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Coming back from burnout

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

“Running on, running on empty Running on, running blind Running on, running into the sun But I’m running behind” – Jackson Browne, “Running on Empty”

Burnout was something I believed myself immune to. It was for people who weren’t as tough as me, for people who couldn’t work as hard as me, and for people who were weaker than me.

Given my mindset, it’s no wonder I burned out repeatedly and that I experienced profound shame each time I was forced to acknowledge it was happening. I fell short of my own standards, primarily because what I demanded from myself was impossible to attain, much less, sustain.

Epiphany: Making responsible choices generally results in a manageable life.

Burnout is generally understood as doing too much for too long. I’ve come to see that it’s never what I do that burns me out. It’s what I don’t do: self-care, coping, letting go, fulfilling responsibilities to myself, relaxation, fun, and most of all, seeking reciprocity in my relationships.

I wish I could tell you that I valued myself enough to make serious changes and avoid further burn out. The truth is I simply got sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s when I change. I remain a slow learner with a high pain tolerance. Only when something brings me to my knees do I adjust.

My friends in 12 step fellowships remind me that I can go to my knees voluntarily and spare myself a lot of unnecessary pain. I used to be ten feet tall and bullet proof. Today I am old and tired, but I have the wisdom of one who has fought great battles… with himself.

Surrendering to my HP humbles me. My plans don’t work. My Higher Power’s do. My view of self is not valid. My HP’s is. My expectations and demands often do not align with my HP’s.

The first time I burned out, I bitterly asked my wife, “Why is it that everyone who knows me believes I can move mountains single-handedly? She laughed wickedly and countered, “Have you met you? That’s what you do!”

Epiphany: I teach people what to expect of me.

Epiphany: I maintained very low expectations of others in my life because I was avoiding disappointment

Epiphany: Over achieving was a way of proving my worth.

There are countless pitfalls in having mile high expectations of self. You’re never satisfied. You always want to do more (be more). You rob yourself of opportunities to build confidence and faith in yourself. You’re always moving on to the next thing and never content.

The first few times I burned out, I took a week off and went back to exactly the lifestyle that burned me out. Each time I told myself to work harder and push past it. Each time I failed.

At last I took the advice of those who had far more compassion for me than I did. I accepted challenges like this one:

Make two lists – the first list is the people, situations, and activities that drain you – deplete your energy, suck the life out of you. That list is easy and fast to write. The second list is the people, situations and activities that have the opposite effect – make feel like you’re taking a breath of fresh air. Most relationships will end up on both lists, that’s ok. The question becomes how much can you limit or decrease the first list and are you doing the things on the second one?

I’ve gotten good at delegating – doing more of what I love and less of things that drain me. I’ve gotten good at taking time for myself – both in vacations and self-care time weekly. I schedule these long before I feel drained. In the past I felt guilty taking time away because I overestimated the importance of my efforts in the lives of others

Epiphany: I do significantly better work when I am rested.

I’ve gotten good at saying no without explaining. I’ve gotten good at a lot of things out of necessity, but the most important piece to coming back from burnout was that I learned to value myself. The worth that I have is far greater than the worth I was taught I had.

Unhealthy lessons were ingrained. Much later in life they were drawn out, examined, and replaced. If I can do it, you can too.

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