Rising Like a Phoenix from the Fires of Burnout

To quote an excellent article by Licenced Clinical Social Worker Mark Gorkin: “Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give”. Sound familiar? Well, I for one can certainly relate to this and I’ve decided to write about it because I feel that it is something we all need to be aware of.

Especially in the run-up to and during the holiday period, we all put ourselves under an inordinate amount of pressure to perform – to get the perfect presents, to be the perfect host and to make people happy. It is during these times that we need to be particularly vigilant and, wherever possible, take time out for ourselves because if we don’t we may have the lifeblood sucked out of us and become totally incapacitated (burnout and the people and things that cause it are veritable vampires!). I was recently emailing with a good friend who also suffers from chronic illness and felt that the following quote from one of her mails is particularly apt: “I like being in control of my emotions. This is scary. I love Christmas, but H is still used to being a bachelor, and likes to wait till the last minute to get everything bought. I would have been close to being done by now. Christmas is on the 24th here. YIKES!!!! We did some shopping today. This is my first time sitting down all day long. I have to go to bed soon, as I have to get up at 5 am because, after 3 long weeks of vicious meltdowns, M is going back to school tomorrow!! His bus comes between 5:55 am and 6:00 am, yes, there is a glitch!!”

As for me, I believe that one of my first burnout experiences was when I was 16 and working as an au pair near Frankfurt in Germany. The family were bloody awful and the kids were more than fucked up. The 5-year-old was still pooing his pants and his psychiatrist mother would threaten him every time that if he carried on with this practice, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to “big school”. For the rest of the day, as punishment he had to go around without his underwear and I would worry about him burning his bits when he stood up at the table and was eating soup. He was also prone to kicking and swearing (which is how I learned the lovely German word Schweinekuh, which is a cross between a pig and a cow – quite an amazing animal by all accounts). I forget what the 7-year-old did (I think he might have been a kicker too), but the 8-year-old was already in therapy. How the hell is any 16-year-old supposed to deal with three brats like that? But, being the determined person I am, I refused to give up and really tried my best. To make matters worse, the mother was a spoilt bitch who treated me like her servant.

The situation had me flummoxed and, as is often the case when something goes wrong, the buck was passed to me and I was given the blame. Looking back, I remember how I even got a rash because of the stress. It is often the case that stress can manifest itself physically too and prolonged burnout can lead to adrenal fatigue, cardiovascular complications, high blood pressure and even premature heart attacks – basically all the symptoms that go hand in hand with stress. Such symptoms happen for a reason because our body is warning us that we are going too far. As E, my friend and colleague, describes her burnout experience: “I went home and immediately got extreme back pains which prostrated me. Talk about a signal! Psychosomatic cause and effect. It was burnout and no doubt I had aided and abetted it, although there had to be the conditions to bring it on”.

My next experience of burnout was when I was 18 and had just started my studies at the University of Bath. One of my friends was an extremely talented and pretty girl named L. She impressed me with her ability to imitate Schwyzerdütsch, the Swiss German dialect. However, she suffered from terrible self-loathing and, as a result, bulimia and wrist-slitting. Ultimately, this ended in her taking an overdose and being “sectioned” or compulsorily admitted to hospital. I was gutted and worried and just couldn’t cope with life anymore. I guess it was too much of an emotional blow that I simply didn’t know how to deal with. As a result, I was sent to the University’s medical centre and given counselling and not really allowed out of bed for a week or more. I remember that feeling of helplessness and how I abhorred it, but looking back I also know that this arose from my desperate desire to help my friend and my false belief that if I only tried hard enough I would succeed in doing so. I’m not sure where L ended up because we lost touch, but wherever she is I do so hope she is well and happy today.

That was not the last time I suffered from burnout though. As a person, I am quite the perfectionist and expect a lot of myself. I am perhaps too eager to please others and sometimes forget my own needs. A few years after the incident with L, fresh out of university I moved to Germany and started a traineeship at a company near Cologne. Looking back, I was bullied and humiliated because as a trainee here you really are the lowest of the low and some people like to take advantage of your role as general dog’s body. They enjoyed playing the hierarchy game where I worked and whilst one of my so-called “superiors” was as thick as two short planks she enjoyed patronising me and doubting my English skills because I think that I made her feel inferior. This turned her against me and she told lies about me to the CEO with whom she was philandering at the time (my boyfriend at the time and I embarrassingly bumped into her and my boss snogging at the cinema). It got to the point where I was afraid to come to work and would make up excuses about being ill.

