25 December 2010 ~ 12 Comments

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!

Love,

Sarah

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