Why Burnout Happens and How to Prevent it

Have you ever felt just so so physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted and like you’ve lost all sense of purpose in your life? Where life feels overwhelming and like it has no meaning anymore? Maybe there’s seemingly nothing wrong in life and yet daily life feels like such a struggle. Should it really be this hard to get out of bed in the morning?

I’ve been there.

When even seemingly tiny tasks feel totally overwhelming and that I can’t summon up the motivation to get them done. It’s much easier to sit thinking about them than to just do them.

When having a shower feels like a marathon. So I just put it off a bit longer…

When I procrastinate from unloading the dishwasher for an hour when really it could have been over in 5 minutes.

It just doesn’t make sense.

Lots of us are living in a state of survival and coping rather than thriving or living. We are doing too much, and because everyone else is over-committed and doing it too then it seems like it’s normal. We start to wonder if there is something wrong with us because everyone else seems to be managing OK. But we’re just so so exhausted and should life really feel this hard? Or this mundane?

We worry that if we get off the hamster wheel then life might fall apart. If we drop one of the balls then we might drop all of them. If we stop then what if we can’t hold it all together anymore? What if the facade crumbles? What would we be left with? What would people think of us? What if life does totally fall apart?

Maybe we keep going until we get burnt out, which temporarily forces us to stop. That is, until we recoup a bit and then we do it all over again… and again.

So how do you build a life you don’t need to take time out from? How can you stop getting ill when you stop? How can you break out of the cycle of burnout?

The reality is that life needs a bit of tweaking to find a better balance. If nothing changes then burnout will keep happening. Life needs a bit of an overhaul to make it work for you and your needs.

About a year ago I came across Marie Asberg’s exhaustion funnel, which sums up how burnout happens. Basically, when life is going well for us, we naturally do the things that make us feel good and we look after ourselves. We make life work for us, find time to see our friends and make space in our lives to do hobbies and things that we enjoy.

 

Exhaustion Funnel Marie Asberg

Marie Asberg’s Exhaustion Funnel

 

As life gets busier or a life event happens, stress creeps in, then we drop something that seems non-essential. We still find time for work, chores and some rest, but we squeeze out some of the things we enjoy to make time for the things that need doing. We don’t think it matters because it is just for today or this week. We start to feel fatigue and our sleep is affected so we’re now tired but we’re ploughing on through.

It’s just for a time we tell ourselves.

Life continues and we’re now feeling tired as well as busy so we start to squeeze out some more non-essential things like rest. We still do the work and chores because they feel non-negotiable. We don’t want to let others down. We might start to feel irritable and maybe start to feel some physical symptoms. Our body is telling us that life is out of balance and we need to stop. But we don’t have time for that at the moment and don’t have much energy left. And besides, this is all just for a time.

Just for another few weeks. Or until that deadline is over. Or the assignment is handed in. Or until the holiday we’ve planned.

The chores start to get put off now as well. We’re managing work because we don’t have a choice about that. But we’re just so so exhausted. Work is taking up all the energy left now. Life feels joyless and meaningless because work is all that’s left. And those bills aren’t going to pay themselves. Exhaustion and work are your life now.

All the fun and friends and things that you enjoy and give you meaning aren’t part of your life because there’s no energy for them. And you’re too tired to enjoy them anyway. It’s all so out of balance that it feels impossible to get back to how it used to be. You’ve slipped down the funnel and now you’re at the bottom you’re not sure how you get back up again.

Does this feel familiar?

There’s no shame in getting burnt out or realising you’re at the bottom of the funnel and don’t know how to climb back up again.

If life is feeling out of balance and like you’re stressed, exhausted or on the brink of burnout, then don’t beat yourself up about it. The way out of the funnel is taking care of yourself. Listening to what you need and making time for the things you enjoy. It feels counterintuitive but we achieve more when we rest more.

If this feels like it’s speaking to you and you would like some help finding balance again and working out how to build a life where you don’t find yourself in burnout cycles, then I’d love to work with you. I can help you to find ways to make life work for you.

The Self Care Project Book Review

Why Self-Care?