Ultimately, I left by mutual agreement, but it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me because it was this event in my life that resulted in me becoming a freelancer. A few years later, I bumped into one of the CEO’s assistants at a party and he actually apologised to me. It made me feel absolved in a way because I think there had always been a little part of myself that had blamed myself for everything going wrong. At the time, I had been desperate for everything to go right so that after my traineeship I would get a job at this company – I mistakenly thought I had no other options and was ready to put up with this torture if it meant that I could preserve my future career. We really do put up with a lot when we are desperate. E, a former hospice coordinator, went through a similar experience: “My problem was that although I didn’t expect much and had low expectations for success due to my past experiences, I was willing to do anything to move this project forward. I put up with it”. I think that burnout is also a result of self-doubt. We underestimate ourselves and what we are capable of and so we are prepared to make do in a futile effort to prove ourselves. Of course, sometimes we also overestimate ourselves, which can lead to the same outcome.

Both in my personal and professional life, I think I can probably describe myself as a very accommodating person. I am used to people asking me for help and I am also used to proofreading or translating friends’ documents for free. I learned a long time ago, however, that you do have to set limits and you should only do this for your closest friends – based on your own schedule and availability. I still remember how one friend bitched me out for taking over a week to look over his stuff, which frankly I think was a bloody cheek because some weeks I work like a dog day and night – that is how it sometimes is as a freelancer – feast or famine.

Freelancer L describes it thus: “Obviously, it’s a hard lesson to learn but an important one. Still though, it’s hard to do when you work for yourself, as you well know, as you alone are responsible to get the work done and have nobody to fall back on when the workload is overwhelming and some days you can’t get out of bed. I found meditation to be really helpful … I think it kept me from totally losing it. I remember the stress getting so bad, which really only makes it harder to work and just 20 minutes of meditation would get me through it often, although many days I was still not able to push through the day. But the meditation was a great tool for me and it empowered me by giving me some control over a bad situation. Before the meditation, I was losing a lot more than 20 minutes from getting stressed out, so taking 20 minutes once or twice a day saved precious time. When I look back now, it’s hard to believe I pushed through it like I did because, besides the exhaustion, the nerve pain was excruciating, and I would have told anyone else they were crazy. It amazes me I was able to push myself that far, but I kept thinking I would get a handle on everything before long. It did seem to creep up on me though and before I knew it everything was out of control”.

From a personal standpoint, my experience with L when I was at university has taught me that whilst I can be there for people, I do need to be careful not to get too sucked in by their problems and ensure that I retain a sense of self – as I said before, if I don’t I won’t be of any use to anyone, myself included. I think people such as I who are eager to please and be accommodating, as well as those with perfectionist traits, are at particular risk of burnout and we need to learn to listen to how we are feeling – both physically and mentally – and force ourselves to slow down and get support when needed. I don’t like conflicts and never have, but sometimes you have to stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings and tell people how you really feel – besides there are tactful ways to do this too. It is tough at times when you are used to being supportive to some friends and don’t feel as if they are giving you support when you need it. These days, I tend to distance myself from such people as I know I deserve better.

Former hospice coordinator E talks about the importance of not forgetting your own needs: “I had put myself behind the needs of the people and organisation; they were more important than I was. At some point though, I finally asked the question: ‘But what about me?’. It was almost a revelation, seeing what I had put myself through and for what? I was not the indispensible person I thought I was. Your own needs can’t be at the bottom of the totem pole, for whatever reasons”.

E goes on to say that certain personalities are more prone to burnout: “Helping profession workers are often prone to burnout. Because of their personality, they can be taken advantage of and thus become the ‘helpless helper’. You need to take a step back and tell yourself that you are dispensable. It is typical that my brother is a minister and I am a social worker. Coming from a dysfunctional family, we tried to make good on that and be good people … but ultimately, it’s important to find balance – with the decision I made to leave the hospice, I learned a tremendous amount about myself as I told myself I can’t go on feeling this way”.

