Do you find yourself exhausted and depleted before your feet hit the floor in the morning?
Perhaps you worry about work, especially on Sunday night?
Have you become disgruntled at work, frustrated, and worried that you have lost your spark?
Do you question the meaning and the impact of all your work efforts and wonder what your true passion is?
If you said yes to any of the above, you are not alone. In fact, burnout is estimated to affect up to 44% of people at some time, and the World Health Organization has added it to its International Classification of Diseases. It’s not simply needing a vacation.
The reasons for burnout can be many: an unsupportive boss or toxic (emotionally unsafe) workplace, increased workload with insufficient time, little or no control over workload, or a changing, shifting system such as health care.
Also, there are coping styles that can contribute to burnout and often these beautifully learned characteristics are what lead people into helping professions to begin with. They include the inability to set clear boundaries (sometimes workplaces don’t allow for this), difficulty saying ‘no’, taking on the needs and pains of the people that are being served, feeling the weight of the world and helplessness in not being able to heal it. This can also be accompanied by increased responsibilities outside of work such as family and home.
For women in the workplace, this is increasingly evident. With 80% of women now working outside of the home, the responsibilities for family, children and households still fall largely in their laps. It requires an incredible amount of balance and energy to do both and frankly leaves a feeling of never doing it well enough. An inflexible boss or workplace may make it impossible to leave work to pick up a sick child from school, or work around soccer practice or a doctors appointment. This struggle to fit everything in, and meet the needs and expectations of others, people at work, patients or customers, as well as family… is a sure-fire recipe for burnout.
Workplace issues aside, we cannot be everything to everyone.
We cannot live life according to others and at the expense of our deepest values and desires. Even if we try, it’s not sustainable in the long run. It’s a long run to a train wreck at the end.
For people who are sensitive, sometimes called empaths because they feel the emotions of others so deeply and have an ingrained impulse to fix and heal, this is a toxic situation unless one can develop some core insight and skills needed to manage the incoming information and emotional overload. Sadly, these keys to wellness are often only arrived at after a period of nervous system depletion and burnout. In other words, a system crash.
I personally and unfortunately found this out first-hand. As an empath and a trauma therapist I had a busy, busy private practice as well as numerous other activities and responsibilities I willingly took on. I knew all about compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout but somehow thought it couldn’t pertain to me!
I knew I was tired, but who wasn’t?
I knew I was overworked, but aren’t we all? After all, there were so many people I was helping.
I cared deeply for my clients, and I still do. I could never abandon them.
Can you see the faulty thinking patterns here?
Fortunately I had discovered mindfulness and yoga at a younger age. I used them to rejuvenate, to rest, to come into the present moment and breathe, and I loved them. But they cannot prevent learned coping strategies that are maladaptive and unsustainable. In fact, they can sometimes prolong the inevitable.
Burnout is insidious and can creep up behind you like a shadow and jump out with a “BOO!” to announce its arrival. This can look like losing functions of listening, speaking, concentrating, or not being able to get out of bed one morning. Or a gradual decline into illness, depression, chronic fatigue or illness, chronic pain or paralyzing anxiety.
If you don’t say NO, your body will say it for you.
Rest, nutrition and exercise can gently and slowly resurrect a body and mind and restore your health enough to return to work.
But true holistic healing requires more than that. I have seen many people rush back to work, sometimes out of necessity for time and financial reasons, only to crash again as they jump back on a horse that is running, and have not looked at the underlying core beliefs and habits of the engine that caused the body to become unsafe and crash to begin with.
The other approach that works short-term is when people approach burnout the same way they approached work: as a project to be completed, as soon as possible, with as much determination and grit as possible. Do you see the irony here?
For some, healing from burnout goes deeper. It can be an opportunity to bring to the surface the very ingrained survival strategies that worked well at a younger age but are no longer useful or healthy. What helped us survive can also destroy us.
It can be an opportunity to heal the soul at a core level and return the natural nervous system functioning of the self. This takes time.
This is the journey from the small self to the true self.
The small self develops as children when we learn what is acceptable for the love and approval of those around us whom we depend on. Survival trumps everything.
As Dr. Gabor Mate, author of “When the Body Says No”, says “We choose attachment over authenticity.” We have to.
We have to cast aside and abandon our true self, perhaps our outgoing or introvert personalities, our passion and voice, our boundaries and inner knowing, out of fear of rejection. We leave our bodies behind and step into a false self that requires a tremendous amount of effort and energy to maintain.
Healing from burnout can unravel this paper-thin mask we wear for approval and reveal a well of energy, purpose and truth that you never knew was behind it.
It is a shedding of the layers that have been built over time based on who the world told us to be, a the expense of who we truly are.
It is a letting go of people-pleasing, perfectionism and striving to meet some unknown standard to make everyone happy.
It is a grieving of all that cannot be healed, all the needs that cannot be met, the problems that cannot be fixed. It is also a grieving of all the ways we have lost ourselves along the way.
It is a recognition that, as adults, we no longer have to please, pretend, or look for the approval of our parents or caregivers.
It is a return to our true selves. A call for vulnerability over falseness. An awareness of our humanness and ‘mistakes’.
A forgiveness for being human… for being sad, afraid, insecure, angry, tired, real, less-than-perfect.
A voice that grows from a whisper to a roar that says “No. Enough.”.
And gives others the permission to as well.
This is the new workplace we can all create through our own recovery. One that recognizes and acknowledges our strengths and weaknesses and embraces it all. But it has to start from within you.
A leader cannot talk about embracing vulnerability without being vulnerable himself.
A caregiver, a worker, a healer cannot cannot heal others with her own cup half full.
If you are burned out, suffering, and afraid you might not make it back to yourself,
Take a moment to breathe, fill up your lungs and feel your body.
Let go of the muscle tension built up from bracing yourself… against the world.
Crawl into the skin that is yours, the body that you live in, and being to truly inhabit yourself again from the inside out.
Feel your heart beat. Feel your breath bringing new life oxygen to each one of your cells.
You are here. Right here in this moment. You are not what others have told you or what has happened to you.
You are not your thoughts, your beliefs or your emotions. You are the one who has been here all along, watching and waiting
For you to arrive.
“The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
at your own door…”
Derek Walcott, from “Love after Love”
Madeleine Eames is a psychotherapist, mindfulness and yoga teacher who works privately as well as at the Bill Nelems Pain and Research Centre in Kelowna, BC, Canada. You can find her at mindfullivingnow.com or join the discussion on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/peacebeginshere/ or Wise Women Empaths Waking