Do you want to have a heart attack at 40 or do you want to be alive? I don’t know about you, but I had 3 grandparents live into their 90s. I have a long time to go, and experiencing burnout every 2 years is pretty exhausting.
I’ve experienced major burnout (combined with depressive episodes) 3 times over the past 4 years. Amid this most recent bout, triggered by the death of my grandfather and 2.5 months of constant travel, I realized it’s now a pattern, and I needed to do something drastically different. At the peak of my fear, panic and stress, I thought I needed to runaway to a foreign city and work at a grocery store. I did not think I knew how to take care of myself. Rather than runaway after visiting my grandmother (on hospice in Florida), I decided getting back to work would help, so I started working lightly with a client. But, I didn’t know how to “work lightly”, and the fear, panic and stress continued. Contrary to what my parents told me, I did not feel better getting back to work.
More understanding people told me to “lean into my burnout” and “give myself a break”. They told me to “just be” and “do only things I enjoy.” They said “Unless I really stop and surrender, I won’t get better.”
I was confused; I didn’t know what that meant. “How do I get there? What do I do?,” I wrote in my journal. I hate not doing anything.I need to do things! I need to have goals! I need to be working on a 30-60-90 day plan and executing.
When I finally decided to lean into my burnout, it was the scariest decision I ever faced. I searched the web for instructions on what I should do. I thought there had to be a manual, a ten-step process, or some type of opt-in program that would coach me through burnout and recovery. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t a set guide.
Since I could not find a set guide to “lean into burnout”, I want to share some of the people, resources and activities that helped me through my time off. When I admitted that I was facing paralyzing exhaustion, someone suggested 3 months. That seemed like way too much time to take off, so I tried to give myself 2 weeks. A good friend told me to shoot for 1 month; I needed to stop measuring time off in days and weeks, and in months. Ultimately, this is how I went from a recovery time estimate of 3 months to 1 month:
Step 0: Recognize the Burnout
There are plenty of articles that detail signs of burnout. Carol Ross, an amazing career coach I spoke to, wrote an article on How to Recognize Burnout.
- The simplest tasks become hard to do.
- Creativity seems to have vanished.
- Feeling burdened by outside work, even helping a friend.
- Joyful activities felt like an obligation.
Recognizing real burnout (some may call depression, chronic anxiety and frequent panic attacks) is a really hard thing to do. People throw the word “burnout” around as if a 30 minutes soak in a bath, or a 1 weekend digital detox will solve your problems. But when you’ve been in a bad situation (however you definite it) for 6 months, 1 year or 2 years, you need more than 2-3 days.
Your ego is probably really negative right now and you cannot listen to it. It’s telling you that you don’t deserve a break. That other people have it harder and are making it through life fine. Well, you’re 100% worthy, so this is all about building an ability to stop.
For me, I was exhausted, and the simplest activities took me multiple times longer to complete. I was sleeping naturally until 9 or 10 am (I’m usually up with the sun), and my chest burned every time I opened my email, Photoshop and Facebook. I had no desire to make sharable images like the ones in this post and crack jokes on Twitter.
Just ask yourself, “Do I want to continue to crash & burn & be depressed, or do I want to pursue stuff that makes me happy and do things that really seem important?”
The next few steps are all about “refilling your well and will”, as Carol Ross says.
Step 1: Find Your Safety Net
Surrendering to feel better is not easy. It means feeling out a real safety net and not being scared that you’ll end up homeless on the street for doing so. Look to spouses, friends and family that validate that it’s okay to stop.
I moved in with my aunt to reduce my living expenses. I looked to my safety net / emergency fund, and calculated a week-by-week budget to make sure I felt secure not working.
Step 2: Stop Being Scared
Rereading some of my journal entries leading up to this time off is scary. Here’s what I wrote:
I’m afraid no one will want to work with me again. But who is no one?
I’m afraid my skills will grow stale. But is there evidence no one will want to work me again?
Why am I so afraid about my skills?
“Letting go…” I think I have this belief that any progress is better than no progress, and no progress is regressive.
Does any of this seem familiar? Yes? Work through these fears and convince yourself they’re a tad-bit (well, really, but I’m trying to be nice) irrational.
Step 3: Figure Out How to Sequester Yourself
You need to cut out the noise because you don’t have the capacity to deal with much else besides yourself. Carrie Severson, a professional friend, wrote about how she went to her childhood hometown, a small town. For me, I said goodbye to my clients, and put up a vacation reminder on both my email accounts. Other things I did:
- I removed email and social media apps from my phone.
- Turned off other notifications on my phone.
- Did not open my email for days at a time.
- Did not go on Twitter or Facebook.
- Cancelled any networking phone calls and meetings.