It’s interesting to know what other people’s strategies are for dealing with burnout. S, a stay-at-home mom, is “the primary parent, taking care of everyone, always trying to present the perfect outcome for everything. Much like a person with their job or career”. Sadly, many housewives and mothers are underestimated, but these days society often expects women to play multiple roles and some are both career women, housewives and mothers. So how does S deal with such situations? “Defeated and despairing, I’m interested in learning how others cope. I try to recognise it then connect with nature and calm down. When I do sense the despair and emptiness creeping in, I try to combat it with poetry, something I left a long time ago and recently picked up to remedy this hollowness. It has done wonders. I also go to the woods or take in natural beauty to regroup my mind, fill it with vivid images. I endeavour to fill the draining energy with life energy and stimulation”.

If you ask me, S is doing a bloody good job of dealing with this burnout and yet she too has self-doubts: “I do feel very inferior to the rest of the world out there. When I observe women doing it all, I wonder how can I ever succeed? I do know that the job is not the whole picture and balance is the object in all areas of life. Still, it is so hard with thyroid issues”.

To continue with the topic of society’s expectations of today’s women, I have with past boyfriends felt the pressure to look good, perform well at work and be the perfect, supportive girlfriend, as well as a fantastic cook, but that doesn’t work for long if you have a boyfriend who expects this of you. So many relationships seem to be characterised by one or the other partner refusing to “like you just the way you are” – to reference a scene from Bridget Jones (where Bridget is talking with her friend about potential beau Mark Darcy):
Jude: Just as you are? Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?
Bridget: No.
Shazzer: Well, fuck me.
Tom: This is someone you hate right?
Bridget: Yes, yes, I hate him.

Life in general seems to be more stressful these days. As E puts it: “You slip into burnout … think you can keep up with situations, but our lives are so fast and everything switches so quickly (e.g. work deadlines) at a speed we’ve never really been able to adapt to. We are expected to perform and function instantaneously, but our bodies, minds, hearts and souls don’t work that way and we are so different in the way we function to people 100 – 200 years ago”.

My friend B whose writing skills I have always admired – she truly has a way with words – described burnout as follows:
“Here is my not too long thought on overextending yourself: the trickiest part of these diseases is that they are sort of like a sunburn when it comes to exhaustion. You think you are fine and have taken proper precautions. And then, it sneaks up on you. Did your sunscreen wear off? Did you even remember to apply it? By the time you have realised, exhaustion has crept up on you, much like a sunburn and it is too late. Pink turns to red; tired turns to zombie. There is nothing you can do to stop it from overtaking you and making your whole body hurt. You just have to wait it out and hope whatever protection you have used prevents any further damage. Eventually, things fall back to ‘normal’ and you are thankful. Part of the cycle is that in feeling better you tend to forget about what started the whole fiasco to begin with, putting you at risk for repeating it all. We like the sun and being active, but have to remember to take it all in moderation”.
As B and S so rightly point out, it is even tougher when you have a chronic illness that makes you more prone to fatigue and burnout. It’s vital to pace yourself and try not to overdo it.

Indeed, there are many parallels between burnout and chronic illness. E explains:
“What struck me was that the process before, during and after was like the grief process or, let’s say, processing any sort of difficult or traumatic event or period: It took time to reach the climax and time to get back to normal. That time is essential and is something many in this day and age have difficulty accepting. Our bodies know though”. In an email to E some months ago, I wrote the following:
“Also, I totally understand what you mean by a grieving process – on diagnosis of a chronic illness, we tend to grieve for our health and what we have lost. I am currently grieving for my energy and the fact that work has become so much harder, although I have to believe that things will get better – it’s still early days yet. I’m not surprised myself that I am feeling this way because I have been doing a stressful job for years and last year we lost both C’s mother and my grandfather. Stress can play a huge part in making you sick like this. Of course, the family curse of Hashimoto’s doesn’t help either”.

