Tag Archives: burnout

Dealing with burnout

Everything is harder at the moment. Everything takes longer and requires more effort and almost everyone I know is struggling with concentration, with energy levels and with feeling overwhelmed. These are all ingredients for burnout. Things that would not normally put a person on their knees might do so in the current crisis. People who are not used to experiencing burnout may find it happening to them.

Having a long history of routinely burning myself out, this is something I’ve learned the hard way how to deal with, so I thought I’d share some insights.

Firstly, what not to do. Toughing it out. Stoicism. Fake it until you make it. Trying harder. Leaning in. Pushing through it. What these kinds of approaches do, is drive you deeper into burnout. If you are spinning out of control and heading into crisis, pushing through will not save you. Equally, if you’ve got through something by pushing, it wasn’t burnout, it was a bad day and there is a lot of difference.

It can be tempting to hide it and pull away from other people. Much depends on what works for you. If peace, silence, solitude and rest are the best things to heal you, then dealing with it privately may be your best bet. If you need holding, witnessing, cheerleading and supporting then you need to talk to your closest people about what’s going on, and ask for their help and support on whatever terms make sense.

One way or another, you need to recharge. Sometimes this is literally about rest and sleep. Sometimes it means needing to move your body more, or take better care around food. You may need to recharge your mind and dig in with nurturing things. If you don’t have go-to nurturing things for bad days, it is now urgently important to find out what will sustain you.

It can be tempting to escape into something mind numbing. If your primary need is for rest, this will help you. If your primary need is for nourishment, this can make things far worse. It may not be obvious, if you are new to this, what you need most.

Burnout, for me, has always been to some degree impacted on by my relationships with people. A habit of giving more than I can afford, of not saying when I’m in trouble, and of not asking for help. I have a lot of issues around expecting my relationships to be utilitarian. But, this time, I didn’t do that. I asked the people who are closest to me to look after me, and they did, they piled in without hesitation. On Thursday morning I started crying in what, for me, is classic burnout style. In the past, I’ve got into those and random crying and overwhelm can go on for days, weeks thereafter. The people I asked for help pulled me out of the nose dive. I was not instantly ok, but the space appeared to start looking after myself and to get back on top of things.


The mechanics of faltering

Yesterday I wrote about having a calling but no answer to it, today I want to talk about how that works in practise. I have a regular and dependable burnout cycle, I’ve repeated it over more than a decade, with each cycle taking six to eight weeks, typically. That’s got to be getting on for 50 bouts of getting wiped out physically and falling into pits of despair. If not more.

I have a calling, to write and to serve, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I run all day, as hard as I can, doing as much as I can, saying ‘yes’ as far as is possible. I throw everything I have at trying to do something worth doing. I don’t take whole days off, and I push my limits until I collapse. I do this because I feel so driven, and because for assorted reasons, I do not feel safe or comfortable about stopping. Then I fall over, and on none of the occasions of my falling over have I achieved enough for that to feel ok. Often the timing is inconvenient. I look at all that I have done, and see how insufficient it is, and depression kicks in. Once again, I have failed. Eventually, I pick myself up from this and try again, promising myself that next time it will work. Next time I will do better. The next project, the next voluntary job, the next book will be the one that makes it all worthwhile.

Repeat.

It is the burnout that causes the despair and the feelings of failure. It is the despair and feelings of failure that prompt me to run like a mad thing towards the next burnout. Clearly this isn’t working, and for the first time I’m coming out of the dark patch of the process and questioning whether the answer is to gird loins and other body parts, brace myself and start doing it all again. I’ve got this audio project on the go, and this one, surely, this one (if I really give it my all) will be the one that gets somewhere…

I’ve started asking what underpins this process. Answers: I move the goalposts because anything I achieve, by dint of my having achieved it, ceases to look as big as I thought it would be. Some of that is learning and perspective – there was a time when I believed all I’d need to do was get a publisher and the rest would flow from there, and that’s not how it works. Some of it is sane, and some of it isn’t. I carry a suspicion that anything I have managed, probably wasn’t good enough anyway. Alongside this, I don’t feel entitled to stop, to rest, to let up, to go easy on myself and I don’t feel entitled to be happy. What this means is that any attempt to break the cycle feels like being lazy. I’m not trying hard enough, unless it actually hurts, and if I’m not trying hard enough, how can I possibly succeed? This is not a game it is possible to win, because there are diminishing returns around morale, confidence and energy reserves. I’ve spent ten years or more beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis for not being good enough and not deserving anything better.