The key is to reduce the noise so you can listen to only yourself. Email gave me anxiety, and it turns out that most people hold their breath when they open their email. And, I don’t think I need to go into why I turned off the social networks, but here’s an article.
Remember that this difficult time is just a short phase of your life. You’ll return to all the things you love in time. You’re saying no to certain things so you can say yes to yourself.
Step 4: Write Your Own Prescription
- Surround yourself only with supportive friends a family.
- Don’t do a single activity unless it brings you joy.
- Take the opportunity to look at the world from a different place.
Then, start to figure out what you need to feel better. Leave a spouse? Leave a job? Change a job? Move? Cut someone toxic out of your life? Give up your kids for adoption? Just kidding on that last one.
Step 5: Try Any of the Following
Most likely you’re burnt out because you set too many goals for yourself and do too much. Burnout isn’t easy because we think that we’re giving up or throwing in the towel. It’s important to take the time to go with the flow without feeling like a total wet noodle. Like I said, I didn’t know what I was going to do with all this free time. I wanted to feel good about the time I spent off.
Here’s a laundry list of things I tried or were suggested to me:
- Binge watch TV as much as you want.
- Stay in your pajamas all day if that’s what you want to do.
- Learn a new skill like knitting, drawing or playing the piano.
- Buy a coloring book, consider coloring in it or do color in it.
- Talk to anyone that’s experienced the same thing.
- Talk to old friends (call your friends who are home with children!)
- Talk to a Psychic (I did this for the 1st time in my life. I talked to Stephanie, my friend had a good experience with Margot)
- Join a healing circle, read your own angel or tarot cards, and talk to the angels.
- On an aside: You laugh, but a lot of people that have wrestled with their egos are BFF with Archangel Michael.
- Learn to meditate
- Go to a Buddhist center or any religious or spiritual institution. I like Kadampa.
- On an aside: Stephanie, my psychic and intuitive reader, told me I was deeply religious in a past life, so therefore I didn’t feel like I needed to engage with large, organized religions (ex: Judaism) in this life.
- Also, meditation helps slow down the brain, and that’s really important during burnout.
- Go to Museums
- Work out, do yoga, boxing, pilates; whatever feels good.
- Journal, journal, journal. Get all your thoughts out of your head.
- Read really good, fun, fiction books. I read 3 books in the Maisie Dobbs series.
- Go on dates to get out of the house.
- Cook, a lot.
- Listen to podcasts. Here are a few of my favorites:
Here’s another list I received from my friend Nicole, who is an herbalist, and really into her “soul” and the “earth” and all that stuff. When I called her, I thought she could recommend a dude ranch I could run away to, but alas, she did not. The key is to try things until you figure out what works for YOU:
- Listen to YouTube video’s teachings by Pema Chodron or any other spiritual master.
- Listen to Eckhard Tolle. There’s a great webinar with him and Oprah.
- Go get Acupucture – it’s a type of therapy.
- Herbal Medicine (I tried homeopathic salts from Whole Foods for stress)
- Other healing modalities: Astrology, Shiatsu, Reiki, Cranio Sacral Message, Intuitive Counseling (like the psychics I recommended above), Nutritionists, Herbal Healing, and Shamanism
- Spend some quiet time doing nothing
Step 6: Believe that You are Still You at Your Core
Stop Pressuring Yourself on the What and Don’t Judge Yourself. This just has to be a reminder over and over again.
In the month leading up to the “lean in”, I kept pressuring myself to answer “What?”. The wayfinding process seemed slow and tedious, and I wanted to jump to understanding what I should do next with myself, my business and my career. Looking back, I’ve considered over 15 different business ideas, and have declared a new direction 4 or 5 times in the past 3 months as I’ve been wayfinding. Thankfully, I only let myself write and not “do” anything with all of these ideas.
One of the best videos to watch is Simone Sinek’s TED Talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Belma McCaffrey suggested I watch it and ask myself “Why?” 5 times in order to get into my soul and my heart. When I did, ideas bursted onto paper that I could start to organize and seriously consider.
You will know the right opportunity when its presented to you. Remember that life is a marathon. You have a long way to go. If decisions about how to move forward feel impossible, it’s time to focus on the WHY not the HOW.
Ultimately, my new way starting burning in my mind and chest in an exciting way. You’ll start to see the product of my thoughts during this period on this site as well as in TABASCO’s magazine. I have found a new way without letting the pendulum swing too far or drastically in a different direction. I’m not working at Trader Joes; I am maintaining my consulting business, but moving forward with only the skills and activities I enjoy doing. Two months ago I was going to give up on consulting altogether to be normal and just get a job. I’ve now come to my senses.
Want to talk to me about your burnout? I’d love to hear from you. Here’s my calendar.