Power & fun for nurses! Not just for Halloween

Posted by

Now that we’ve had our costume and candy fun, what can Halloween teach us? How can we use this fun day to become better nurses?

My Bat Signal! Filled a window, all black until a kid summoned me & the candy

Halloween teaches at least three lessons:

  1. It teaches us that joy and fun are rather important. Life is short. Folks get more work done when they’re happy (an evidence-based assertion),
  2. It teaches a lesson in self-forgiveness for having eaten perhaps “too much” candy. Every year, it seems! And far most important,
  3. This year it reminds me of a fun way to get your work done a little faster & easier. It’s called Pretending.


Panic Button to turn on the Bat Signal, c/o MIT


Nurses should learn about PRETENDING?!?!?


I imagine all you Serious Nurses out there grinding your teeth & muttering. How dare I waste your precious time with Pretending? It’s OK, grind away and mutter! I’ve been there. But listen a bit longer, folks, unless you find the idea of a little extra power beneath you.

(Rather too many) years ago I learned that Pretending isn’t just for kids. It’s also a valuable survival skill and performance enhancer for adults. Clearly, most adults haven’t gotten the memo! Yet most nurses have already Pretended at work, at least at a rudimentary level. Let’s see if this scenario rings a bell:

Remember that time at work when you felt overwhelmed & freaked out by something really awful, yet you still had to get the job done? What to do? So you improvised: what else could you do? You threw together your very best I’m On Top Of It Everything Is Fine Face, then you slogged along and did your best until the crisis passed. And it worked!

Most nurses have used it more than once. I certainly have! In nursing school, I wore The Face  basically nonstop throughout my entire Obstetrics clinical (a great story for another day…). And guess what?  The Face is Pretending! Entry level stuff, sure, but it’s still Pretending. Now we’re getting somewhere.

So you Pretended at work and it saved the day, didn’t it? The Face sure worked out better than your other options at the time. Options like freezing up, running away, or screaming “I’m in WAY over my head here!!!” You chose well!  Pretending enhanced your courage and focus. It helped you calm others. With Pretending, you got it done right and you lived to fight another day. Essential stuff, Pretending. Essential!

Pretending offer limitless possibilities, but don’t worry! Limitless is not what I have in mind for this post. No, I’ll keep it brief today and offer a mere introduction. I didn’t learn about Pretending as a nurse. No, I learned long before that. It was a matter of necessity.

It was the early 80s and I was in middle school. We think about bullies rather differently today. It was a simpler time. “Bully” didn’t mean rolling eyes or saying mean things on Facebook. Back then “Bullies” threatened people, humiliated them, beat them up. Simple stuff!

So when a known middle school Bully Boy loomed, a dude on his 6th year in a row trying (not really) to graduate, a dude who shaved and worked at a gas station after school (perhaps I exaggerate slightly), when that dude loomed, looking for another fun target, I learned to turn on my best act to date: near-perfect Invisibility. Similar in a sense to the Everything Is Fine Face, but also very different. It’s another example of Pretending.

People think invisibility isn’t possible, the same way they think Pretending is just for kids. People are mistaken on both counts.

I know because I’ve used Invisibility many times over the years. It’s not perfect of course, but it works. In middle school, say, Bully Boy could see me. It’s not like I’m a wizard or a comic book superhero! Bully Boy saw me, but only vaguely. He saw me the same way he saw a word in a textbook open in front of him as he pretended to read. He saw me the same way he saw a patch of blue sky when he was focused on something else. He saw me but he didn’t SEE  me. In other words, he didn’t notice me. No noticing, no bullying: sweet deal! And the secret that made it all possible was Pretending.

In this example I learned to turn off all facial expression – blank – to avoid eye contact without obviously avoiding eye contact, to do nothing and wear nothing and say nothing that attracts any interest of any kind. It works! For years, bullies hit targets all around me as I hid in plain sight within arm’s reach. It works. To this day, I can work a crossword puzzle in a rowdy bar and somehow… attract no attention. It works.

And it takes a little effort and some practice. All the most important life skills work that way. All people skill are like that: learn, practice, benefit, refine, repeat. Onward and upward… Soon enough you can learn to pretend so well that even you believe it. You can make it REAL. Real power! Remember Everything Is Fine Face? You faked it as hard as you could, and it had real effects, the same way all strong beliefs have real effects.

