Burnout is the death of the life you’ve outgrown

This article was previously published on LinkedIn on May 16, 2018

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I have been researching what our end of life experience is like. The results of this research on ‘end of life signs’ (my google search) came eerily close to a poem I had recently seen floating around Facebook by Pablo Neruda. When I read that poem, I saw many similarities between dying and burning out. For example, when you are in burnout you are:

  • Not interested in meeting up with people, travelling, being social, going to events, participating in hobbies or other enjoyable activities
  • Not interested in what is going on in the world or your local area where you live
  • You are very Interested in sleeping and getting more sleep, although it does not leave you refreshed
  • Eating whatever because you need to or are craving, but the food does not nourish you

End of life signs are eerily similar – if death is approaching because of old age, these signs can start several years or months before death actually happens: you lose interest in the world around you, you stop doing things you used to enjoy, like hobbies, you start eating less and enjoying it less,  and sleeping more although the sleep does not heal or refresh. As death approaches, other signs start to show up, like not having energy to do even minimal tasks and organs starting to fail. There is more to it, but if you are interested, I encourage you do your own research.

Burning out is really the death of your old life. A life that is no longer able to sustain itself. There is no energy left in that life for living. In a way burnout can be seen as a death in the middle of your life. Your old life dies, and a new one will emerge.

Dying is hard work – it is a labour of love – we don’t all just go gently into the night – for many of us dying is just as much work as being born and growing into our bodies is.

Recovering from burnout is hard work too, and just when you have completely run out of energy. It seems unfair, but the body has wisdom that we can use to recover. So there is hope! Recovery starts with recovering yourself. Who are you? What do you like? What nourishes you? What does your physical self need right now? What do you need to say no to? What do you want to say yes to? What old habits are you going to ditch? Which new ones do you like? What makes you cry? What makes you laugh, feel good? What did you enjoy as a child? Do you still enjoy that? What have you always wanted to do but never had time for? What things make time  disappear for you? What do you hate doing? There are many questions you can ask yourself when you are in this burned out state.

Recovery starts with self-care, and self-care also includes caring for your emotions as well as your physical self. Just like death brings with it grief for the loss of that person in our lives, so does burnout bring grief for that old life, that person you used to be.  Grieving is necessary. Crying washes away pain. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross came up with the five stages of grief. They will wash over you like waves at the shore – sometimes violently crashing against the rocks in a storm of emotion, other times gently lapping at the shore as you recover parts of yourself you thought were lost at sea.

I will leave you with that poem – it has deep truths in it – may it spark the flame of life in you.

If you do not travel,

If you do not read,

If you do not listen to the sounds of life,

If you do not appreciate yourself,

You start dying slowly when you kill your self-esteem,

When you do not let others help you.

You start dying slowly if you become a slave to your habits,

Walking everyday on the same paths…..if you do not change your routine,

If you do not wear different colours or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

You start dying slowly if you avoid to feel passion and it’s turbulent emotions, those that make your eyes glisten and your heart beat fast.

You start dying slowly if you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love, or with your surroundings.

If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,

If you do not go after a dream,

If you do not allow yourself,

At least once in your lifetime

To run away from sensible advice.

 Pablo Neruda 

Caring for Your Self

This article was previously published on LinkedIn on April 23, 2018

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This is my second article in a series of articles dealing with burnout recovery and prevention.

When you are close to the end of your rope, self-care is a ridiculous idea, something that you’ll get to when you have managed to complete the high priority items on your to-do list (i.e. never). What with child-care, elder-care, work responsibilities, keeping a household running, and anything else that happens to be on your particular plate, looking after your self is not a priority. Life is on rinse and repeat. Get up, go to work, come home, do stuff at home, go to bed. Repeat. If you work shift or at home, paid or unpaid, the cycle may have different timing, but the feeling of being on a treadmill is still there.

It is true that self-care includes making sure you sleep enough, eat nutritional food, exercise, go see your dentist and doctor, get a massage now and then, and have enjoyable social activities. But for the stressed and weary these activities merely become more items added to an overburdened to-do list.

True self-care starts with listening to yourself and ends with acting on what you hear, feel and learn so that you are being nourished in the way you need. This differs for each of us. For example, I love Olympic Cleans. A hour of lifting heavy weights nourishes me. But a year ago it also completely destroyed my energy afterwards. I did not have the stamina I needed. I still did them for my mental and emotional well-being and made sure I could give my body the rest it needed to recover. At other times I have done yoga because I needed to give my body “stretching with love.” It was way too tight and I needed to hear a soothing voice while stretching and the wisdom to only stretch it as far as it wanted to stretch, not as far as the super flexible person next to me. These are just small samples of how listening to your body helps inform your exercise regime.

Self-care, at its core, is about being in touch with your self; about knowing what your emotional state is, what your body’s state is, and what your mental state is. Many of us ignore subtle clues from our bodies, soldier on while we feel tired, or when we are emotionally out of sync. We use the old “stiff upper lip” to get us through whatever is in front of us. We do so at our peril. Self-care starts with being willing to listen in on our self, our total self, our integral self. As leaders, we can do use the same to listen in on the whole self of our teams, our organizations.

