05 Oct Recreating life after burnout
It was just over a year ago now, a week before my 38th birthday, I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a bus. The only thing that got me out of bed was to run to the loo to throw up. My thoughts were “Get up, you’ll be fine. People need you today. The kids need breakfast, and they need to get to school. You’ve got meetings with clients and deliverables due. Push through, you’ll be fine.” But I wasn’t.
Looking back now, it had been coming for a while. Our three kids had been sick on rotation, one or two at a time, for weeks. We were one month into a three-month home renovation, and already behind schedule. I was trying to juggle the requirements and commitments from each side of my full-time dual role. The busyness of our days meant that connection with my husband was far below average. My anxiety had made me physically sick and for the first time ever, I couldn’t just push through. My resilience tank had run dry, and I was forced to stop.
The problem though, was that when I was advised by our GP to take time off work to rest, I laughed out loud and decided that I only needed a couple of days. A few days in, I pealed myself off the bed because my clients and my family needed me. On I marched, tissues and nose spray in hand, until just a week later, I was back at square one. Worse this time, and while we were on holiday with my extended family, celebrating my dad’s milestone birthday. I felt totally defeated and ashamed – ashamed for feeling that I couldn’t carry on ‘doing it all’. I felt guilty for not being able to help prepare and be present in meetings at work and for not being around to coach and teach the juniors in the team. I felt guilty for being sick again. I felt lazy for relying on my family and friends for support. I felt guilty for missing school events that I had been part of planning. It sounds like a tangled mess of guilt and failure and shame, and it was.
Turns out, I had burn out. The burning-the-candle-on-both-ends-until-there’s-nothing-left-to-burn type. Until then, burn out wasn’t something real that could actually happen to me. I thought it happened to other people who couldn’t keep up with life. It was very real and it was very raw. I had stopped sleeping well, my diet and exercise routines had gone out the window. I was very quiet a lot of the time, mostly when it counted the most, like around the dinner table at Sunday family lunchtime. I cried. A lot. But only by myself. The things that I would usually get excited about made me anxious and I tried to avoid them so I could hide from the world that I was not okay. I was overcommitted, overworked and overwhelmed.
According to the World Health Organsiation, burnout itself is not a mental health condition. However, the symptoms of burnout often include anxiety and depression, amongst many others. I ticked almost all the boxes. I was in a dark, sad place and knew that something needed to change. A few fundamental shifts helped me navigate the path forward. These are some of the things that helped me.
- Step back to reflect and realign
When I was first diagnosed, I took time off to create space from my reality, to spend time reflecting on how I had gotten to where I was. I spent time re-evaluating my values, goals and habits and what emerged was that how I was actually living my life was so far out of alignment from what was important to me and how I wanted to be living my life. I wrote out what my values were, redefined what mattered to me most and set out an action plan to help me shift more intentionally towards having more of those things in my life.
- Rebuild healthy habits
Our habits are the building blocks that shape the life we live. They are constructive or destructive. Many of mine had become destructive. My structured morning routine had slowly disintegrated, which meant that most of the time I woke up feeling frazzled before my day had even begun. Because I was tired and sleep deprived, I grabbed carbs, coffee and wine more often than nourishing, wholesome food. I had to refocus on going back to building healthy habits, slowly and intentionally.
- Manage your energy, not just your time
We often hear that it’s our time management that makes us more productive or not. I believe it is also about managing our energy. Energy can be regenerated throughout the day, refilling our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy tanks as the day moves on and as we move from one task to the next. Small shifts in the way we manage technology, movement, rest, the people we surround ourselves with and the timing of responding to messages and emails can all impact our energy reserves. Managing my energy helped my productivity so much more than just effective time management.
- Stop comparing your journey to everyone else’s
It is so easy to compare ourselves to the other moms around the school sports field or the colleague across the open plan office. We tend to see all the good in them and their lives and are far more critical of ourselves and our own lives. “Why is this happening to me and not her?”, I thought. We tell ourselves we’re failures for not having what they have or doing what they can do. What we need to remind ourselves of often is that we’re all navigating our own road. We’re all on a path that is our unique journey. Each of us has a unique capacity to take on the responsibilities and roles that fill our lives. There is no right or wrong way, we’ve just got to know what our own capacity is and not measure our own lives using someone else’s ruler.
We should cultivate not just an attitude of gratitude, but an intentional awareness of the good things in our lives. My lens had become so blurred by negative thoughts and emotions, that I had lost focus of what was good in my life. I would extrapolate one mistake, one setback into my whole day or week, making the whole thing seem bad. Instead, we should view life through a lens that allows us to see past the struggle to see and feel the joy simultaneously. We can smile through a stream of salty tears. We can choose the lens through which we look and it starts with consciously noticing and being grateful for those things you smell, taste, feel and see.
Burnout develops over months, sometimes years. Recreating life to navigate a path forward from burnout also takes time and can’t happen overnight with a few quick fixes. Through this process I have learnt to be more humble and more teachable, because we are all works in progress.