My own awareness of self-care started during my counsellor training. I had some counselling, during which my Counsellor asked me about what my needs were. I couldn’t answer her question, because I had no idea. Thus started my own journey of working that out and exploring how to look after myself and meet my needs. Due to some experiences during adolescence I had learnt to protect myself by pretending I didn’t have needs. If I didn’t have needs then I wouldn’t need to experience the pain of noticing that they weren’t being met. Fast forward ten years and I’m a big advocate of self-care. I’m still learning and still could be better at it, but I’m aware of the impact it has. I’ve seen it in my own life, in those around me and in countless clients I’ve worked with.

The Book

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I had seen positive reviews about The Self Care Project, so was keen to read it. I’m so glad I did. From the outset author Jayne Hardy writes about nine ways she’s sucked at self-care, and the impact it has had on her life. She writes with engaging honesty about her own experiences in an accessible and conversational style. I felt empathy towards her, felt connected to her and it connected me with the parts of myself I’ve neglected.

I wanted to keep reading. And I wanted to do the things she was talking about. I even put it down and stopped reading it for two weeks because I didn’t want to finish it and wanted it to last a bit longer.

I found myself booking yoga classes because I’d been meaning to for ages but hadn’t wanted to spend that much money. I decided that I’m worth it and when I started, I remembered how much I enjoy it. I bought myself some new underwear to replace the ones I had with holes in. I tried paddle boarding because I like fun and adventure and hadn’t tried anything new for a while. Self-care can mean so many different things.

Overview

The Self Care Project breaks self-care down into manageable chunks and expresses it in a clear and understandable way. I love the concept of micro steps to trick our mind into letting us make changes. It is practical, but it is more than that. It looks at why we might not be very good at self-care, why it is important, alarms we don’t notice, barriers to self-care, burnout, emergency self-care and every day self-care. It meets you where you are and encourages you to take little steps forward. It is surprisingly thorough and offers worksheets to reflect upon what you’ve read about.

‘We are enough. As we are. It’s the truest of all truths. We don’t need to be fixed – we’re not broken. Lost, unsure, confused, hiding away, recovering, struggling, hurting, damaged, scarred, messy and scared, perhaps, but not broken’ page 72.

I really like how vulnerable and real the author is and the honest stories and examples she shares. The Blurt Foundation (who the author is Founder and CEO of) is aimed at people with depression so the book is mindful of people lacking energy and motivation, but the content is relevant for everyone.  It inspires you to get more in touch with who you are. It is about making self-care work for you in your own life and making it your own.

My only criticism is that I don’t want to write in my book and I don’t want to bend the spine trying to scan pages to print the worksheets out. Downloadable printouts would be good!

* Update – there are downloadable printouts 🙂 *

Conclusion

I’ve already bought three copies of this book and will probably buy more. I’ve recommended it to colleagues, students I teach, and I’ll probably buy it for some of my clients too. I think it is a brilliant book and I’m full of admiration for the work Jayne Hardy and the Blurt Foundation are doing.

If you want to find out more check out http://www.blurtitout.org

‘We’re looking for those micro pockets of time where we check in with ourselves, ponder how we’re feeling, consider our energy levels, and act accordingly. Self-care is as much about the ‘being’ as the ‘doing’. When we have the space to be, we can see more clearly what we might need to do to feel better’ page 117.

Start Where You Are, Don’t Wait Until You’re Ready

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can – Arthur Ashe

I’m about to start co-leading a group as part of a project to get young girls to be more active and to live healthier lives, both physically and mentally. It has got me thinking about my own journey of getting started with being more physically active after having my kids. I enjoy running but procrastinated for ages about starting to run for a number of reasons. I had a one year old who didn’t sleep a lot, I was worried I would be slow, I didn’t like the idea of having to get through the hard bit where it is challenging to run and breathe for a while until I was fit enough to do both. I was struggling to motivate myself to get started. I kept thinking things like what it would be like to finish a 10k and tell people how long it had taken me to complete it. I was getting way ahead of myself on that one. I could probably only run a few hundred metres at the time and was imagining how my running might be in the future and what other people might think about it. How I might compare to others. When we compare ourselves to others it can make us feel stuck and can hold us back from living our lives. It stopped me from starting.