How is your body feeling? Your body is subtle but it does speak. Spend a few minutes in communion with your body. Scan it from head to toe, what messages does it have for you? Where are the areas that feel tight? If these areas could talk, what would they say? Do the same for areas that are achy, sore? Again, what messages would they have for you? Where are you feeling free? What does this area want to tell you? This is a great start for self-care. Instead of starting a daily meditation practice, start a daily listening-in practice. Sit or lie down, be still and go into your body and experience it from the inside out. Be curious about what your body is experiencing. Once you have experienced this a few times, you can do this at different points in your day. It is lunch time, what is your body feeling, is it hungry, is it still digesting a previous meal, what would feel nourishing to eat, etc.?

Start paying attention to your emotions. What is your predominant emotional state? Are you frequently irritable or angry? Or are you anxious a lot, constantly waiting for the next piece of bad news? How about just feeling indifferent, you just don’t care anymore? Or are you feeling excited, joyful, energized? There is a neat little free app, called MoodMeter. It allows you to do a quick check-in with yourself several times a day and record your mood. At the end of the week, you can see how often you were in certain emotional states and how much time you are spending in emotional states that are not that resourceful. As a coach I delineate emotional states in resourceful and unresourceful. When we are stressed we often spend a lot of time in the unresourceful space – a space where we are limiting our ability to make good decisions.

Finally, your mental or head space. This is your inner voice. What is the predominant message that you are telling yourself? We are often not aware that our ego has a voice and is nattering away in the background 24/7. I will write more on this in a future article.

Once you are listening to your whole self, it becomes possible to take actions that nourish and replenish you, instead of blindly running on empty. A coach can help design a program that is uniquely suited to you.

For employers, there is wisdom in knowing how to support employees. Stressed employees are not nearly as productive as they appear and they often are not making optimal decisions. Are you listening in on the whole self of your organization? Do you know if your employees are tired, depleted, or energized? Do you know what the emotional mood of your organization is? What is the inside voice of your organization? What is the most common narrative? Valuable information to have as a leader. An Employee Survey does not always address all these areas. I am available to help you get in touch with these aspects of your organization.

Burnout Recovery Strategies

Previously published on LinkedIn on April 16, 2018

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As a recovering workaholic I have spent considerable time researching and testing strategies to recover from and prevent burnout.

My first observation is that burnout is not talked about much. Some of our colleagues may go on ‘stress’ leave and generally that is not viewed in a positive light, as if there was some personal failing about not being capable enough to carry on, or they have fallen victim to the excessive demands at work while we are still standing. Everyone is addicted to being ‘busy.’ If that is not your normal, you don’t have enough work. It is important to be always busy. Given that burnout is a taboo topic, it is tough to get support.

My second observation is that the recipe for dealing with burnout is something called ‘stress management.’  The advice ranges from yoga, meditation, to more exercise, better nutrition, and good sleep management. These things benefit all of us, not just those in burnout. Who is going to argue that you need to eat better?  And the scientific evidence about the benefits of meditation? Lots of them.

These strategies don’t work effectively because burnout has a root cause that stops you from looking after yourself properly and when you’ve been “workaholicking” for some time, you automatically don’t have time for these activities. By the time you’re getting close to or are in full burnout, you are not capable of doing any of these things, even if you had time.

A root cause of burnout is that we forget to take care of ourselves, to take a stand for our own well-being. We allow other people’s agendas to override our own. We allow infringement on time we need to stay balanced and healthy. We ignore boundary violations by tolerating abusive behaviour. This is an inside job. We have self-talk that says that we are less than those others, that we have less power than they do, that we are helpless in the face of ……, etc. Over time, we are so inured to this self-talk, we don’t hear it anymore, or if we do, we accept it as the truth. We give away far too much of our own worth.

Stress management strategies are often ineffective for burnout because by the time we are in full-blown burnout, we have mucked up our hormones so badly that we are sleeping as if we’re in a war zone, exercising leaves us tired for days because we can’t recover quickly enough, and meditation is like fighting the final boss in a video game – your inner self-talk has all the time in the world to come out and parade during a meditation session and your emotional state is not that great so your meditation session does not feel nurturing.

My coach training, which is integral based (taking the whole person in his or her whole life into account), supports the premise that who we are is stored in our physical body. Our bodies are the vehicle with which we journey this life. Every experience is stored in it. If we want to change ourselves, we have to work with the body. When I was in total burnout my ND ran a hormone panel for me. I had exhausted my adrenals, my other hormones were totally out of whack, and I was not making enough melatonin to make it through the night. It takes time to heal that type of bodily trauma, which by the way, was self-inflicted. And getting more sleep was not possible, all the lavender oil in the world and squeaky clean sleep hygiene was not helping. We had to address the hormonal imbalances with therapies, with food, and most importantly, listening to my body to allow it to tell me what it needed (mine was super excited about sitting on the couch and watching Netflix or just napping).

The way back from burnout is through learning new skills:  to listening to what you are telling yourself that takes you away from yourself; to  listening to what your body is telling you what you need; and, to honour yourself by standing your ground. You need skills then in dealing with conflict; in knowing where your boundaries are; learn to work with your anger in a way that helps, not hinders, your relationships; you need to learn to listen to your emotions. At work you need to know how to delegate, how to manage your time, your boss, your team. You need emotionally intelligent communication skills.

The biggest skill of all is to learn to value yourself above anything and anybody else. For women, this is often the hardest one to master. I am here to help with that.