I’m happy to say that I have improved since then and work has got easier. There are still times when I am tired and have to push myself a little, but I have learned to listen to my body more and realise that it is not a crime to lie down and rest if that is what it is telling me it needs. I have always been very impatient to get well, to feel better, finally lose that weight I put on because of the thyroid, have more energy, but E’s next quote makes a lot of sense:
“We have to allow ourselves to be at the point where we are, and not jump ahead. Sometimes this is painful and that’s naturally why we want to move on as quickly as possible”.

To finish on a positive note, I’d like to feature two proactive quotes – the first from former hospice coordinator E:
“I can’t say that all people can avoid burnout if they choose; there are times when people are used up and spit out in the workplace. Would more individual self-awareness as well as institutional awareness help? That’s the question. I would say yes, but trying to get help when things have already gone wrong can prove brutally difficult. Looking back after many months, I know I made the right decision and don’t regret it at all. It was necessary to go through the whole awful process to know without doubt that the time had come”.

When I first asked the question on Facebook about burnout, one friend S’s wise advice was as follows:
“Don’t go to that dark place. Take a few days, switch off, make it a holiday by doing something you would do if you hadn’t been so busy doing the things you’ve been doing. If a door closes, you know what they say: it’s to let the new come to you. Just don’t allow it to take you down there”.

In essence, burnout may well be a sign that something needs to change in your life. Be aware of the risks and be good to yourself because sometimes it really is important to look after number one.

On this note, I’d like to wish you happy holidays and, as the Germans say, a good slide into the New Year!



By Sarah Downing

My name is Sarah. I was born and grew up in England and currently live in Düsseldorf, Germany, with my fiancé Corey and my cuddly cat Biscuit. I work as a translator and writer for my own company Aardwolf Text Services (www.aardwolf.de) and I love vintage clothes and music, as well as singing karaoke.


  1. Glad you like it, Miriam. Sometimes it can be a real challenge explaining stuff in a simple way – especially the medical stuff – but it’s a challenge I am happy to accept. This article was interesting to write – as you can see from the blog, it’s definitely something I can relate to myself and for those of us who do have health issues, it’s even more important to be aware of.

  2. Great Article, Sarah!!

    I worked for many years as a manager for a large computer company in the famous Silicon Valley in California, and stress and burnout was just part of the environment we all were in. – We even had classes on how to deal with stress and burnout. – In the US some bosses know and practice the notion of a “mental holiday”, meaning a short term (often short notice) “time out” from work to recharge your batteries. I was luck to have a few bosses who knew that concept, and applied it successfully. And I in returned tried to apply it to the people in my departments. – So, they’ll miss a few days of work, but on the other side of the ledger a employee that has recharged his/her batteries, will but in the extra hours (and weekend days) when the project goes into crunch time and the deadline looms. – Great thing such a “mental holiday”.

    One other thing that I did that helped me greatly was to keep a “to-do” list like so many others; but I made it a point to priorities my action items and to always do the most dreaded and most despised item first (and like you, I tried to avoid conflict, but when necessary I did the emotional couching talk with a wayward employee first!) — I felt so much better afterwards, even if I didn’t get some more mondane things accomplished for the rest of that day. Luckily, many of my bosses understood my tactics and gave me elbow room.

    Another piece of advice I received was to try to take a little time each day just for me. Like an extra minute under the shower to cleanse my thoughts of work related issues; or an extra minute during breakfast to think of something pleasant and NOT of upcoming work. – Was good advice! Helped me!

    Lastly, thanks for the German lesson. I never heard of a “Scheinekuh”; and as you know, I have a tad of that teutonic language knowledge myself. See – one never ceases to learn. Or as my mother always said: “Man wird alt wie eine Kuh, und lernt immernoch dazu” (you grow old like a cow, but you never stop learning).

    Have a wonderful rest of Boxing Day!
    And check your email here for my belated holiday card to you.