I just can’t put my worn out body and fragile mind through much more of this. Every time I go down, it gets that bit harder to stand up and try again. One of these days, I will not be able to get up, odds are. If I slow down, much less quit, I have to contend with feeling like a failure, and a fraud. I have to face all the little voices (other people’s mostly) that say about how lazy and useless I am and that someone like me could never hope to do anything much. I have to face them being right. The years of running hard have never made them go away, never silenced them either in my head or in my life. I have to accept that there are people for whom I will never be good enough or worthy of respect, and that I do not get to prove them wrong. They’ve helped keep the goalposts moving and there is no winning this game.

It is a hard thing to look your own inadequacy in the face, but there is nothing remaining other than to turn and face it, and accept it. Running and pushing has stripped me of my faith in my own work, robbed me of energy and inspiration. Either I keep running and lose everything, or I stop now and settle for writing books for the tiny handful of people who like them. I salvage what I can and learn to accept that it will do.


Surfacing

I thought I knew the tides and habits of my own depression. Normally I can see it coming and take evasive action, or just slog through, knowing it will run its course. A few weeks ago I found myself like a cartoon character, running madly in mid air having overshot the cliff edge, and then plummeting to the inevitable crash. There had been no real warning. Sure, I knew I was low and struggling, but no more than usual. Apparently these things can be cumulative, too.

Knowing I was short of options, I pulled back from everything that was being too difficult, rested more, slept a lot, moved gently, got in extra time outside and walking. It’s taken me several weeks of really working at it to even stabilise. I usually pull away from social contact when I’m down, but I’ve not even wanted to spend time with people I am usually very comfortable with and fond of. Going in to town – I had an eye test – was a real challenge, and strangely exhausting. Through those weeks of struggle, I knew that I had to be well and together enough by the evening of the 26th October to get up on a stage and read an emotionally difficult story to about 80 people.

No pressure, then!

I managed that, and to honour a firework meet-up that enabled my son to hang out with some old school friends. The fireworks were amusing. My body does not handle loud explosions well at the best of times, but getting those reactions without the usual side-order of adrenaline is just plain weird. Poking about online, I have all the symptoms and then some of adrenal burnout, a condition that mainstream medicine is clear doesn’t exist. Fun and games! Fortunately, the ‘alternative’ cure for this ‘fictional’ problem is primarily rest, and stress reduction, so all things considered, I have nothing to lose.

I know I have to surface. I know I have to invest care and attention in fixing my burned out mind and compromised immune system. Stress is not good for your ability to fend off minor ailments, and I just roll from one bug to the next with a few days respite in between. That has to change.

There are questions to ask about why I get into these cycles in the first place. They are not comfortable questions. At some point I need to deal with the answers. There are questions (not unrelated) to ask about the sort of person I am, and the sort of role I might have. This recent round of crash and burn is just one in a long line. It was more physically dramatic than usual, with anxiety induced chest pains and heart palpitations – things I’ve had before, but not on that scale. It was a bit of a reality check.

It’s left me thinking something that, for me, has largely been unthinkable. I am thinking that being this ill is not an acceptable price to pay. I’m thinking that perhaps I do not deserve to be pushed to breaking point at every available opportunity. I’m looking at the kindness and support that has come from some of the people around me, and although I’m resisting it because I don’t really want to go there, I know I need to sit down with that, and how it compares to some of the historical stuff, and see if I can imagine myself on different terms.

I don’t want to be here again. I don’t want to live in this burnout cycle anymore. It is no longer enough to be increasing the time between collapses. I want out. It’s not going to be an easy path to walk, but I need to start believing that it is walkable, rather than assuming it would be futile to seek after anything different.