If you’ve read my previous blog post, then you’ll know that I was no stranger to anxiety and stress growing up. But I was 33 years old before I had my first experience of burnout. I had a very busy job in the NHS - The demands on the service were high, the resources were limited, and the waiting lists were long and never ending. And of course when you are supporting people with their strong emotions, this also means often drawing significantly on your own emotional and cognitive resources.
I was definitely burning the candle at both ends. I was frequently skipping my lunch break, and working longer hours; I wasn’t sleeping in a regular pattern; I wasn’t eating healthy food and was instead relying on processed, fatty foods that were at least quick to prepare (or on a particularly tough day - to order); I was also using ‘infinity apps’ like Candy Crush, and a few glasses of wine, to zone out and numb my stress, and I never really felt fully relaxed and content.
Yet at that time, I told everyone, including myself, that I was ‘fine' - I knew I felt out of control in regards to being so busy and stressed at work, but I blamed my work for that. I didn’t need to change, the workplace needed to change. My behaviours, in and out of work, were not the problem - the only problem was the work itself. But despite my moaning and blaming, nothing was really changing at work, so I just kept pushing myself on - as I always had done, and kept saying “I’m fine”.
But I was not fine. I didn’t know it consciously, but my body knew it. This one year, I got literally wiped out, on four occasions, with either a full-blown chest infection or a sinus infection, for a week at a time. And when I say wiped out - I couldn’t even get out of bed on these occasions, let alone make it to work. And in between these bouts of bed-ridden illness, I seemed to always have a cold or a cough - I didn’t really feel ‘well’ throughout this whole year at all.
Luckily, I moved on to a different job shortly after this experience, and the episode of burnout abated. Which was great - not only did I feel better, but I could continue to believe that it was the job that had caused the burnout, and that it was nothing to do with me and my choices or behaviours at all. Win-win …. right?
Wrong. Flash forward a few years … and I am again feeling very overwhelmed and stressed, this time in a different job. I’m again starting to shut down emotionally and feel exhausted every day; I’m beginning to mentally snap at people at work, and even random people on the street; and I’m starting to get sick again … Yep, I’m dangerously close to burning out again, and this time in a very different work context …
So was it really that other job that was to blame? Am I really so unlucky to land two jobs, in quick succession, that were coincidentally each the sole cause of me burning out? As tempting as this was to believe, I think I knew deep down that this is unlikely to be the full story …
Rather fortuitously, in the years leading up to this most recent near-burnout experience, I had been devouring Brené Brown’s books, about her research into shame and vulnerability, which had also unveiled wisdom about perfectionism, exhaustion, and blaming. It was with this evidence-base that I began wondering how I had ended up in the same burnt-out place again, only a few years later, and in a different job. This new knowledge helped me to examine whether there might be other factors at play in my burnout … perhaps even factors that were related to the choices I was making each day …
So, the new question for me was this: What was I bringing to all of my jobs, that was potentially contributing to my risk of burnout? I discovered that two of the headlines were as follows: I was a perfectionist, and I had always denied my vulnerability.
Let’s look at perfectionism first: I have always set high standards and expectations for myself, and I strive to do my absolute best for my clients, and my boss, and everyone in my personal life, every day. In line with this, I have rarely said ‘no’ to requests - However busy or stressed those requests make me feel, my default has always been to say ‘yes’, and then to do a damn good job too. And in relation to my high standards, I also have a tendency to spend longer on each task than others might, if they were in my situation. I don’t seem to ever have a ‘that’s good enough for now’ switch …
Okay, now for vulnerability: I had also spent the majority of my life believing that I wasn’t vulnerable. Like so many of us, I equated vulnerability with weakness, and I did not want to be seen as weak. However, the definition of vulnerability that came from Brown’s research suggests that if we are faced with “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” then we are vulnerable - So, according to this evidence-based definition, we are all vulnerable every day, whether we deny it or not. I’ve therefore learned that denying our vulnerability doesn’t mean we are not vulnerable, and I’ve learned that the myth that equates vulnerability with weakness, is in fact just that - a myth.
I know understand that this is why my body had been forced to step in when I was burning out - Firstly, in line with my beliefs about vulnerability, I’ve come to understand that, for me, physical illness is more ‘socially acceptable’ than ‘emotional vulnerability’ or simply resting because I want to, or need to - Although they were entirely outside of my conscious control, these bouts of sickness provided me with the perfect ‘cover story’ for why I needed to take time off work, or away from socialising, without 'losing face'.
