Burnout is a word that is thrown around a lot these days. The common understanding is that burnout happens when we push too hard for too long. By this definition, the solution is to not push as hard or for as long. Thinking of burnout as avoidable by making the choice to stop pushing so hard for so long puts us in a lose-lose situation.
No one I have ever worked with or known has gotten to the point of burnout by conscious choice. This myth, that there is a choice, causes us to not only end up burnt out but also guilty of getting ourselves there. If we could just ‘stop it’ of course we would! But the world we live in is complex, and while a simple answer such as ‘stop it’ to a complex problem ‘burnout’ is appealing, it is a myth. A deeper way of thinking about burnout is as a situation when we have no choice but to push too hard and too long. Burnout happens when we are not in control of the demands on us, and it is exacerbated when our efforts are not recognized (internally and externally). We can counter-balance these outer demands and beat burnout through self-care.
Think of a wick and imagine lighting it and how fast it would burn with no candle surrounding it. Now, imagine a birthday candle being lit and how long it takes for the wax to stream down the edges until it burns out. Picture a candle in a jar and how the wax pools and offers fuel for the candle to burn for hours. All three of these have the same wick and flame; it is the wax that changes how long it takes for the candle to burn out. Imagine that we are the wick and the demands of life are the flame and our resources are the wax. We can add more wax to our candle through self-care.
Self-care is anything that nourishes and resources us. It will look different for each unique individual and will shift with the demands placed on us. Because our culture values productivity so highly self-care will at first feel counter-intuitive. You may be thinking, “How will adding more to my plate make me burnout slower?” Self-care adds resources and therefore we have more to give (wax) and burnout slower. Self-care doesn’t have to take any extra time out of our day. For self-care to be sustainable we have to figure out how to integrate it into our existing lives. Adding wax to our candles comes from two sources: internal and external. While self-care comes in innumerable forms, here are a few ideas to get you started.
Start with the story you tell yourself about what you do. Burnout can often come from what we do not being valued. For many of us who work in aging services, which is not valued in our culture, this is exceedingly true. Ask yourself: Why do I do what I do? When you have arrived at your answer to that question, ask yourself again: Why? And for that answer follow up again: Why? By the time you have gotten to the third level of “why?” you will be at a sustainable level of inspiration for your day-to-day needs. Write this third “why” somewhere you will see it daily like your bathroom mirror.
How we see the world shapes how we feel. If we are feeling down we will burn out faster. My favorite intervention for changing our way of seeing the world comes from the Positive Psychology movement and is the “What-Went-Well Exercise.” (It is empirically validated and amazing.) Basically, once a day you write three things that went well and why. This helps in two ways. First, it trains your brain to look for what is going well rather than what most of our brains are trained to do: look for what could have gone better. Second, when you are feeling like nothing is going your way you can look back at your journal and for each week see a record of 21 things that went well! This is not about being overly optimistic or wearing rose-colored glasses; it is about choosing to pay attention to what went well rather than give attention to what you cannot control.
We have amazing bodies that allow us to be in this world and which we frequently ignore and don’t take care of, adding to burnout. My favorite mnemonic for remembering to take care of my body is one Dr. Bill Thomas synthesized from wisdom of elders whom he has treated and known over the years: MESH. I am oversimplifying here. Come see him on tour for a more robust description.
Move – look for opportunities to move your body that already exist in your day-to-day routine.
Eat – a variety of foods, not too much, mostly plants.
Sleep – sleep time is not a source of extra hours in the day.
Heal – take time to heal and view it as a way of moving forward to finding a new normal.
Via our Environment – Our consciousnesses reside in our bodies and in the world. Our environment can be nourishing and help us stay resourced or it can detract from our energy and add to burnout. There is much to say here but where to start is with awareness. Notice what in your environment sparks joy and what adds stress. Get creative about how to change your environment to be more nourishing. We are all dynamic and different. For me I work best in an environment with natural or warm light, no fluorescents please. Where I have control over the lighting I shift this. I also work better in a minimalistic space, I am constantly downsizing and decluttering and I can feel how having less things in my line of sight changes how many things I have swirling in my brain and helps me be more resourced. Think about all five of your senses and what they are experiencing in your environment and how you can shift those experiences to be nourishing. For example: burning incense or a candle, adding a favorite photo or plant to your line of sight, getting a chair that is comfortable, playing music that suits you, having mints or something of the like to perk up the taste buds. How can you change your environment to be more nourishing? Start small and keep looking for more and more little tweaks.
Within Community – “You cannot change the people around you, you can change the people around you.” – Joshua Fields Millburn .This too begins with awareness, just start to notice the people in your life who are nourishing and the relationships which are draining. From this awareness begin where possible to shift and spend intentional time with those nourishing relationships and limit time, where possible, in draining relationships. Even in situations where we cannot control who we are around we can control how we interact with them, how much we let them in and how much we let them take of our resources. What relationships add value to your life and how can you gain support from them more often?
These are just some examples. The biggest thing you want to watch out for with self-care is that you are not just adding another thing which will make you burn out faster. You want to look for ways you can shift your existing life to be more nourishing and to add more wax to your candle.
The author has recently partnered with Harvest Home Care and is piloting virtual self-care skills workshops incorporating the topics in this article with Liberating Structures and offering individual Integral Coaching for employees. For more information on group or individual work with the author please contact her through her website.