The Slow Burn(out)… part 1

How did I get here?  How did I go from being vibrant and driven and passionate about this work to an overwhelmed, frustrated, joyless person?

I know some of the answers to this question, and yet, I feel like I know nothing.  I can hear the statements that people have said to me in the past few years and how those statements have become mantras that I use when I teach and train others, yet somewhere along the way I quit actually hearing them or listening to them for myself.

“Your ‘yes’ to one thing is a ‘no’ to something else. Think carefully before you say ‘yes’.”

I have preached this over and over, yet I have continued to say yes to things that I shouldn’t have.  Because I’m afraid they won’t get done.  Because I know that I am capable to doing them and doing them with excellence. Because I don’t want to let down the person who asked me.  Because I feel obligated. Or because I can’t stand the idea of not meeting the expectations of others – because I have always met and exceeded expectations, and I don’t know how to not do so.

“Our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses overused.”

I’ve probably said this one so many times that people started to think it was my motto.  Sadly, I quit hearing it somehow.  I have been quick to pull it out of my toolbag and use it in coaching sessions with clients.  It is absolutely true!  Sadly, it’s true for me, too!  So when my top five strengths include Achiever and Analysis and Strategy… yes, that combo can be deadly if I’m not careful. And I haven’t been careful.  I have let those strengths run rampant, like a horse with no reins. That, on top of my personality bent for perfection and improvement and excellence… it was a perfect storm just waiting to happen.

I think about the teaching of one of my mentors, how he so carefully has explained to me on several occasions about Jesus’ life and teachings and how even HE had specific people and relationships that were of high focus for him.  He spent more time with God and with his closest friends and family, and less time with ‘the masses’.  Even HE pulled away for times of renewal and rest.  And yet, I have continually allowed that to flip-flop in my life, and I have spent more time and energy on pleasing the masses and worrying about the results and expectations of people whom I barely know.  I have worried about finances and goals and to-do lists and making sure that it all gets done and everyone is happy.  And sadly, I have spent less and less time in renewal and rest, on friends and family and relationships and God.

So, that brings me to the spiral.  It was slow. So slow that I didn’t really see it. I felt it subconsciously, but didn’t see it. My body completely knew what was going on.  Have you ever heard the adage that “the body never lies”?  There’s another one – “The body keeps the score.” Even though I was working 6 days a week and going 100 miles a minute and wearing 15 hats and juggling 25 plates, doing it all while I hosted people in my home and attempted to look like some deranged Martha Stewart / Rachel Ray / Brene Brown mix, my body was quietly putting up the tally marks. I was doing a good job on the outside, but I was slowly paying the price.  So slowly that I didn’t realize it.

Sometime back in the Fall of last year, 2016, I started feeling less than joyful.  Less than passionate.  Well, to be honest, I either felt all or nothing.  I was either void of passion for my work and just going through the motions, or I was so passionate that I wanted to scream because no one else cared enough. And on those days, the days when I was overly emotional and ‘passionate’, I was ready to quit.  Not quit and go home to Texas, but quit banging my head against whatever was in the way.  At times that was the church, at other times it was the mission agency, at other times it was just life in general.  I felt like I was expending so much energy and time and seeing very little return on that investment.  I felt like I cared more than anyone else, and I was so done with being the only one who cared.  I was feeling like I saw no results for loads of output.  I have had a lot of days when I looked at God and said, “Why? Why did you send me here? Am I not doing what you wanted from me? If so, why does it feel so awful?”

Those were the bad days.  On the good days (if you can call them that), I was feeling confused.  It was my Analysis strength kicking in, trying to figure it all out.  I just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with me.  I do feel like I am exactly where God wants me and has called me.  I do feel like I make a difference (on my good days, I feel that). I do know that I am working within my strengths and my personality and my giftings.  I’m teaching, I’m administrating, I’m leading, I have lots of opportunity to do lots of things in my sweet spot of my unique design.  So why do I feel nothing??? Why do I feel flat and joyless and overwhelmed and confused?

I can remember specific conversations with one of my coaches and a few of my peers regarding these exact questions. I talked to my husband, Billy, about it a thousand times.  No one could ever put their finger on it.  So I just continued to feel odd and out of sorts and overwhelmed and confused.

There were physical symptoms, for sure.  Once the body had put up enough tally marks, it began to play it’s hand.  Randomly weird excessive weight gain.  Odd sleep habits. No response to extreme diet restrictions. And the worst was when I started having memory lapses, when I could no longer multitask even the simplest of things, and when I started mixing up languages or stalling during sentences.  It was like I just couldn’t think, and I was terrified!  I went to the doctor and had lots of tests run, to which they found absolutely nothing wrong with me. Nothing.  Possibly some early menopause symptoms, but nothing else.  Nothing that would show a cancer or tumor or heart issues or stroke or thyroid trouble or diabetes or any of the gazillion things I was fearing.  The only recommendation was that my metabolism may be a little wacky… “eat healthy and exercise more; otherwise, you look like a normal 50 year old woman.” Thanks.  PS – I don’t do ‘normal’.  I don’t do ‘average’.  I do ‘exceptional’ or ‘outstanding’, but never ‘normal’.  There once was a time when a surgeon told me that upon examination, I was ‘unremarkable’.  I was appalled!!!  I have NEVER been ‘unremarkable’!  He then explained that was a good thing… unremarkable means there was nothing ‘wrong’ with me and that surgery was not necessary.  I think he needs to find other terminology!  Unremarkable is no way to talk about people!  But I digress…

Things continued following the same route.  Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, I just couldn’t shake it.  Then, in a conversation with my Billy, he said, “Are you sure you aren’t depressed?  This seems something like depression to me.”  And it hit me… no, I’m not depressed. The symptoms aren’t quite right and it doesn’t quite fit.  But burnout?… that’s it!