Starting something new can feel so hard because we want to be able to do it already; we want to be established and can find it hard to have to learn from scratch or practise for long enough until we can get going.

I knew that starting running would be hard because I was inactive and unfit. It would take a while to build up enough fitness to be able to breathe well enough to keep going. But somewhere deep down I knew that once I got past that stage that I’d enjoy it, that it would be good for me, and that once I’d done a run I would feel good. And once I did start I wished I’d started earlier.

I realised that no one was judging how I look when I run, or how fast I run. Most people are focused on beating their own pb’s (personal best times) and are pretty supportive of other runners. It’s about being better than you used to be rather than being better than others (unless you are a competitive runner). And it turns out that I’m not the slowest runner when I do a race. But I’m filled with admiration for those who are. Because they’re doing it. For themselves. And they don’t let what others think stop them from starting.

I read a few years ago that Mo Farah had greeted finishers at the end of the London Marathon who had been running for over 7 hours to finish. He congratulated them. One of them questioned why he was doing it and he replied that he had run for a couple of hours to finish and that it was amazing how they had kept going and going. He saw their perseverance and how hard they had worked to have been able to run for such a length of time. Often when we compare ourselves to others we are comparing what they are with what we aren’t. What they have with what we haven’t. And it makes us forget who we are. What we uniquely have to offer. People like Mo Farah are amazing. But not being able to run as fast as he can doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t run. The people who ran for 7 hours showed more stamina and endurance than Mo Farah did.

I’m not suggesting that you should start running, but what is there in your life where looking at others makes you feel stuck? Or makes you feel inadequate and forget what you’ve got to offer? What would you be starting or doing if it didn’t matter what other people think or what other people are doing? Start where you are.

It’s a terrible thing in life to wait until you’re ready – Hugh Laurie

Why Self-Compassion Matters

“We are what we believe we are” – CS Lewis

The concept of self compassion at its simplest is being a good friend to yourself. We often (but not always) know what we would say to a friend if they were having a rubbish time or feeling negative about themselves, but are often much more critical of ourselves than we are towards others. We don’t always say to ourselves things like “you tried your best” or “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time”. We often aren’t as friendly and warm when we talk to ourselves as we would be when talking to friends or others.

Self-esteem (feeling good about ourselves) requires feeling above average and this involves comparing ourselves to others. We start putting others down to feel better about ourselves and this can lead to us feeling judgemental towards others. We need to feel superior to feel OK, and to do this we blow others candles out in trying to shine brighter ourselves. It means that we struggle to feel happy for others when they succeed. And what sucks about self-esteem is that when you fail something, it abandons you and you’re left feeling rubbish about yourself – I’ve failed because I’m a failure.

According to Kristin Neff who has spent her career researching self compassion, you need 3 components to self compassion so that it doesn’t become self pity. These are

  1. Self kindness – treating ourselves with the kindness and warmth we would show to a friend
  2. Common humanity – the understanding that life is hard and that others are also going through hard things
  3. Mindfulness – an understanding of what we are feeling and experiencing

Common humanity is important because if we think it is only us experiencing hard times then we feel sorry for ourselves and experience self-pity. It needs mindfulness because we need to understand what we are thinking and feeling and to be able to sit with how we feel, feel the pain and have compassion towards ourselves. We have to be able to turn towards our feelings, and this involves knowing what we’re actually feeling.

What I love about self compassion is that you still get the benefits of having a high self-esteem, but it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what anyone else thinks of you. You don’t need to be better than anyone else. You can fail. Life can be hard or you can mess things up. It’s part of life that we all go through hard times and that we all will mess up. But self compassion allows us to say to ourselves “it’s OK”, “I understand”, “everyone feels like this sometimes”, “you’re not a failure because you’ve failed an exam”, “of course you feel like this, it’s so understandable”, “you’re doing the best you can”.

If we can allow ourselves to fail and to mess up, but then be gentle and kind to ourselves about it, we can learn and we can grow. We don’t become paralysed with fear of failure or fear of rejection. When a baby learns to walk we expect it to take a while and for them to fall over hundreds of times. We don’t pick them up and tell them not to bother anymore. And so is life. If we can be kind enough to ourselves that falling down is inevitable and trying again is the way forward then failure stops paralysing us. Self compassion isn’t about striving towards a perfect version of yourself, but about accepting yourself as you are.