Remember the Placebo effect? That’s Pretending example three! It’s the Greatest Pretending Success Story of all time, actually. Pretending has real power: it generates Belief. Others buy it. Even YOU start to buy it with a little practice. It’s real magic AND it’s verified by abundant scientific evidence. Nice!

Back to middle school: once I learned this trick, I was pretty safe in a tough neighborhood. I even found ways to help others to safety. Did it matter? You tell me. One time a Bully Boy saw through my Invisibility – not perfect, remember? A vivid discussion of the pros and cons of drowning me ensued. It wasn’t a personal: I was simply available, exposed, VISIBLE, and potentially amusing. We were all treading water at the time, no lifeguards…

Oddly & ironically, Mr Scary & I subsequently became good friends in high school. He’d moved on from bullying by then… me too. I didn’t learn Invisibility and stop there, after all. Oh, no. Never stop learning, folks! Pretending had only just begun.

So when I wandered into nursing I’d not thought much about bullies for years. My first real nursing job was on an inpatient specialized dementia unit: mostly patients who got into big trouble often. It was the most violent unit I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen many over the last 20 years. Getting punched or kicked was an inconvenience, not an emergency. And I lasted three years there & mostly enjoyed it. How? The answer involves some more Pretending.

Let’s try something right now, you and me. Pretend with me. Pretend you suffer from advanced dementia. Give it a try. You can’t hope to do good work with such people until you learn to imagine their world. I’ve watched countless decent people try, fail, and suffer… this Pretending is essential.

Pretend you suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. Give it a try. Why? You can’t hope to do good work with such people until you learn to imagine their experience, their world. I’ve watched countless decent people try, fail, and suffer…  Pretending is essential.

Pretend you have no ability to remember five minutes ago, ever. Every five minutes you’re completely lost all over again. Life is a never-ending struggle to figure out what the heck is happening: what, when, who, where, why, you name it. Imagine you look around and it looks sort of like your office did in 1956… Bingo! You’re in your office and it’s 1956. Suddenly it all makes sense! Such a relief… then some (20-year-old) kid comes out of nowhere. This kid clearly doesn’t belong in your office yet he yells at you, says it’s 2016, that this is a hospital, you’re a patient & get out of the nursing station right now! Imagine that.

I’ve seen that sort of story play out countless times. Sometimes Mr 1956 gets peacefully upset and cooperates. Soon enough it’s all forgotten. It always all gets forgotten, right? But like anyone else in a bizarrely unpleasant situation, sometimes Mr 1956 feels like enough is enough and he gets angry. Sometimes, Mr 1956 feels pushed around, mistreated, maybe even threatened, and POP! The kid takes a punch. And everybody blames poor lost Mr 1956.

Suddenly all the violence makes sense, doesn’t it? Suddenly, you might well change your mind as to who causes the violence.

I sure did. I learned from experience. Turns out staff members like The Kid meant well and still caused most of the violence. The Kid  did and said what made sense given his reality, but he wasn’t playing the same game Mr 1956 was playing.  They were experiencing entirely different scenarios. The Kid was in way over his head. Until The Kids of the world get this idea straight, they’ll keep attracting lots of violence “for no reason.”

Until The Kids of the world get this idea straight, they’ll keep attracting lots of violence from certain people “for no reason.” You have to learn to Pretend. What’s the other guy experiencing as you interact? What do THEY think is happening? What THEY believe determines their response to you. Learn to work with that fact and life gets a whole lot easier. Work gets easier too. You have to learn how to Pretend.

No, it’s not magic. No, you won’t spare yourself all unpleasantness and risk. No wizard or superheroes, right? That’s just Halloween.

And yes, things WILL get better and keep getting better as long as you keep learning and practicing how to Pretend.

And no, we’re not done with this topic, not by a longshot. But we are done with this introduction.

But there will be a next time. Soon!

Thanks for hearing me out! It’s been fun. If you have any war stories, thoughts or responses, for or against what I offer here, please drop me a line, OK? I live to learn, and I learn from others. I hope to see you again soon.


  1. Is there supposed to be an article – or a link to one – here? All I see is the title, and I was so eager to know how Halloween related to nurses. This inquiring mind wants to know.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.