Since December, I have been thinking about writing about burnout. I have been dealing with this topic regularly for the past two years – burning out and recovering from it personally, supporting loved ones as a friend, my clients as a coach, and helping a team who intentionally put this topic on the table before it is too late. This phenomenon has invaded my world in recent months – I hear from my clients and acquaintances about new burnout cases, and it seems that in our ever-accelerating society, this snowball is growing into an avalanche. And ironically, I’ve been too busy and unable to take time to write about this topic.
While dealing with the issue of burnout on a very personal level, I have been thinking about our Mother Earth as well – how we consume more than the earth is able to provide and how we move towards global burnout in result of this. I have felt powerless because it seems like quite massive cries of “Help!” and “Stop!” don’t seem to make a difference.
Burnout, as a phenomenon, is stealthy. The one who is on the way towards burnout often does not understand what is happening until they have reached the bottom. It is good to have people around you who notice, care and dare to say “Stop!”. Because burnout happens simply because you cannot say “No!”.
It seems to me that, as the human race, we have also been blinded by our great goals and need for achievement, and it has seemed like it is not possible to stop. That sounds terrible, but I am sincerely grateful for the coronavirus that came and said “Stop !!!” at a global level in a way that it can no longer be ignored. We need to stop, reconnect with ourselves and the nature, and this virus is helping us do that.
What is Burnout?
“I felt like I had no gravity.” This is how Sirli Kalep (a leader in PR and Communication field), my dear friend, former colleague, and an ally on the path to personal development, describes her experience. I had a conversation about burnout with her to bring an extra perspective to this story. My experience, both: personally, and also from working with clients, is that burnout happens when you lose contact with your deeper self and your mission – why you exist in this world.
At the same time, you may feel that you are fighting for a noble cause. Burnout is very common in the organizations which want to improve or change the world, including the non-profit sector. And it happens with people who are very hard-working and with high standards towards themselves. But the world does not need us to sacrifice ourselves in an attempt to save it. Creating value for the world and supporting our own well-being should go hand-in-hand. There is a simple rule that is reminded to us in the beginning of each take-off: “First put on the oxygen mask for yourself and then help others.” We need to remember this in any action that we take! Forgetting ourselves not only puts our lives at risk, but also endangers others.
To find out more about burnout, you may check out Heath Guide’s article on the topic and there are plenty of other resources online as well.
Recovery Takes Time
If you burn yourself out, there is no quick way back. Healing takes time. I see a parallel with our planet again – recovery from the bushfires in Australia, or logging, pollution and mining anywhere in the world will take decades, if not centuries to heal. At the individual level, recovery can also take months, years or decades, and some of us will never regain our former vitality and ability to work. Thus, burnout is not only a problem for the person who experiences it, but also for their loved ones, colleagues and the society as a whole.
Here is Sirli’s suggestion: “Prevent burnout! It takes lots of time and money to recover from it.” She continues, “I have been very fortunate to have close friends and family, who have supported me, and in addition to that therapy and yoga have been of great help. I have had the privilege of being able to afford to take time off and focus on recovering. Not everyone has such luxury. I do not know how the people survive who don’t have the financial means to afford not working for an extended time period, because the social support mechanisms are non-existent.”
Three Steps to Recover from Burnout
“I learned to breathe, eat and sleep again” – this is how Sirli describes her experience. And she’s not the only one. Burnout is a deep state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that makes us aware of the basic needs of the body that have been unmet for a long time.
I like acronyms because they are easy to remember and therefore I find the “Three R” approach of acting upon burnout, described in the Health Guide article, really helpful.
The Three R-s are:
Recognize – Recognize and understand what’s happening to you. The sooner you do that, the faster you will recover.
Reverse – Stop the activities or step out of situations that led to your burnout.
Resilience – Do things that support your well-being from a physical, emotional and mental perspective: exercise a lot, go outdoors, spend time with people with whom you can be your authentic self, return to an old hobby or start a new one, meditate.
Coronavirus has helped us globally to implement the three R’s:
Recognize – Our focus is on our basic needs and we are more aware than ever before about how to support our mental, emotional and physical well-being to keep our immune system up. The broader question is whether we can also connect with nature, humanity and the planet and support the whole in the same manner.
Reverse – The hamster-wheel has stopped in most walks of life and we are at home with our loved ones. We are forced to step out of our daily routines. In addition, it is also worth deliberately stopping the flow of information that keeps us on in the wheel. As Sirli described, “I removed all the notifications from my phone, deleted my Insta-account, and several other apps.” This does not mean disconnecting completely, but making a conscious choice: what and when I want to consume.