How much is your inner critic really interested in your wellbeing? Where does the critical inner voice even come from? Whose voice is it? Maybe someone who judged you harshly when you were younger? A critical parent or teacher? Because if we’re honest, if we had a friend who was highly critical of us and kept saying mean things to us then the wisest thing would be to steer clear of them. And yet we so often allow ourselves to say such things and become so used to it that we don’t even notice how critical we can be to ourselves.

Compassion is about kindness, acceptance and non-judgement. How can you offer these things to yourself? Be kind to yourself because you’re doing the best you can.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – Dalai Lama

 

Angry Outbursts

Image © Disney

“Anyone can be angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” – Aristotle

I’ve had a lot of young people come to see me as a Counsellor whose parents are really worried about their anger issues. But when I ask the young person what is going on in life for them and if there’s anything they’d like to change they say they’re fine. They aren’t ready to do the work and to engage in counselling. Until it is their agenda then they often don’t see their anger as being a problem. It is only a problem for them because Mum or Dad keep telling them it is.

So the idea of this blog is that it is a starting point for those Mums and Dads, but hopefully it will be helpful to others too. In case this doesn’t come across in a blog in the way it would face-to-face, I want to start by saying that I’m saying these things without blame or judgement. It is not your fault that you have a child who has angry outbursts. And I invite you to read this with no guilt, self-blame or judgement. Try to read it with an open mind and take from it what you want to and leave the rest.

What is anger?

Anger is an emotion. An angry outburst is a behaviour. We might want to change the way that we respond when we’re angry, or the way that our child does, but we’re not setting out to get rid of anger because that’s impossible. Anger alerts us to something. When we get angry we have a good reason to be angry. It tells us when we have been hurt or when something isn’t fair. Never being angry would just be weird. So we’re not trying to eradicate it but to express it better.

Anger can be denied and suppressed, openly shown to the person who has affected us, turned on ourselves, turned on someone else or we can deal with the causes.

Understanding

Firstly, try to see the child behind the behaviour. What is the behaviour trying to communicate? What are they trying to say? What are they experiencing? What’s underneath the anger they’re showing? Anger is sometimes about anger, but often is about something else. Why are they whinging? Why are they smashing things around? What’s going on for them? Underneath it all they might be feeling rejected, scared or feeling vulnerable. They might be hurting. They might want attention. They might feel powerless or may not know how to communicate. Anger is what shows on the outside. But often what we are feeling on the inside is hurt, fear, shame, guilt, sadness, frustration, annoyance, jealousy, loneliness, disappointment.

Control?

So often we parent from a place of trying to control our child’s behaviour. An example is something that happened with my youngest son this morning. He woke me up really early this morning with a dinosaur construction kit and an instruction booklet in his hand. Last night he had asked to construct a new dinosaur and I had told him he could when he woke up in the morning. My (still a bit sleepy) response to him was “go back to bed or I won’t make a dinosaur with you.” I was trying to control his behaviour by bargaining with something I knew he wanted. But I could have said “I love how excited you are about building a dinosaur but it isn’t time yet and your body needs more sleep.” Instead of recognising his excitement I wanted him to do what I wanted first. And so often we parent from this place of “if you…. then you can have or do….” or “If you don’t… then I’ll….” Or is it just me?

Connection

We all need to feel loved, accepted and connected. It’s not about how well you’re loving them. I expect you’re doing that well. It might involve driving them all over the place and spending lots of time feeding them and planning your life around them. It’s not about how hard you’re trying or how much of your life you dedicate to them. It’s about how loved and connected they feel. This is likely to change over time. You could spend hours a week standing at the skate park watching them go down ramps, but it’s actually that 5 minutes you spent reading a book with them or talking to them about something important to them that made them feel more connected.

