As a therapist who has worked with many people experiencing burnout and as one who has had a close encounter with burnout in the past, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the real reasons that lead to burnout, how to avoid it and/or recover from it.
The first thing I’d like to emphasize is that I don’t see burnout as a breakdown, but rather as a breakthrough.
Depending on what you do with yourself, and your life during these times, your situation may deteriorate or may enhance your life like never before.
How does burnout happen?
Although burnout may look like a sudden ‘crash’, the reality is, that burnout is a result of a slow and simmering process that unfolds deep in your psyche over a long period of time.
You may live your life as if everything is going great (even though there are warning signs you ignore) until something happens that breaks the camel’s back. This may be the death of a loved one, a divorce, an illness, or a major life transition.
What does burnout feel like?
In burnout, you find yourself completely emotionally exhausted with a deep sense of fatigue. You start losing your sense of self and questioning why you are doing what you are doing. You may lose your motivation for things you truly enjoyed and were passionate about. You may feel frustrated and aggravated a lot of the time and want to withdraw and isolate yourself. You might even turn to alcohol, sedatives, pain-relieving drugs, and solutions that turn into addictions.
When people move into burnout, they often experience a deep sense of vulnerability, fear, or even terror they never felt before while they were busy striving for their goals and establishing their reputation.
Contrary to popular belief, — burnout isn’t cause by the amount of work you do, or the people you need to care for, — but rather – “by “how” you work, and “how you show up” in life”. Let me explain:
What factors lead to burnout?
Burnout happens as a result of living a life dictated by what I will refer to as “managerial parts” that cause us to behave in ways that are exhausting over time. These parts act this way, to ensure our survival, self-preservation, and to get approval.
These are different parts inside all of us that will manifest to different degrees and in different ways including:
- Wanting to do things right
- Wanting to be in control
- Wanting to please everybody
- Wanting to be perfect
- Wanting to be the best
- Wanting to avoid conflict
- Wanting to avoid failure/humiliation
- Acting in self-destructive ways
- Wanting to be important
- Wanting to be seen and heard
In burnout, these “managerial parts” are driven to govern your life by more forcefully pushing you, and grinding you to do more, to be bigger, better, holier.
As a result, you are willing to sell your soul for unending deadlines, do what it takes to please everyone, insist on being the go-to person for everyone else’s needs, refuse to delegate, and ignore what’s important for you.
Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but are out of touch with your true Self, your spirit. You are living life like a zombie.
Why do I do this to myself?
Why do these “managerial parts” behave like that, when they know that outwardly it may get you what you want, but inwardly it’s exhausting, and not satisfying in the long run?
Well, these “managerial parts” do that for very brilliant reasons. These parts make you behave this way because they are trying to protect you from underlying discomforts you don’t want to feel, even though their methods of protecting you may not always be the most productive, their motives are always well-intentioned.
They are protecting you from a discomfort fueled by ‘other fearful parts’ in you, that have inherited or acquired mistaken ideas about your identity. Other parts that believe stories like:
- I don’t matter,
- No matter what I do it’s not enough,
- I don’t measure up to my brother and sister,
- I’m not wanted,
- I don’t belong,
- I’m a burden,
- I’m not enough
- I am bad,
- I don’t deserve what I have.
When your “managerial parts” which work very hard to ignore, deny and suppress your deeper sense of insecurity and inadequacy start taking over your life that’s when you start heading for burnout.
Burnout means that you have depleted all available resources to hide from your inner pain.
Burnout is not just a psychological issue: it is also a physical and spiritual issue.
By the time you get to burnout you have fried your nervous system, you’ve depleted your adrenals, and you are stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode.
It’s no longer just a mental process, it’s a physiological as well as a spiritual issue.
And that’s why burnout offers us the choice and opportunity to transform our lives for the better.
Burnout is a wake-up call.
It’s a spiritual crisis calling you to come back home to yourself and connect with a deeper sense of intuition, wisdom, and authenticity.
Burnout is an invitation to come into alignment with a more elegant expression of your soul qualities, talents, and energy.
But to do that, you need to attend to the underlying causes of burnout. In other words, it may be necessary to take time off work, school, or caregiving, but ‘time off’ alone won’t relieve you from the root cause of your burnout.
The difference between burnout and depression.
People often ask, is burnout the same as depression? My experience says it’s not. Many people can live decades with depression without ever burning out, while people in burnout experience most of the symptoms of depression. Which is why burnout is often misdiagnosed as depression and people are given antidepressants, without considering the full impact on the nervous system.
Psychologist and burnout expert Veerle Brenninkmeijer and her colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands do make some distinctions between burnout and depression. They have observed that, compared with depressed individuals, people high in burnout:
- Are still more able to enjoy things (although they often lack the energy for it)
- Rarely lose weight
- Don’t really have thoughts about suicide
- Have more realistic feelings of guilt, if they feel guilty
- Tend to attribute their indecisiveness and inactivity to their fatigue rather than to their depression
- Often have difficulty falling asleep, whereas in the case of depression one tends to wake up too early.
The interesting thing about burnout is it really offers the option to reset the course of your life in a healthier, more balanced, and sane way.
If we don’t suffer we don’t stop to take inventory of ourselves.
It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be a law of human nature.
No pain, no change!
How to prevent and heal from burnout
Prevention from burnout and maintaining mental wellness starts by becoming mindful of your own physical energy system and honoring what you are feeling physically and emotionally.
A daily practice of introspection, and self-reflection is in my opinion the foundation of well-being.
Regular counselling will help you understand and take care of the “managerial parts” so they don’t overtake your behaviour. Counselling will also help you develop strategies to help you stay grounded and centered, and overall keep you accountable for your mental well-being.
Technologies like Direct Neurofeedback help reset your nervous system and help you integrate the self-reflective work you do.
“If you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.” Joyce Sunada
To recover from burnout you most definitely need to use every available resource from all angles. Psychological, physiological, and spiritual.
When people heal from burnout, they live their life differently from the inside. They awaken their ability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, their life becomes more simplified, they reconnect with nature, they become more creative, they deepen their relationships because they show up with more transparency and authenticity.
So if you relate to any of these symptoms of burnout, don’t keep pushing yourself, make some small changes, start by talking to someone.