Let’s talk about no

Let’s talk about no.  It’s such a little thing.  Two letters – n and o.  Yet I have lived for too many years in fear and trembling of putting those two letters together and saying them out loud. Okay… maybe I said them a lot when I was parenting little people, but I haven’t said them much when I’ve been out there in the big blue world.

Why?  What is there to be afraid of?

There are so many answers to that, I couldn’t even begin to write them all in this little blog!  I’m working through them.  It’s a process.

There is actually some science to it, a lot of research to it, and a lot of serious identity lies and junk involved.  And I have a LOT of the big psychological markers – I’m a first-born child, I’m a female, my personality tends toward achievement and perfectionism… we could go on and on here.  I hate to disappoint people.  I can’t stand conflict.  I am highly capable and highly responsible to a fault. I thrive on challenge and proving that I can do it. I never learned how to fail.  “Quitters never win and winners never quit” and “Second place is first loser” and “Why did you get a 95 on the test?  What did you do wrong?” are all things I have carried in my heart.  There’s a lot of systemic junk here.  The point is, I have to learn to manage who I am and my history and my circumstances or it’s going to kill me.  It’s all manageable, but I have to be willing to learn and grow. And, to an extent, I have to learn to swim upstream and say no to things that our culture values.  Our culture values efficiency and effectiveness.  It values hard work. It values high achievement and people who readily take on challenges.  It values return on investment. It values people who push through, who work harder and longer and say yes to more work.

But here’s the thing… every time you say yes to something, you say no to something else.  Maybe not out loud, but it is how the formula works.  It’s an equation.

Yes + a = No + b

Therefore, “yes, I’ll write that article for your publication” = “no, I don’t have time to go to coffee with my friend today”.

“Yes, I can do a 7pm meeting” =  “no, I can’t make dinner or be home with the family”.

In my head, I have always known this truth.  But.  There’s always a But. But, I haven’t been so good at heeding my own warning.  But, I don’t practice what I preach. But, I still have lived a life of saying yes to lots of things, too many things.  And, in the process, saying no to lots of things I really love, too.

I’ve said yes to writing a thousand articles for various people, and I’ve said no to being with friends who I love dearly.

I’ve said yes to teaching seminars and classes and study groups, and I’ve said no to family time.

I’ve said yes to writing curriculum and leading workshops and running meetings, and I’ve said no to my own physical and mental health.

My yes to one thing has been a no to another. And now, see where I am?  Burned out and unhealthy both physically and emotionally, and fighting to recover and rebuild my life and reshape my identity. I have been the queen of burning the candle at both ends, and I never really thought about where that scenario ends – it ends with a puddle of melted wax and nothing left to burn.

It’s not that any of the things I said yes to are bad.  Heavens no!  In fact, they have been things I love to do.  They are things that I am gifted at doing.  They are things that usually give me lots of joy.  But just like cake in and of itself is not a bad thing, I shouldn’t eat an entire cake!  A cookie after dinner is probably not going to kill me, but eating an entire box of Girl Scout Thin Mints is not a good thing.   Same with my love of teaching and writing and leading… any of those things on my agenda can bring great joy and life to me.  It was when I overindulged on them that I became joyless and began to burnout.

I’ve been living by a very ‘church cultural norm’ that tells us to give and sacrifice, give yourself away, give more and more, because you can’t ever out-give God and all that he’s done for you.  I’ve been living a life of sacrificial giving. People even use language that says, “I think we (ministry workers) should keep giving and keep serving until we’re all used up.  If we give it all we’ve got and die in His service, then that’s a good way to go.” This was actually said to me a couple of weeks ago.  Okay, I get it, and it makes sense, sort of.  But, I don’t think that God asked me to give and sacrifice to the point of neglecting my family or not having time for relationships or being so frazzled that I’m biting people’s heads off, because somehow that is not ‘love my neighbor as I love myself’.  I don’t think he asked my pastor to neglect his wife and spend every waking hour at the church.  I don’t think He wanted me to do so much for so long that I actually damaged my cognitive processing in my brain and could no longer form a complete sentence without blanking out!  We’ll talk about the biblical principles here another day, because this has also been a time of some deep study and searching for me.  But let’s stop laying our cultural filter on to our church filter and telling people that they need to give more and sacrifice more… just stop.