If they don’t feel connected to you then you won’t have that much influence on them. Do they feel safe and loved? It’s not about what you do for them or whether you are giving them what they want. It is about whether you are connecting with who they are. How do they feel with us? You can spend all day every day with someone but not feel connected. Feeling connected can just take 10 minutes of being present and trying to understand what is going on in their world. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t listen to what is important to them when they are little (which often seems trivial) then they won’t share with you what is important to them when they are older.

One of the quickest ways to connect with someone is to repeat back to them what they are saying. It shows that you are listening and that you understand. We all want to feel understood. What you can do is to accept your child and empathise with what is going on for them. It can be really helpful for them to hear things like “it’s OK to feel angry”, “it’s so understandable you feel like that” or “I would feel angry if I experienced that.” If you dismiss them then they may turn to someone else.

Cause

Has the anger come in response to a life event like changing school, a divorce, a death or bullying? Did something happen that they haven’t found a way to express or adjust to?

It can be so easy to want to rescue them from painful things but they need to live through pain to adjust and to grow. It might be hard hearing them say that they’ve found it hard moving house or that you separated with your partner, but hearing their pain helps them express it so they can move through it and grow. When feelings aren’t expressed they build up. And can stay inside until they sufficiently build up to burst out. Or to come out sideways.

Expression, Mountains and Molehills

We all have emotions that we are able to express more readily and ones that we struggle more with. Unless we grew up in a highly emotionally intelligent home then we probably have learnt rules about what it is OK to feel, and what it isn’t OK to feel. In some families anger is the preferred emotion to express and everyone shows their anger freely. Maybe at the expense of crying or showing hurt or vulnerability or insecurity. In other households anger is deemed scary and out of control and it is safer to express the underlying hurt or fears. In these households it feels more acceptable to be sad or anxious than to be angry.

Some people will hold everything in and be on their best behaviour, say, at school, but they are like a coke bottle being shaken up with everything they experience. Then they come home and feel safe and the lid comes off and all the emotion they’ve been feeling fizzes out. It feels out of proportion to what has happened, because it is. It is emotion relating to things before what has just happened in the moment. Or for others something triggers a thought process in us and taps in to anger we’re already feeling about something else and we react. Again this anger seems out of proportion to what is going on in the moment. For others it is like the inside of a volcano where you can’t see what is going on inside as it is building up until it is too late and the magma is pouring out.

When anger feels disproportionate to the situation and the reaction feels too strong, it is usually because it is. It has usually tapped in to anger or hurt about something else. Often we’re taking our anger out on the wrong people. We haven’t expressed it in the moment we felt it to the person or situation we felt angry with and it’s stayed with us to come out sideways at someone else in an unrelated situation. If your child is angry often with you, it could be anger directed at you, or it could be that you are a safe person so they trust you enough to direct their anger towards you. They know you’ll still love them and that your relationship with them can handle it.

You might not be able to persuade your child to get counselling or to get the help you feel they need. But what you can do is to try to connect with them, try to understand what they are experiencing and what life is like for them. Accept their feelings even if they are expressing things you find hard to sit with and not be able to fix. Being able to express how they feel will help them to express things in the moment and to limit things building up.

Doing it today

So how can you spend 10 minutes connecting with your child today? Or yourself today? Think: no phones or other distractions. How can you be fully present and trying to connect heart to heart? Use your intuition. You know your child better than any professional or anyone else. This isn’t about a prescriptive set of things to do. All children are different. We’re all human and doing the best we can with everything else we’ve got going on.

It might be helpful to check in with yourself – how do I express my own anger? Does my child being angry trigger my own anger? Do I prioritise being right and holding the line even if it causes an argument with my child? What are acceptable emotions to express in the household in which I live? Or in the household you grew up in? We all have our own ways of expressing our anger. For some people it is passive like always being late, forgetting things, always joking, being cynical or sarcastic, scapegoating others. Some people express their anger very outwardly. Have a think about how you do anger. What are you showing your child about anger?

If you feel like you need to work on how you express your own anger, then you might want to check out mindfulness as a way of learning to be present with yourself and with others, and as a way of learning to recognise how you are feeling in the moment and being able to turn towards it. Recognising what is going on for you in the moment can help you recognise more quickly how you are reacting and why and can give you a choice about how to react rather than immediately being reactive and feeling like your reaction is out of your control and is happening automatically.