Resilience – We are more aware than ever of anything that supports our immune system. I went to the woods with my child today, just like every weekend. And I’ve never seen so many people in my home forest – the forest is buzzing with people, despite the breezy wind and a colder-than-average day during this winter. And the people were happy! I haven’t seen so many nature photos on Facebook for a long time – it seems like all my friends went to the woods today. I also notice that we talk more with our loved ones – we call and ask, how they are doing, how is their health? We are friendlier with strangers. I also went to replenish my food supplies and chose to pick some canned food, that is not part of my regular grocery list. It was fun discussing with strangers in front of an almost empty counter what to take from the available selection. The decision criterion ended up being: what will be eaten in the vacation home at summer-time.
Burnout as a Spiritual Journey
“Therapy should be compulsory for everyone!”, says Sirli and she continues: “We all need someone who can really talk to us about what’s going on inside us and help us to take ourselves to a new level personally”.
Burnout is going to wake us up! It cuts off the opportunity to continue the old way but gives no (immediate) answer about how to proceed. It can be very scary because the old and familiar way to live, which was exhausting, but so inherent, just doesn’t work anymore, and there’s no clarity of how the new way will look like. You’re like a helpless new-born baby. You see the world with for the first time, you take the first steps, and you get to know yourself and the world around you.
It is a warrior’s journey – you either go through it and get stronger than ever or get killed, either literally or figuratively. Sirli: “My therapist asked me to imagine three solutions: to continue as I do today, to make some small changes, or to step out of the wheel completely. When I let myself to feel the impact of each of those choices in my body, I got a very clear answer: the only way to find myself again is to step out completely.”
The sooner you make a conscious choose to surrender to this journey, the faster the burnout experience can become a personal development path. Surrendering does not mean giving up but, on the contrary, trusting that it is your way and you are being supported to go through it, no matter what. When this trust is built, miracles will happen.
The spiritual journey of burnout can be unfolded in many different ways. It can be done independently, through deeply listening to yourself and seeking help from books and the Internet, or through using help of a variety of supporters, from coach and psychologist to priest, yoga guru or shaman, depending on your choice… either consciously or subconsciously. I believe that when you are open, you will find the right ally. As the saying goes, “The teacher will appear when the student is ready.”
Thinking of my own journey, I am very grateful for Processwork, a paradigm that is at the basis of my worldview. It is many things, but how I like to think about it is, it combines modern psychology with ancient wisdom of Eastern philosophies and the indigenous people. Among other things Processwork has taught me to dream consciously. To see that my life is not only a “reality” – a flow of events that I co-create, but it is also a dreaming process which can be observed and unfolded in the language of symbols and metaphors and which gives a deeper meaning and understanding to the “reality”.
That is also the reason why this story, which has been maturing in me for three months, was born right now. Recently I saw a strange dream where I attended in some kind of training course and at one point the teacher sat beside me and did something with my right ear. I felt a slight twitch as if I had been pierced. The next moment I felt a burning sensation in my ear, and I realized that there is a fire burning inside of it. I quickly put my finger into the ear to quench the fire.
This is the way I am dealing with the overwhelming news feed from all the possible channels – I put my fingers into my ears, close my eyes, and carefully choose what information I receive to stay sane and positive.
Processwork-wisdom tells me, that what disturbs you the most (based on your subjective experience) is something you should integrate into yourself.
In this case, the biggest distraction for me was the “fire” in my ear. The next step is to step into the shoes of the symptom-maker, the one who caused the fire in my case. It is always difficult to take on the role of the symptom-maker, which is usually opposed to our traditional identity. Sometimes it is impossible to do it on your own. But I took the courage and stepped into the role of Coronavirus. I looked at the world through the eyes of the virus and realized that I needed to talk about the topic that has deeply moved and transformed me to help more people say “Stop!” before it’s too late. Interestingly, I was invited to part-take in a project that is directly connected to the topic of burnout a few days after the dream occurred.
I believe that Coronavirus is, for most of us very “not me” and from Processwork-perspective it means it is something that we need to integrate into ourselves. If you step into the shoes of Coronavirus and look at the world through its eyes, what do you see? How could you be a bit like it? The important thing here is to completely forget about the negative effects of the “symptom-maker” and give up all judgment. Just imagine that you are it and see and experience: How does the world look and feel like from this perspective? What message does this experience give you?
Burnout can be viewed as a symptom as well, and the circumstances that caused it, as the symptom-maker, waiting to be integrated into your present identity to widen it, and thereby to make you more flexible, resilient and successful.