I immediately pulled out the research and all the articles on burnout and showed my husband.  I hit every single marker except one.  EVERY SINGLE MARKER!  In fact, every comment or quote about feelings and emotions and thought processes that people suffering from burnout say and feel, I had literally said within the past two days.  EVERY ONE! My eyes filled up, as did his.  We knew we had finally landed on what was wrong.  We also knew from our training that this was big, and coming out of it was going to be even bigger.

“I had the sense that my essential self, my best self, was slipping away, and the new person in her place was someone I very much didn’t want to be.  She was shaped out of necessity – tough and focused enough to bear the weight of my work life, when the real me, tender and whimsical, would have crumpled under the weight.”
~Shauna Niequist   Present Over Perfect

Today, almost three weeks have passed since we finally named it.  My boss has been told, mostly because recovery is going to mean saying a lot of ‘no’ to a lot of things and she needed to know that.  And my local team knows because I’ve had to pull back from some things. I’m meeting with my psychotherapist, who specializes in working with people in our line of work.  She’s being pretty strict and straight forward with me about what I can and cannot do right now.  And she has literally prescribed actions (and inactions) for me to begin this process of recovery.  She’s so cute… she actually wanted to write it out on her prescription pad for me so I could show it to people so I don’t get flack.  I told her I have good people around me who don’t need to see a prescription to know that I’m telling the truth.

Billy is my rock and my shield right now.  He has already had to be a tough disciplinarian and keep me grounded and remind me that I cannot do things.  He has helped me clear my calendar and prioritize what is allowed to stay and what has to go during this season.  And a few things must stay that shouldn’t, but he is helping me to cope with those in healthy ways and work through them. He shields me when he sees that something is becoming too stressful, or when someone is asking me for something that I can’t or shouldn’t do.  And he protects me from myself, A LOT, because the truth is that I am my own worst enemy – my superwoman syndrome takes over and I think I’m all better and I can handle it and I can take on the world.  He gently drags me back to reality and reminds me that my therapist was painfully honest and strict… this is, on average, a 4-6 month journey to recovery that is going to take very serious rest and recalibration and retraining of my mind and body. *sigh*

I don’t like that.  I don’t like it because I don’t know how to do it.  I don’t understand rest.  I don’t know how to recalibrate.  I feel useless and worthless and helpless.  I just want to be productive and efficient and helpful.  My life is about service and loving others.  I’m having a tough time with saying no and being told no.  Let the pouting and frowning begin.  I’m an awful patient, ask my family! I don’t like this season. Not one bit. And that sweet talking doll of a therapist told me that I would feel like this – because I’ve become an adrenaline junkie and my body has been wired so high for so long.  And withdrawal stinks. (How can she be so sweet and such a darling and say such tough things to me?!  It completely throws me off guard. She just called me an addict!)  Anyway… it is what it is and I have to deal with this season.

“The more I listen to myself, my body, my feelings, and the less I listen to the ‘should’ and ‘must’ and ‘to-do’ voices, the more I realize my body and spirit have been whispering all along, but I couldn’t hear them over the chaos and noise of the life I’d created.  I was addicted to this chaos, but like any addiction, it was damaging me.” 
~Shauna Niequist  Present Over Perfect

That’s where we are.  It’s going to take time – 4-6 months at least.  It’s going to be a process.  I’m not quitting my job or my life here.  I have stepped back from a few things.  I have delegated a few more.  I’m doing some things a little differently for a while.  I’m still involved in the local work here, and our team has been exceptionally wonderful at telling me to step away for a bit and let them pick up the pieces during this season.  I remain committed to the coaching work and to leadership positions in the agency, but am working a more limited schedule for this season. Doctor’s orders. I’m only doing one or two work agenda items per day, and seriously limiting multitasking and the hours I work in a week.  If we must travel or work doing hosting (both are 24 hour a day stressors), I am mandated to take several days off afterward to recoup.  Not easy for me!  Since the bulk of the communications and newsletter and thank you notes falls on me, we are going to drop down to sending a newsletter every other month this year instead of once a month, and partner communications / thank yous will probably back down a bit, too.  Our upcoming furlough / home assignment will look different than in the past, with a pretty strict diet of rest and peace, family and play, and very specific days of meetings and speaking and ‘work’.  I don’t like it and it’s not optimal for speaking engagements,  meetings and fundraising and partnership development, but it’s necessary for my health…we either have a strict schedule of rest and peace and low-stress, or we cancel our trip home completely to avoid the high stress that furlough usually brings.  I don’t want to cancel, so we’ll have to go with strict.

“I think that every once in a while, we reach the end of being of our highest service. At that point, it’s time to pull back. It’s appropriate to give ourselves some space to be in our lives and to dream.
I know that I want to continue to be of high service for a long time to come. So right now, it’s time for me to step away and go to be in my life. It’s time for me to fill my own cup, so that I can offer healing and sustenance again. I have to give to myself for a short while, so that I may continue to give to others.”
~Christy Tending   Self Care and Sacred Rituals for World-changers

I don’t really know how to end this entry, I think because it’s not an ending.  It’s actually not the end or the beginning, but somewhere along the journey. And I think I like that idea, because most good things happen ‘along the way’ – not at the beginning, nor at the destination, but in the middle somewhere; the in-between. So join me in a toast:  here’s to ‘the in-between’ and the journey. Here’s to renewal and recalibrating and finding a new rhythm and pattern, a way forward that is healthy and restorative.   Salud!

*part 2 of my burnout journey