I wrote my post on burnout almost a year ago. Since then it’s ranked as my first or second most popular post every week – a lot more people relate to this topic than I ever expected. If you’re struggling with burnout or are constantly teetering on the edge of it — this post is for you.
If you haven’t read the original, go check it out here. In the article I momentarily brush up against what I went through, but didn’t really explain it. Today I want to talk about what it was really like, and discuss some of the lessons being in burnout taught me.
HOW BURNOUT FEELS
While looking for more research on burnout I came across the way that psychologists refer to the symptoms. And it boils down to three things:
Tired. Mad. Useless.
You’re completely exhausted. For awhile you’re mad as hell (eventually you won’t feel anything any more) and you’re unable to get anything done, even when you try.
This completely describes what it was like for me.
At the peak of my misery I was drinking 16 oz of high test espresso just to get started in the morning. I was making lattes with it and would make 1, drink it with breakfast, immediately go back for the other one. I couldn’t even think until that second one was nearly empty.
Most days I would go back after the second one was gone and make another pot to make iced lattes for later in the afternoon. But let’s be clear – no amount of coffee, or espresso, or tea ever made me feel awake. I never felt anything but bone crushing exhaustion.
I was in an extremely dense fog. When I look back on it I have very few clear memories from the worst of it because I was barely experiencing my life. I was just trying to muscle through every single day until I could get to nap time and then will myself to make it to bedtime.
I specifically remember driving my son to one of his activities. We were late as usual, and I kept looking at the clock. I knew we would be at least 5-10 minutes late and I would normally be upset about that. The healthy me would try to hustle a little, or at least be freaking out about how late we were going to be.
But I felt nothing.
My body was so depleted that even though I was upset I my body couldn’t produce any physical response.That heart racing energy that you normally get when you’re in a hurry is from cortisol, which I could no longer make.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
Looking back it is easy to see all the contributing factors that led to the burnout, but while I was in it, I didn’t really see it coming. At least not in the way that it actually hit me.
In my head all I really needed was a little break. If I could just have a couple of weeks between work projects, or if the baby would just sleep one night, or if we could get a few days off from activities….you see what I mean. I thought if I just had a few days, maybe a week, to gather myself I would be right as rain.
But a few days to a week wouldn’t have repaired the damage that I had done to myself with stress. Yes, to myself. It would be easy to see a lot of the things that occurred as having happened TO me, but a lot of them were caused BY me. And taking ownership of your actions is one of the key steps to digging out of burnout.
So no, I wasn’t responsible for my husband getting cancer – twice – nor for my son being diagnosed with special needs, but neither did I handle those situations with resilience. And unfortunately for me, that’s what matters.
The laundry list of events goes something like this:
Husband gets cancer for the second time and goes through radiation and surgery – right when we were going to start trying for a second baby
6 months later we are cleared to try again
Try for a year and don’t get pregnant
In the meantime I’d been suffering debilitating stomach attacks which no one could diagnose
Go through fertility testing
Find a very large ovarian tumor (it was benign, thankfully)
Discover that the stomach attacks are my gall bladder
Have both surgeries at the same time
Get pregnant 3 months later
Begin to look for another house and prepare to move
Meanwhile son is having a horrible time at preschool – we are in and out of doctors – he’s finally diagnosed with 2 special needs
At 7 months pregnant I break my ankle
We are showing the house at the same time and I have to clean up after a 5 year, a dog and a cat — at 7 months pregnant in a walking boot
Oh by the way, I’m running an time consuming Etsy shop through all of this
Baby comes 3 weeks early
Said baby never slept through the night until she was almost 4 (years, not months!)
A month later we move
I realize I cannot continue with my shop while caring for an infant and close it (this was gut wrenching for me)
Our son is asked not to return by a second school and we begin homeschooling
And all of this occurred within about a 2 year time period. Most of it in the second year.
It’s a LOT. I’m not denying that. There’s a lot of life events in there that aren’t normally crammed so close together. Most of it is stuff I hope you never have to go through. But the problem wasn’t so much the events as how I dealt with it all.
While I think I handled most of the situations well, as in I was supportive of my husband and I stepped up when my kid needed me to homeschool him – I didn’t COPE well.
I replaced sleep with coffee. I replaced feeling with distraction. I replaced productivity with busyness.
I had no boundaries. I thought I could do everything. I ran myself into the ground.
THE LESSONS OF BURNOUT
Recovering from burnout has taught me a LOT of things. Whether you’re already burned out or you’re teetering on the edge as so many people are today – these lessons are for you. In fact some of these lessons I continue to relearn to this day.
Recovery is a process.
Your value is NOT dictated by how much you get done
This is a tough one. When you read the sentence you’re like yeah, sure, I know. But stop and think for a moment. Is your productivity tied to your self worth? If you sit around all day and do nothing, how do you feel? For some people it will depend. You might think well if I was sick that would be ok.
But the people who tie their productivity to their self worth won’t care what the conditions are. If I got nothing done today, no matter why, I’m a lazy, good for nothing….blah blah blah. The exact verbiage of each person’s emotional deprecation will vary.
Regardless, not getting anything done often causes the inner mean girl to rear her ugly head and launch an all out attack. We talk to ourselves the way we would never speak to another human – let alone a close friend. But somehow, it’s ok to talk to ourselves this way.
Letting go of the productivity relieves such emotional stress. Because you can be mentally burned out, or physically, or both – so you need to take care of your body and your mind. Your body will need to rest far more than you can ever imagine and you’ll need to get a hold of those demons that say you’re no good if you don’t do anything but lay in bed and breathe.
