Burnout – the modern pandemic

Stop, give up hope, keep the faith.”

Powerful words spoken by Dr Dina Glouberman during her ‘Joy of Burnout‘ workshop this week. 

I repeated them to a friend, over a socially-distanced sandwich, who exclaimed; ‘What do you mean? Without hope we have nothing!’ 

Further musing ensued and I will return to this.

Burnout was the modern pandemic, before ‘this’ pandemic – and just because we’re dealing with Covid-19 it doesn’t mean other plagues of our time disappear.  

Moreover, they grow just under cover of the prevalent problem.

Just as physicians are imploring us to continue to look for lumps and investigate all health abnormalities, we are wise to have a heightened awareness of our mental and emotional capacity so weighed upon by all that surrounds us today.

What is burnout? 

Burnout is just as it sounds – ‘fire is low’ – all the energy and passion that we previously put into something, and it doesn’t have to be work, it could be a relationship, political activism – anything that we’ve been passionate about and have given our all to – when suddenly (or gradually) we have nothing more to give.

‘GIVING’ is the warning sign. 

People don’t burn out from working too hard, they burn out from giving too much. 

It is not surprising that burnout is so prevalent in the caring professions, largely vocational, where ‘giving’ is both in the job and the personality.  

  • Those who don’t care very much, are not candidates for burn out.
  • Those who can pace themselves within their recognised limitations, are not candidates for burn out.
  • Those who believe the things they truly long for will come true, are not candidates for burn out.

How does burnout happen? 

Something changes either in us or in our situation. 

The boss leaves and someone ‘brilliant’ comes in to restructure.  Perhaps you just outgrow the role. 

The connection between you and your partner dwindles or you’re fed up of online dating and not finding any joy.   

Whatever it is, something changes but – and this is the crucial bit – you don’t change with it.

Consciously you probably know that change is necessary.  Either by changing your situation i.e. walk away (leave), or changing your attitude to the situation i.e. care (give) less. 

Instead you keep going. Your soul is screaming to stop and yet you keep going.

Why? Because this has become your identity.

If your change attitude or situation you won’t burn out, you’ll pivot and carry on, often brighter than before with a new lease of life, but if you don’t dare make the change for fear, often unconscious, of losing identity then burn out is the likely outcome.

Burnout symptoms.

I hope that something in my text above will give you a few clues on how to recognise burnout, either for yourself of those around you who you may be worried about, but burnout comes with a loud hailer of symptoms too.

  • We wake up tired and nothing rests us. 
  • We feel cut off, hollow, trapped and angry – or just not there. 
  • Specifically – cynical.  
  • We’re working harder but getting less done.
  • We get ill too often for too long from illnesses that we would usually ‘bounce back’ from. 
  • We find our addictions increasing – whatever these may be, Shopping, Alcohol, Netflix – they will be on the rise.
  • We will likely feel ashamed.
  • We will probably deny, to others and to ourselves that there is anything wrong, finding other explanations for all the above.
  • At its most extreme we just can’t function anymore -and this is a result of the impact of stress on our adrenal glands. The adrenaline and cortisol fuelled by the primitive fight, flight, freeze response.

Burnout is a live-saving message.

The mind body connection is a crucial part of burnout and the symptoms experienced are a warning of things to come.  

Dina Glouberman was told back in the 1990s, ‘your heart is tired’ as her first signs of burnout – and I know a number of individuals through the years who have suffered fatal illness after living with some of the symptoms mentioned above for too long. 

Bessel van de Volk in his fabulous book ‘The Body Keeps Score’ and Gabor Maté in another brilliant work ‘When the Body says No’ explore this subject in great depth but essentially the primeval body has much to teach the younger mind.   We ignore the body’s signals at our peril.

With burnout comes a loss of perspective as the mind tries to overrule the body to keep going while the body is screaming louder to stop.

Clients who are burning out will talk of not looking for traffic before they cross the road because if they end up in hospital they won’t have to keep going.  

When the mind fantasises about giving in to the body’s needs by putting it through an ‘accident’ we have to wonder if making a change and relinquishing the hope for that which we are striving for might just be the lesser of two evils.

Burnout is part of human nature.

My initial training as a Jungian led me to explore the folklore of fairy tales and their psychological messages that have been transported through time. 

Aesop’s fables include the story of the goose who laid the golden eggs.  When the goose was not able to lay more than one golden egg a day its owner cut it open to find the gold – losing everything by killing the goose.  

Particularly poignant for some women is Grimm’s tale of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the miller’s daughter is pressured to relentlessly spin straw into gold, the ultimate price being her child.   When the miller’s daughter gave up all hope of being released from her contract by guessing Rumplestiltskin’s name she goes for a walk in the woods and fate intervenes as she comes across the answer she needs – how? by taking a different path.

The human condition that leads to burnout is nothing new – but the digital world and ‘always on’ culture has I’m certain been the catalyst to this modern pandemic.

How do I stop burnout?

Here I return to Glouberman’s words – stop, give up hope, keep the faith

Yes, hope in life is important but in cases of burnout when the hope is bigger than life itself, we have to question its value.  Again, I suggest that when the mind fantasises about having an accident rather than making a conscious change, we have to consider letting go of that specific ‘hope’. Perhaps more palatable is the idea of giving up the ‘plan’.

When we are able to give up what we are hoping for, or indeed the plan we had devised, we can keep the faith that all is still going to be okay because we are allowing our true passion, not that which we have tied our identity to, to come through and burn brightly again.  

  • I may never get that promotion
  • I may never meet the love of my life
  • I may never make my first million
  • I may never be the person my parents want me to be
  • I may never get on the property ladder

And I will be okay.

“I may never” is giving up hope of a specific and “and I will be okay” is keeping the faith.

Practical steps when experiencing burnout.

Once we can accept a ‘may never’ (NB ‘may’) and trust ‘I will be okay’ then the steps become easier.

  1. Start to care for yourself physically.   Allow yourself to sleep, nurture your body with good food and take time for self-care – over and above the relentless voice that drives you to give elsewhere. 
  2. Put truth first.  The road to burnout is paved with denial – denying feeling unwell, denying a loss of interest.  It is time to start living truthfully and face all that couldn’t be faced before.  It’s rarely as bad as you think.
  3. Reach out to communities who care about who you really are.  Surround yourself with people who send you the message it’s YOU I care about not what we can DO together, DEBATE together or share MATERIALLY together.   This is important because people who burn out tend to feel that people will only love them for what they can bring to the party.
  4. Find what you want to do for the future, but this takes time.  You need to wait, and through nurture, allow the old shape you have twisted yourself into to soften so that you can envisage something new.
  5. Don’t leave joy behind.  Joy emerges in the spaces of our lives, for example when you’re walking along and you see something that makes you feel joyful, often it is something in nature.  When a space emerges it’s not hole, it’s a space where joy can flourish. 

None of this is easy – but nor is any recovery that’s worth it – but those who have trod this path will know, it likely saved their life.   

People who burn out are people who love and give and contribute but it’s not enough to love and give and contribute unless you can honour yourself too. 

Is it time to honour the goose and not the golden eggs?

Ideas for further reading:

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