I’ve always believed that people do not burn out because of what they do but because of what they don’t do. There’s a ton of research that stresses the importance of self care in avoiding burn out. There’s relatively little that advises us on how to bounce back after we hit the wall one too many times.
Burnout is an inevitability for we who do too much for too many and too little for ourselves. It’s usually a source of shame to admit to burnout. In many of the front line jobs I’ve held, to burn out and continue killing yourself was somehow a badge of honor – a source of pride. We can run on guts and determination alone.
“We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much with so little for so long that we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.” – Mother Teresa
Throughout my twenties and into my thirties I believed that if I had an unlimited supply of cigarettes and coffee I could do anything and I didn’t need luxuries like sleep. I burned out severely and took pride in the fact that I didn’t break. Like many, I did this until I couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which your body just abruptly informs your brain that it doesn’t care what the plan is.
100 mph takes a toll on our immune system and on our nerves. We ignore the increasing physical tension and G.I. problems and push ourselves all the harder. We try not to notice the brick wall we’re careening towards. We who NEVER call in sick crash with bronchitis, pneumonia, migraines, or other conditions that knock us flat. We’re painfully reminded that how we feel physically and emotionally are intimately related. Fortunately, we don’t have to admit to burn out. We’re just sick and disgusted with ourselves because we can’t go to work.
Having a good work ethic does not include killing yourself. Loving your family does require chronic sleep deprivation (unless you have young children in which case I’m sorry but it will pass). A life of sacrifice is not manageable and burning the candle at both ends means sooner or later we run out of wick and wax.
Recovery from burnout involves Rest, Relaxation, Release, and Reexamination. To rest and relax is foreign to many of us. We derive our sense of self worth from what we do and so we only feel as good as what we’ve accomplished today. Rest and Relaxation are investments. We do better work when we’re rested.
When we hit the wall, everything we have not Released is right there with us. All of the stress, anxiety, anger, and disappointments are all still a part of us. Everything we thought a nightcap took care of is still within us and festering (no wonder we’re sick). Release is venting with the intention of letting go. It’s journaling, having heart to hearts with dear friends and family. It’s crying, laughing, and cursing. Have yourself an afternoon of voluntary Tourette’s.
Reexamination is the most important piece. Left to our own devices we’ll come back from sick leave or that all too rare vacation and do the same crazy shit all over again. Sooner or later we are forced to consider what it is that we expect of ourselves. This is uncomfortable because we see that we’re trying to do is either impossible and/or will take an inevitable toll.
Intellectually, we know this is unhealthy but emotionally we find our limitations unacceptable. We believe that what it means to be a good worker/mother/daughter/friend/partner/all the other roles we play means that whatever the need is, we must meet it.
Conversely, we who do so much for so many expect so little in return. We are comfortable giving but not receiving. This creates an inevitability of becoming drained over and over again. Too much going out – too little coming in. What sustains us? What prevents us from doing something crazy like asking for help?
Funny thing about us – as long as we can stand it we will. When I couldn’t do it anymore I developed habits and minimal standards that I never allow myself to deviate from. Come hell or high water these are some things that will happen daily:
- Minimum of 7 hours of sleep nightly
- Walk every day
- 64 ounces of water intake
- Healthy dinner nightly
- Time connecting with my wife daily and connecting with other friends & supportive others daily
- A slew of organizational habits and routines that promote keeping my very busy life manageable
Choosing your own minimal standard is a viable strategy for increasing stability, reducing stress, improving the quality of your life and breaking out of patterns that include burn out.