Now I am in a season of learning.  Learning to dial it back.  Learning to say no. Learning what my capacity is and what healthy rhythms are and exactly how much I can carry.  It’s a process of ‘right-sizing my life’, as Shauna Niequist calls it.

It reminds me of backpacking, actually.  I’m 5’1”. To backpack well and be able to withstand the pack and have the endurance I need, my body is only supposed to carry a certain amount of weight.  So, when I get ready to go out, I have to carefully fill my pack and distribute the weight.  I have to account for the weight of the pack itself, the weight of the water bottles I’m carrying, and the contents of the pack – my sleeping bag, my clothes, my gear, etc. Now, I can act like some deranged superwoman and overstuff my pack and exceed the weight calculations for my body, but it is going to play out poorly down the trail, trust me!  I’ve been there!  A too full, poorly distributed pack will eventually break you down.  The body WILL keep score!  Your knees will pay, your back will pay, your shoulders and neck will pay.  Then the attitude.  Then the relationships with others.  I’m not kidding.  It gets ugly when your pack isn’t right and you try to carry too much.  And it ends in exhaustion and depletion and brokenness.

This season of no is not easy for me.  It’s a time of wrestling with decisions over what to keep and what to let go.  I’m having to fight a lot of guilt. I’m having to learn to accept help.  I’m having to say no to some teaching and some writing that I really love to do.  I’m saying no to some travel and some visits that I would like to be able to do. But this is not a season for yes.  Because I need to say a lot of no so I can rest.  I need to rebuild my life. I need to learn some healthy rhythms.  I need to say a lot of no so I can recover my physical and mental health. I need to say no so I can get back some joy.

Saying no is still not intuitive to me.  Yes is my default, and I need to learn to reset and reboot and think through my decisions before I say yes.  Because my yes will mean no to someone or something else.

In this season, I’m saying yes to rest and recovery and getting my life back.

*This is part 4 of a series on my burnout recovery.  Go to The Slow Burn(out) to read from the beginning of the series.

A Good Week (and Foreboding Joy) – part 3

I don’t want to jinx it (I don’t think I even believe in that, you know…), but I had a really good week last week, the first ‘good week’ in months.   And that’s VERY good timing because I’m getting a little worried about an upcoming trip my husband is taking for work and my own emotional state of being at this time – am I ready to be at home alone?  So having a good week is a very good thing right now! Empowering. It almost feels like maybe I turned some sort of proverbial corner.

And yet…

Brene Brown talks about foreboding joy, “Joy can feel like a setup.  We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Oh $*#@! This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking around the corner. Our first thought is Too good to be true. What’s the catch?

It’s the ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ idea.  Yes, I had a really good week.  And yes, I’m terrified that it was a fluke and it won’t last.

What constitutes a good week nowadays?  Well, I didn’t have any crying breakdowns. I didn’t have to be rescued from any conversations or group dynamics where my brain just quit working. I didn’t have any days where my stress level seemed out of control or when I felt the anxiety creeping up my shoulders and in to my head.  A ‘good week’ started with a life-giving soul-restoring day at the beach. A good week looked like days that had elements of tasks accomplished, time connecting with friends and family, time to rest, and even time for creativity.  There was a day or two that probably held a little more activity and brain-work than I should have allowed at this time, but the good part is that I recognized that and dealt with it.  I dialed it back, which has definitely NOT been the case in the past.  And, at one point, I even asked myself if I was feeling good because I was doing too much and therefore the adrenaline was kicking in = my drug of choice nowadays.  I was able to evaluate and reflect and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

I, by no means, think that because I had a good week then I must be all better or healed.  HA! Not by a long shot.  This is a marathon, not a sprint. I had a good week. Period. Just like a week sober is a great thing, but by no means makes you ‘clean’ and healed. And the signs are still there that prove to me that I have a long way to go. Just yesterday, after facilitating a very intense class with very controversial themes, taught in my second language, with some extremely passionate voices at the table literally yelling their opinions at each other… I managed it and felt like I was ‘on’ and back in my teaching and facilitating groove. But the second the class was over, so was I.  I was toast. My brain was done and it just shut down.  And that was that for yesterday.  One good hour of class was all I was capable of.  The rest of the day was necessary recovery time for the physical and mental exhaustion that one passionate hour of discussion created in me.  The one hour felt great – it was great to be in my element and in my groove. But the energy output that one hour took was enormous.