Secondly, also in line with my beliefs about vulnerability, I was consciously denying that the stressors were building up to untenable levels. I knew the stresses were building up, but in my quest to stay “strong” and deny vulnerability, I had been ignoring the ‘untenable levels’ part of this statement. Why? Because that part is about me, and it’s uncomfortable to admit. It’s about what I can handle and what I can’t. It’s about how much I can do, and keep doing, before I have to admit ‘I can’t do any more’, or before I have to start saying ‘no’ to additional requests. It’s about my limits, and my vulnerabilities,
Ultimately, admitting what is tenable and untenable for me is about me admitting that I’m also accountable in regards to my choices and behaviours, as opposed to just blaming everything else around me. When we hold ourselves ‘accountable’ we own our mistakes, and we apologise and make amends where necessary. Accountability is vulnerability - It’s admitting that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, and that we can’t do it all. So when we are denying our vulnerability, accountability is impossible - Instead, we find something to blame.
It’s easy to understand why so many of us use blame when we are struggling - Blaming seems to confirm to us that we are not vulnerable, and it gives us a lightening quick sense of having some control when things are going wrong. But deep down we all know that blaming doesn’t really get us anywhere - and that's because blaming is really just our brains making up a story, to make us feel more in control, even though we are not. When our brains quickly generate this ‘blame’ story, it also helps us to discharge those uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability, pain and anger that come with being out of control. But blaming also disempowers us, and in the long run, it keeps us stuck in the situation that is causing the discomfort. And it doesn’t matter whether you are blaming others, or the context, or yourself - if you are blaming anything at all then this will be a totally ineffective change strategy - and if you are blaming anything at all for your stress, or your ‘busyness’ then you are much more likely to be headed for burnout.
And this where I started to understand why so many of us seem to continue to head towards burnout, rather than making changes early to prevent it: Burnout is uncomfortable and undesirable yes - But for many of us, continuing to engage in the behaviours that lead to burnout is actually is more comfortable (in the short-term) than embracing our vulnerability, and discomfort of admitting that we are not in control, and that we can’t do it all.
Real, actual control in any situation can only come from self-awareness, and a sense of accountability. It might sound counterintuitive, but I for one am starting to believe that admitting when we lack control, and admitting when we are vulnerable, is perhaps the only thing that can lead us to back to being able to regain control where this is possible.
When I felt my stress building again recently, I was grateful to be coming at it with this new and different foundation, based on Brown’s research. This time: I was more open to feeling vulnerable, having learned that vulnerability is not weakness at all, but is in fact evidence of courage and strength; I was more open to being accountable and recognising where I could have some real control; I had also been practising mindfulness for a few years, and so I could now appreciate that my thoughts were just thoughts, and not ‘truths’, and I could tolerate the discomfort that arose when I let myself acknowledge I was out of control; and finally, I was learning about the power of self-compassion to help me reposed more constructively to my feelings of vulnerability.
From this new foundation, it was easier (although still not ‘easy’) for me to get control of what I could, and to re-prioritise sleep, and exercise, and eating healthy meals, and not working overtime. And I was more able to tolerate the vulnerability and discomfort that came up when I then inevitably left tasks undone, or said ‘no’ to taking on more tasks. You can’t prioritise both self-care and ‘doing it all’ - something has got to give, and if you prioritise self-care, some difficult feelings will come up.
And to come full circle, thorough my exploration of accountability, I re-discovered the role of the job itself in also contributing to my stress and burnout. But this time, rather than staying in ‘blame’ and moaning behind the scenes, I was able to have more honest, upfront, and constructive discussions with my boss about what I was capable of doing, and what I was not capable of doing, and where I felt the job itself was accountable for causing some of the stress I was feeling. These were some of the hardest, bravest conversations that I have ever had in a work context. But it turned out, that from these conversations, it was possible for my boss to make some changes in the work context too, which felt very positive.
However, there are no quick fixes in life, and in case you have any illusions that a short series of brave and constructive conversations led to a ‘happily ever after’ scenario, the epilogue to this story is this: The changes my boss made in the workplace, while very welcome, didn’t feel like enough of a change for me. So again, I exercised my accountability and real control once more, to acknowledge that this job wasn’t the right one for me, and I resigned. While this ultimately was a positive move for me, it was also hard, and it led me to grieve the loss of a job that I loved in many ways, and workmates and clients that I had enjoyed working with … and importantly, and painfully, this decision to resign has also led me to grieve the idea I used to have of myself - as someone who can ‘do it all’.
The path of owning my accountability in relation to my experiences of burnout hasn’t been easy, but then neither was staying in blame, and repeatedly hurtling towards burnout, and knowing that my emotional and physical health were paying the ultimate price for that.
Self-awareness and accountability don’t stop the stress of life - nothing can. But they do help me to feel empowered to actively and consciously choose just how much stress is enough stress for me. If you recognise elements of your experiences in any of this story, then I’m almost certain that exploring and embracing these concepts could also help you to avoid burnout too.
If you would like to explore these concepts in more detail for yourself, please see my resource page for details of Brené Brown’s work, or you can also contact me directly to potentially arrange an appointment, to begin to think through these concepts together: https://www.mindbodysoulpsychology.co.uk/contact