You can’t grow from burnout

If you are asking yourself, “Is this burnout that I’m feeling?” The answer is probably yes.

If your next thought is, “But I have so much more to do! I have to go beyond this! It’s already not enough! I have to grow!” I have a hard truth for you to hear. You can’t grow from burnout.

Photo by Jason Rogers, "Burnt out Barn," 2009. Text by Christine bryant cohen, 2015.

Photo by Jason Rogers, "Burnt out Barn," 2009. Text by Christine bryant cohen, 2015.

Burnout has been coming up lately with several of my clients, both writing and consulting clients--people in small businesses, in nonprofits, in the academy. I have been through it myself several times, and I make it an ongoing practice now to stay in a creative flow and out of the dangerous path to burnout. I want to share what I know about it with you.

First, to start with the central mission of why I do what I do—the preassumptions:

·         I believe that the world runs on ideas.

·         I believe that the world needs each of us to bring our own vibrant ideas into being, so that we can make an immediate, and lasting, impact for the good of humankind, our planet, our space in the universe. From the personal statement in your graduate school application, to your first academic book, to your scientific peer-reviewed article, to your 200 page memoir, to the marketing for your holistic health practice—the world needs what you do, your vibrant idea, to come into being, for the good of all of us.

·         I believe we are each a unique combination of experience and skills, that you are uniquely suited to do what you do, only in the way you can do it.

·         And if the world needs you, then it becomes your responsibility to provide what you are uniquely suited to provide.

That’s pretty heavy. I get that. And having gifts and experience that are unique to you does not mean that delivering your own vibrant idea is easy.

Passion for what you do doesn’t make it easy to actually do it. You may be fueled by passion, by a deep desire to serve others, to bring forth that game-changing idea, practice, technique, research, or lived experience. It keeps you awake at night, you think about it when you’re in the shower, and your friends are bored with how often you talk about it.

The more you run on passion, the more susceptible you are to burnout. The more you run on passion, the less likely you are to notice the cues of your body, and your mind, that are telling you to slow down, that this isn’t a sustainable pace, and that you won’t be able to achieve your goals if you keep this up. All that gets you is burned out.

So what is burnout? And why can’t you grow from it?

Burnout is overextension. Burnout is depletion. Burnout is a burned building that has been so ravaged by fire, there is no fuel left to combust. Burnout is a fire that puts itself out because there’s nothing left to burn. An object, or a person, who has reached full burnout becomes completely useless—useless in all areas of their life, because all of the fuel is gone, and there is no way to add fuel at this point. The fire is gone.

It is impossible to grow from burnout, to deliver your gifts, to achieve your goals, to finish your project, to fulfill your passion for your work, because there is nothing left to give. Once you have hit burnout, you are all the way depleted.

So, if you run on passion, and you are susceptible to burnout, and you feel like you’re on the way there, or have already arrived there …

What can you possibly do? You have gotten yourself into a terrible bind.

I feel pretty certain that you are reading this not by chance, but because we have this in common. I have hit complete burnout, too, several times, for different reasons. It is excruciating, it is full of grief and rage, and it renders me incapable of doing the things I wanted to do.

The truth is … I burned myself out. Every time.

·         Yes, the demands were great. The need was great, and the stakes were high. But I saw a stark challenge, and I rose to it, come hell or high water.

·         Yes, I overcommitted myself, and people asked a lot of me. But I didn’t say no.

·         Yes, I have health issues that are out of my control. But I did not recognize the limits my own body has, and I chose to not work within those limits.

·         I can feel so worked up by passion, by creating, by serving others, by doing things that I think the world needs … that I will ignore my own body, again and again, and use up all my fuel. That’s how I get to burnout.

·         When I hit burnout, I am incapable of serving others, and this is a grave hurt to those who need my gifts.

I have a long history of perfectionism, imposter syndrome, chronic health issues, of work-related disabilities, overachievement, Protestant work ethic--you name it, I have it. None of this is impossible to change. This is only history, and I get to make new choices in each moment about how I spend my work time. It is a ridiculous amount of privilege that I have so much self-control, and self-direction, in my own life. This means that I have the possibility of creating an immediate change in my daily life, moment to moment. I cannot take that for granted, because it’s a gift that I’ve never deserved.

But what can I do about burnout? What can we actually do?

First, you can take a break from reading this, take three deep breaths all the way into your belly and all the way out again, eat a snack, drink a glass of water, and set a hard time today at which you will stop working. Tell a friend that you’re going to stop working at that time—just send them a text message or email and say, “Hey, you don’t even need to respond, but I’m telling you that I’m going to stop working today at X time.” Just telling someone you’ll actually stop will give you a little bit of social accountability to actually stop working. If you stop working, then you can have a chance at resting, recharging, and adding more fuel to your fire.

Consider this Part 1. Next week, I’ll publish Part 2: But the fire of burnout can break you open. After that, I’ll publish Part 3: And once you’re burned out and broken open, something new can be born, beautiful and strong. If you want to make sure you get all the posts, sign up for my email newsletter here.

Stay with me, have compassion for yourself, and, really, try these three things right now:

1. Take three deep breaths.

2. Eat a snack, and drink some water.

3. Set a time you'll stop working today, and tell a friend. (Then actually stop working at that time.)

And if you know someone else needs to hear this? Send them to this blog post. You have my blessing! Listen to your gut, and be of service to that person who comes to mind. 

P.S. Book a free, 30 minute chat with me to talk about where you are, where you want to be, and how I may be able to help you get there. Don't be in burnout alone when we can get you through it together.