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Much like my time on the Camino, I’m learning that every day is a new day and every day holds its own challenges, its own hurdles to overcome and its own decisions to be encountered. There are good days and there are tough days, there are days when I feel like I got a long way, and days when I just can’t keep going and have to rest.  The trick is learning to listen to my own mind and my own body and know when to stop and fill my cup.

This is Part Three of a series on my burnout recovery journey to read more:
Part One – The Slow Burn(out)
Part Two – Two Steps forward, One step back

Two steps forward, one step back (is this Two-Steppin’?)… part 2

How am I doing? Where is this burnout and healing process going?  Well, I don’t really know.

Almost two months ago, we came to the realization that I was in a pretty major slump.  Actually, slump doesn’t quite describe the emotions and the physical symptoms that came crashing in on me. I knew things weren’t good.  But I don’t think I realized how truly ‘not good’ they were.

Burnout for me has been ugly.  It has been a time of so many mixed emotions and actions that I can’t keep up.  I have my days.  Days when I feel like I’m doing better and I’m making healthy decisions about stress and work and stress levels.  Then I have days when I feel crazy waves of anxiety for what appears to be no good reason at all.  Days when I suddenly feel like I’ve forgotten to do something important, when my whole body tenses up and I start going through the mental list and calendar and trying to figure out what I’ve missed or what I should have done today.  Then I’ll process that and get that back in check, and have another good day.  And then I’ll get blind-sided by a conversation that makes my brain completely short circuit and shut down, or I won’t be able to find the words that I’m trying to say because it feels like everything around me is going triple speed and my head is on double-slow-mo.

Yesterday was one of those days.  I had a great morning!  The sun was out.  The birds were singing.  The house was clean.  I cut fresh flowers for the table and cooked a yummy breakfast casserole to share with our friends who were coming for a little bible study time.  We laughed.  We had coffee. We looked at our study together.  It seemed like all was right with the world.  And then, somewhere between Nehemiah and the orange juice and colored pens, my eyes just glazed over and my mind shut down.  I was somewhere else, but where?  I couldn’t tell you.  I didn’t even realize it had happened.  I just zoned out. My husband saw it.  And my best friend saw it.  They’re both really good at reading faces and body language and they both realized at the same time that something was off.

I hate that. I hate that it happened.  I hate that all the beauty and fun of the morning just stopped, and suddenly people were focused on me and if I was okay.  Please… anything else… anything!  But don’t look at me like I’m broken.  I can’t take it!

We talked about it and I shrugged it off and covered it up.  For a while.  Until my afternoon walk-and-talk with Hubby.  It’s one of our daily rhythms right now.  We take a 5k walk and we talk and process through things together.  He wanted to talk about the morning and what happened and how to help.  What triggered the shut down?  What feelings was I having?  What do we need to do differently?  And in all of that, I felt a sudden wave of fear.  Fear that I don’t know why it happened.  Fear that I don’t know what to do differently next time.  Fear that I don’t know how long this recovery process is going to take.  Fear that people around me are looking at me and thinking that I’m broken or unintelligent or mentally ill.  Fear that Hubby won’t always be there to notice that I’ve shut down, that he can’t always rescue me from the situation.  Fear. Loss of control. Loss of competence. With the fear and the loss come the tears.

I’ve always been the one who had it all together.  The smart one.  The one who was two steps ahead of the game.  The strategic one.  The one who could troubleshoot anything and figure it all out.  The one who wasn’t fazed by crisis. The steady one.  The leader.  .  A strong, determined, independent, confident woman who could take on the world at any given moment. Now I feel like none of those things.  Who am I now?

On some days, I feel like I’m making steps forward.  I notice when my stress level goes up. I notice when I need a break.  I pay attention to my inner voice and the lies that I tell myself.  On some days, I think I’m getting better and I feel good about it.

Yesterday wasn’t one of those days.

So, two months in.  Feels a lot like two steps forward and one step back.  Some days feel like going back to square one. And some days feel great and I feel ‘like myself’ again.  My days are like waves and I never know if the sea is going to be gentle and calm, or roll over me with emotions I didn’t see coming.

What I would give to feel 100% like me again… where is that girl who can do just about anything, do it at the drop of a hat, and do it with excellence? I really wish she’d come home…

*part 1 The Slow Burn(out)

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