The concept of ‘burnout’ from overwork or stress seemed like a foreign and unlikely prospect when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. Like so many careerists and over-achievers with big plans, I had set myself some lofty goals and was determined to realize them – and when you’re young and driven it simply doesn’t occur to you that there might be a physical or emotional toll to all that ambition and achievement.
I guess I felt invincible!
I just kept on drawing from what I thought was a bottomless wellspring of energy and motivation, pushing myself to go further and faster.
Eventually, at the height of my television career, I was travelling on assignments for up to 3 weeks out of every month and working almost 7 days a week in some capacity or another – as presenter, director, voice-over artist, editor, scriptwriter or MC. In fact, I recall times when I was expected to be almost all those things at once!
And when you work on a weekly TV show, you’re constantly chased by deadlines, deadlines and more deadlines! Some days I would find myself dashing off to record studio links to camera immediately after disembarking from an international long-haul flight (sleep deprived, puffy and feeling terribly disorientated). Buoyed up by chutzpah, caffeine and a stoic ‘the show must go on’ mantra, I was too much of a professional (and perfectionist) to allow mere jet-lag to get in the way of delivering an all-out performance.
Until I discovered, quite ironically, that an excessively healthy work ethic can be dangerously unhealthy.
Because if you don’t schedule the time – and find the means – to idle in between all those high revs, you will inevitably burn the ‘engine’ out.
Seems obvious, right?
But by the time I figured this out, some irreversible damage had already been done.
As I mentioned in a previous post, we never really know what our limitations are until we reach them. And while I don’t regret pushing myself to grow and be the best I could be, I do wish that I had the good sense to slow down once in a while. Perhaps then I might have better heeded the warning signs:
- Erratic Sleep or Insomnia
- Emotional Withdrawal or Detachment
These are all just some of the symptoms of burnout. What’s more, it’s such an insidious thing. It doesn’t just ‘happen’ to you overnight. It slowly leeches you until one day you wake up feeling utterly spent! It’s a dreadful, rock bottom kind of feeling that doesn’t just leave you feeling drained of all energy but also like you’ve been robbed of some of your life-force or essence – and the capacity for self re-generation.
Left with the charred remains of having gone to ‘hell and back’ without ever remembering taking the trip, I found myself having to devise very conscious ways to halt any further damage to my physical and emotional wellbeing.
This would the first step in a long, slow process of recovery.
The trick, I discovered, is learning how to be still – which is something I couldn’t, or didn’t know how to do for many, many years. I was forced to confront and address what had made me such a restless spirit – and find ways to disengage from the world I had become unhealthily melded to.
And as a first step, this meant getting out of the city – and closer to nature – as often and for as long as possible.
Cities, though incredibly exciting and seductive, can be over stimulating and toxic in large doses. You may think you have enough physical energy and stamina to paint the town, but the mind just isn’t given enough of a chance to rest and regroup. There are just so many urban stressors. Even the little ones tend to add up, until you snap (or feel like you’re about to).
And so, every weekend, I made sure to get as far out of town as possible. Any place and every place where there would be no e-mails, unnecessary phone calls or crowds of people. Some place where I could enjoy a few days of respite from billboards, traffic and noise. Where I wouldn’t have to read about some atrocity committed by one human being against another – taunting me from a lamp post. These grim realities are omnipresent as it is – and because I have a tendency to take it all in I’ve found that it’s advisable to control or limit my ‘exposure’. Perhaps we all should.
So, how do you know if you’re a likely candidate for burnout?
I’ve spoken to many other burnout sufferers and compared their experiences and personality traits to mine – and figured out that, beyond mere ambition, we all have or had the following in common :
- A Strong Work Ethic : We were raised to believe that success comes to people who are prepared to work hard.
- People Pleasers : We were driven to win the approval of others (particularly people we admired) and often put their needs and comforts over our own.
- Perfectionists : We hated doing things in half-measures. It had to be done just right or not at all!
- Control Freaks : We had trouble delegating responsibility, preferring instead to do it ourselves. After a series of disappointments, it became harder and harder to put our faith in someone else actually getting the job done right. These became self-fulfilling prophecies after a while.
- Misplaced Priorities : We were quite happy to put relationships on the back burner while we pursued our careers, particularly the ones who weren’t very successful at personal relationships. They simply threw themselves into their work as means of escape and avoidance – and didn’t know how to throw themselves back out again.
Ring any bells?
Then perhaps it’s time to raise the flag…
Here are just a few tips from a burnout survivor:
- Take the time to still your mind. Purposeful, deep breaths or a chant can help. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath or chant.
- Schedule time in nature, even if it only means going to a park or walking on the beach. The wilderness is our original home and it’s powerfully generative and healing. Whenever I’m having a difficult day or find myself butting up against a frustrating situation, I go for a long walk in the garden or the forest – and afterwards, everything just sort of flows.
- Try to do only or as much of the things that give you pleasure – even if that means saying no to people. You may feel like the bad guy for a while, but saying (a firm but gracious) ‘no’ to having to do something that makes you unhappy or doesn’t feel right is one of the most powerful, self-honouring things you can do. Certain folks may brand you as selfish or try to make you feel guilty about it, but often that’s just them trying to manipulate you and keep you in rank. Don’t allow them to play you!
And while you’re at it, do allow yourself the sweet, simple and highly underrated pleasure of doing absolutely nothing! For someone who could never do that in the past I’ve become rather good at being unproductive when I don’t feel like it….
And let me tell you, it feels bloody marvellous!