    1. Thank you very much, HD. It’s always very valuable for people to share their experiences and tips and it makes me very happy that you did here. It sounds like your Silicon Valley job was very stressful, but it’s great that you learned some strategies for dealing with this. I really love the concept of a mental holiday – it makes so much sense because if you suffer from burnout, you’re not capable of anything much anymore, are you? I know what you mean about being in the sort of environment where burnout is normal. When work is plentiful as a freelancer, you can sometimes work 24-7 and still never be finished. So you do have to make sure that you can get the rest you need when you have the time to take a rest. When I’m not super busy, it is nice to know that I can take a break or lie down for a few minutes because I work from home. This is often the case after one of my workouts with my trainer, but I’m having to take shorter and shorter and fewer and fewer naps, so that to me is a great thing. Since I’ve been on the thyroid meds, life has been so much easier and it is lovely to be able to get up early and start work early rather than feeling like you are missing out on half of the day because you are too damn tired. I think pacing yourself is also an important tip – do a bit of work each day rather than doing it all at once when it can seem overwhelming. You are totally right about prioritisation too – very important! I don’t think Schweinkuh is widely used, but it did make me laugh in retrospect!

      Thank you for your gorgeous card. I already viewed it and also wrote you back. Take care of yourself and enjoy the rest of your holidays!



  3. Sarah, great job on this burnout article! And congratulations on the launch of your blog♥

    There are some good ideas to help handle stress and I could relate to several experiences but want to comment on one in particular:
    “I do feel very inferior to the rest of the world out there. When I observe women doing it all, I wonder how can I ever succeed?” I remember being in this place many years ago when the kids were growing up and life was so busy with family and work responsibilities, and I thought so many others made it look so easy and why did I find it so hard to do “it all”? Of course, it took great stress off my shoulders when I realized other women did not do it all either, although it may have looked that way on the outside. I think this falls under the idiom “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” (don’t make judgments based on appearance). This is so important for young, working mother’s to learn, as it relieves so much stress when you realize most of us are in the same boat. I found it was the people who were most concerned about appearance that really suffered the most stress.

    1. Thank you very much, Lori! Those are very wise words. I think the same goes for relationships – people often think that others are in perfect relationships, but you can never really know or judge because you don’t know what really goes on and of course the same goes for these individuals who look like they are managing everything so well. Everybody has meltdowns and nobody is perfect. I think we have to cease wanting perfection and just do the best we can. I would hope that those young mums with partners also get a lot of help from their partners. Thankfully, we no longer live in the 19th century, so it has become more de rigueur for men to help out at home or with the kids. Obviously, though, many women really do have to do it alone and that is freaking admirable! I suspect many of them often underestimate themselves and what they have achieved, perhaps because Western society just doesn’t seem to value you that much as a woman anymore unless you have a career and being a housewife isn’t considered as a career, although it is a full-time job. Some of these women (and men) truly are the unsung heroes without whom the family simply wouldn’t survive.

  4. Well written & profoundly important.
    As a social work major, we are constantly reminded to keep our well-being in check because it is difficult to be affective in helping someone if you are detached and ingenuine. In order to give hope you must lead by example. While yes we are not all superheroes, rest and work on ourselves is key. While yes as single moms (or dads) we do not always have time, there are true friends or relatives that care and those are our strengths. I love as a social work major that the focus is on a strengths perspective. Sometimes people believe that they can handle it all and fail to accept the help that is offered to them, so that they can get the rest or take care of themselves. Be of good judgement of who you allow into your lives, realize your own boundaries and the boundaries of others so as to preserve those support systems. And believe it is o.k. to accept positive/genuine help, when needed. Everyman is not an island, we were not created to be isolated, but at the same time find your comfortable pace and stay away from negativity 🙂 I wish strength and happiness to everyone!

  5. Hey Melissa,

    Glad you liked the article. I realised how important this was when I went through it myself several times. Burnout is extremely common, particularly among the chronically ill.

    Thank you very much for your wise words. Your first two sentences are so true – in essence, we really can’t help others if we can’t help ourselves. Realising you are not a superhero can be one of the hardest things ever to learn. I’ve always been particularly hard on myself, often not allowing myself to show any weakness. I believe that this was in part brought on by the fact that my father (who had been in the army) was so tough on us at times. It really was tough love and he didn’t always understand weakness or the times when I came home from school, crying because I had been bullied again. I often learned to put up and shut up as it seemed that nobody could or would help me and perhaps this attitude followed me into my later life. Nobody wants to admit weakness or defeat, but sometimes you have to in order to preserve your sanity.

