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Learning from Burnout

I read the following passage from a colleague:

My research has gotten me thinking about how burnout has shown up in my own life, and in those of my colleagues. One definition felt particularly useful in helping me to discriminate between stress and burnout - “stress is having too much. Too many tasks, too many working hours, too many responsibilities. Burnout is having too little. Too little energy, too little motivation, too little care for the work you do.” As a clinician, I can absolutely relate to the experiences of “too much” that are associated with stress- too many back-to-back sessions, unsigned notes, phone calls to be returned. However, this kind of stress - even chronic stress - does not necessarily lead to burnout.     

During the pandemic I really had myself fooled.  Because I never got Covid until Winter 2023, I thought I had special powers.  I was in high demand from a young adult and teen population that I never dreamed would need my particular services.  Leaning into it, I thought, I finally made the grade.  It turns out I was only feeding a very hungry tiger (Tiger is my Chinese zodiac - as well as my daughter's).  The tiger wanted more and more of what I was good at: giving, supporting and nurturing.  So why not do more?  Also note it was only the second time in my life I made a decent wage other than my stint in the Internet world (dot-com bubble we called it).  Then that burst.  I found myself in an enviable position: turning away work faster than I was getting it.  As the demand increased even more, I just went on -- what else was there to do? At last I had found my groove only there was one piece missing - me!  So cheesy, I know.  Self-care was for others.  My advise was stale as yesterday's bread.  So what I trained to become a Yoga teacher.  So what I got a certificate in Trauma Studies.  Or as my therapist would tell me, "having more patients doesn't make you a better therapist."  I soldiered on.  

Now it was post-pandemic and I hadn't made any changes, au contraire, I had adopted a robotic way of life, relying heavily on routines until I couldn't bear it any longer.  I invented small trips, even errands, to get out of the house.  I took up pickleball.  At my age, things are starting to ache more.  So this felt like a grand effort.  For every pickleball match I would need a day off to rest my quadriceps.  Who knows if my legs hurt because of a statin (I was told), or due to some unforeseen aging process?  Because my husband has had years of chronic pain issues, I was in utter oblivion about my own slog toward old age.  Wake up calls started coming.  Sleeplessness, anger, irritability, resentment, and just plain worry.  My anxiety (especially around driving) went through the roof.  My friends started saying, you're always working.  But the real wake up came when my clients started asking, don't you ever take a vacation?!  Summer, I said.  In Summer I most definitely will.  But how does Summer help me now, in darkest February?

Putting off my own self-care, not recognizing even the need, denying my own burn-out got me to a place of constant low-grade dissatisfaction.  My friends were traveling whilst I was still working on this ever-present, long-ass, never-ending to-do list.  My kids said, Mom, your whole life is one long to-do list.  I even told my therapist I needed a break, as I was sick of my own complaints.  So self-care is more than a manicure.  It's making difficult changes right now.  Changing your work hours, taking on new challenges (in my case, more Supervision, fewer Client Hours).  And personal changes too - not just getting my butt to the gym but taking time off, connecting with old friends, even dedicating a day to just wander around without a plan.  I found I could only read for spans of 45mins - the length of a session!  I found when on the phone with friends I couldn't form sentences, so tired was I from talking all day.  Finally I decided to up my game, invest in myself, look for ways of getting passive income.  I can go to the beach too!  I can do things too!  No more poor me.  More leaps of faith, which made me more resilient throughout my life.  My life was not what I bargained for.  Whose is?


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