only sold to medical professionals.

I was shocked at how much interactive, engaging and effective information was available to me. It has virtually everything you need to learn about the human body, maybe except a cadaver?

Plus it come with handy diagrams, lesson plans, quizes and mini courses to make sure the information sinks into my thick head.

This The Human Anatomy & Physiology Course is well worth a look.

Related: An Organized RN’s Essential Holiday Gift Guide For Nurses

Summary: New Nurses: How to Stop Feeling Like An Idiot

You have chosen an unbelievable profession which gives you the freedom to impact your own work schedule and wear cozy clothes, while making a difference to somebody’s life. 

I know you’re struggling and feeling like an imposter, but keep going. Build on the skills you learned yesterday and take the time to develop a poker face, while using techniques others use. You are not an idiot. The penny will soon drop. 

This is part 3 of 3 of our new nursing series

Through this exciting three-part new nurse series, we dive into how to stop feeling incompetent, avoid getting sick and feeling run down and how to look after yourself as a shift worker. Plus, so much more.

Jump back to part 1 (they can be read in any order): Being a New Nurse is Hard. How to Stop Feeling Incompetent

Or, dive into Part 2: Always Sick as a New Nurse? 10 Tricks to Beat The Blues

Thanks for reading this post about building confidence for new nurses. How are you feeling now? Let us know in the comments below.

Cheers,

Emma signature | theothershift.com

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

2 thoughts on “New Nurses: How to Stop Feeling Like An Idiot

  1. I’m in nursing school still almost finished but this made me feel relieved to know not only students feel this way, especially now that I am doing clinical rotations 3 days a week. Our school’s philosophy is really to just have as jump in and it sometimes hard to know where to jump in and when to jump out too. I really appreciated this and I will be purchasing your book when it’s time 🙂

    1. Hi Natalie,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s an exciting time finishing nursing school and tune tuning your skills. After 10 years of nursing I still learn something every shift, no joke, so don’t be too hard on yourself in the beginning. Be curious, slow down and continue to always ask questions when you’re not sure. You’ll be great. Touch base with us anytime in the future at [email protected]. Cheers, Emma

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