    I am so thankful that there are those true friends out there who genuinely care and accept us for who we are – no more and no less. You are also right that we have to be selective about our friends – that’s another hard lesson to learn, I think. It’s hard to find the right friends, but with experience we become wiser and realise who we want to surround ourselves with.

    Accepting help and acknowledging we need it is another tough task. That was part of the problem for my university friend L. She was clearly sick, but didn’t seem to (want to) realise it. It was frustrating to see her gradually deteriorate and coming to the realisation that I couldn’t help her until she was ready to help herself.

    Everyman is not an island – so reminds me of one of my favourite films “About A Boy” as that quote is used right at the end. Sometimes we think we can go it alone, but companionship, support and friendship often make us go the distance.

    Thanks again for your valuable input. What you said makes so much sense.



  6. Happy New Year Sarah!
    Howcome someone as disagreeable as myself pretty much always agree’s with what you have to say? lol. Perhaps I am in such a grateful mood this morning with delicious tamales and a mocha latte. Lard & sugar: good now…bad later, lol.
    Speaking of chronically ill, now that I am rejuvenated thanks to this holiday break I am dreading returning to school. School=less rest, less exercise, less physical happiness. However, the sacrifice is worth it due to the mental stimulation and I love my professor’s. They have so much experience under their belt in this underpaid yet “rewarding” field. The motivation and inspiration alone is worth the physical pain.
    To address your childhood experiences above, as painful as it was unfortunately- it is common. I am currently going thru a painful phase of trying to teach my 12 y/o niece (whom I love as my daughter) independence. We love our children and want them to be our little angels forever..however when I have to harshly drive a message home about independence & pulling oneself up by the bootstraps- in an effort to prepare them to make it in the real world, that will chew you up & spit you out if you let it. It does pain me because we don’t want them to feel like a failure, but if we don’t try to prepare them for adulthood, they simply will not be prepared. I hate having to be the bad guy, but as parents we’re not only are there to love and nurture our children, but we unfortunately have to be a translator of society and in this process, it’s not always going to be pretty.
    Back to school Monday 🙁 Less time with the family 🙁
    Hopefully it will teach me something useful to add to your blog next time I come around.
    Take care,

    1. Happy New Year, Melissa!

      I guess great minds think alike;-). I am glad that you are able to relate to my writing. You always have some very insightful input to add yourself. Tamales sounds yummo! Did you have the ones wrapped in corn husks or are they always wrapped in corn husks? I know you are pretty aware of what you eat, so I think it is fine to treat yourself every now and again. I am so happy that you are getting the mental stimulation you need. It seems that you have a rather inquisitive mind and a thirst for learning, so I’m glad that school is so fulfilling to you even if there is the payoff of tiredness and achiness, etc. I do so hope that improves for you really soon.

      You are definitely right when you refer to my childhood experiences of tough love. In hindsight, whilst my parents haven’t always been the most empathic of people, I have them to thank that I became pretty independent from an early age and they taught me some very important life skills. I don’t think my parents ever really thought of me as their “little angel”. In fact, they could be rather critical of me, which in turn probably made me critical of myself. That said, I have seen some kids who lack any kind of discipline because their parents think the sun shines out of their ass and they usually grow up to be spoiled brats. I think kids need encouragement and confirmation that they are good people, but some parents also overdo this, so it’s important to strike a happy medium. I remember how I didn’t always get that encouragement, so also do my best to give it to my nieces and nephews – I remember only too well what it was like to be their age.

      Don’t feel any pressure to contribute to my blog. I love it when you do so, but everything should be because you want to and done in your own time. I really took on board your comments about not feeling pressured to publish a weekly article, although I felt like writing today, so I did in fact write a new one that I am about to publish. That said, now that I have my own site, it should be much easier for people to follow my writing in their own time and I have also incorporated a subscribe option for those who wish to be informed of updates.

      Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. I hope your first day back at school goes really, really well!

      Love and hugs,


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