To accomplish this you need to pare your life back. If you’re on the edge of burnout, cutting back on a couple things will be enough. If you’re in full blown burnout you need to pare back on everything but the bare essentials. Keep yourself and your dependents alive. Use any energy you can spare after that on your physical and mental well being. You can be the fun Mom when you’re well again.
Look for ways to change your situation
The biggest, boldest move that I made in all of this before I decided to actually fix my situation, was to close the Etsy shop. In my perfectionist head if I didn’t keep it going and active the whole time, what was the point? But I spent so many nights from 9pm to midnight in my studio with an infant strapped to my chest, trying to finish projects, that I start to hate doing it.
That was the only thing that made giving it up bearable. I didn’t have the energy to keep doing it if I didn’t enjoy it.
I was all but forced to quit.
However, we often say yes to so many things we shouldn’t, and then feel like we have to see them through. Even if we’re dying a little bit inside as we go through it. We feel trapped like there’s just no way out.
But if your health is to improve, you must find a way out. You have to start challenging the things you think are immovable.
It might be time to order groceries instead of shopping. Or a meal service instead of cooking. Or leaving work with unfinished projects on your desk. Or tell those organizations that you volunteer for you’re going on an extended break. Whatever it is that isn’t help keep you or your family alive and healthy is worth examining.
The more immovable it is in your head, the more likely it needs to be moved. That mental weight is telling you something.
Well while you’re in burnout you’re never going to feel like doing anything. The thing is, though, that even on the way into burnout you don’t feel like doing anything. The problem is that you tend to keep doing things that don’t matter because you’re motivated to do them, but avoiding the things that would actually help you in some way.
For instance, I was happy to do work in my shop because it meant I could avoid cleaning and cooking healthy food. This was before I was completely burned out. The problem was that the cleaning was vital to my mental health and the cooking was key to my physical health. Now while you could argue that some amount of working in my shop was good for my mental health because I enjoyed it — I was using it is a means of avoidance.
This is a tough balancing act. I’m NOT recommending that you constantly force yourself to do all the things you hate — because that’s not good for you either. But do make a list of all the things you want to get done in a week and then prioritize from there. Make sure you’re not doing all the fun things first and then skipping over all the things that will help you through the week.
For example — I HATE folding laundry and I HATE doing dishes. If I never had to do these 2 tasks again that would feel like heaven.
However, it immediately puts me in a bad mood to come down to a messy kitchen in the morning. And it makes getting out the door 10x harder if I haven’t folded mine or the kids laundry. Both things that I hate doing actually save me a mountain of stress later in the week.
Some of those things you avoid on your list might actually be a means of self care.
The whole Year of Yes thing is fantastic. The whole “yes…and” concept from improv is great. But when you’re in burnout, saying yes to everything is catastrophic. In fact, saying yes to everything when you’re healthy might send you in to burnout. Please remember that while Shonda said yes to everything she had a whole team of people around her to help.
When we are approached by someone with a request, we often take it at face value.
Karen asked me to bake cupcakes for the bake sale and that is what I must do.
Nope! I personally think cupcakes are delicious but are also a time consuming pain.
What can you do, though? Someone has made a request on your time, don’t you have to say yes?
First of all, you do not have to say yes to everything. No is a complete sentence and you don’t have to justify why you won’t do it — nor do you have to feel any guilt about it. And if you need more help setting boundaries, please check out this post.
Second, if you want to help the person that made the request, but not exactly in the way they made it — you can negotiate.
Make your new favorite response “no….but”
No I can’t make cupcakes but I can buy some.
No, but I can make brownies.
No,but I can give you a monetary donation.
Make their request fit into your life. That way you are helping them, but not killing yourself in the process.
Remember: You have to choose what NOT to do before you get burned out and you CAN’T do anything.
You don’t have to fill every waking minute
When my son went to preschool I was going to have a whopping 12 hours a week free to myself. So I did what any normal person does with half a days free time – I started a business.
To be fair, I didn’t just start it on a whim. I researched it and planned it. But I also did it because I felt like I HAD to fill those hours with SOMETHING. And this is where everything went so very wrong.
This was not something new with me, but it did seem to spiral out of control as I got older. This is our busyness culture at it’s finest.
An exhausted Mom finally gets some free time to herself and instead of taking care of herself and doing this that would help her across the week – she adds something to her plate.
If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve done something like this too.
And even if you’re not adding big things to your plate, what are you doing in those little moments of downtime throughout your day? If you have to wait 5 minutes are you frantically checking your email on your phone? Are you trying to cram conference calls in on your commute?
I literally felt like if I wasn’t doing something every minute of the day that I was some how wasting precious moments. I would listen to business podcasts on commutes. Read personal development books before bed. Be writing posts for the week while waiting at activities.
This is actually how I got so much done, but it’s also how I got burned out. Because none of those things that I did in my spare minutes was for me. They were all for work. So while I do recommend you be prepared to be productive when you have a spare 10-15 minute block, just make sure that you don’t use all of them for work. Take at least 1-2 of your blocks a day for yourself.
It took me a solid 18 months to dig myself out of my misery. I had to make a lot of changes to my life — but more importantly to my mind. My pace of life was unrealistic and unsustainable.
If you are dealing with burnout or are close, know that you have the power to climb out. It won’t be easy. You might have to give up some things that you love to make it happen. Just know that you can get back to those things in a more sustainable way when you’re better.
And one more time for the people in the back — Recovery is a process.
If you’re struggling with burnout or extreme stress but can’t figure out what you can do to free yourself, you can contact me here. I specialize in helping women take control of their situations so that they can be in charge of their lives again.
Check out these links for more information on burnout: