The life lessons I’ve learned from my burnout
When the weight of your workload wears you down, and you find yourself battling to catch up with your everyday responsibilities, you could be in the midst of a burnout.
I am currently trying to recover from burnout – again. And because I am spectacularly bad at being objective about myself, no one was more surprised than I when my fabulous life coach looked at me and said, “Oh dear. We’re in burnout again. You need to rest – until spring at least.”
That was in May, and while I’m doing much better than I was, every now and then the burnout bites me in the butt and makes me realise that I’m not quite past it yet – it’s a process. And in fact, with my tendency to take on far more than I should, I’ve realised I’ll pretty much always be in danger of burning out, and I have to be super careful.
But like anything difficult in life, burnout comes with lessons. Here are some of the things I continue to learn through this process.
First, learn to leave work at work. Permanent exhaustion and busyness are not to be worn like badges of honour, no matter what your workplace or boss or family might expect. And unless you’re a medical doctor, chances are your job is not a matter of life and death, and you don’t have to work after hours or when you’re sick.
I once spent six months working at an NGO, and on my first day, one of my colleagues – a very senior person in the organisation – took me aside and said: “I do not have email on my phone. And when we close on a Friday at 4.30pm I go home, and I am not available until 7.30am on Monday morning when I arrive back at the office. Because I need to be healthy.”
She had a massive workload, and you know what? She got it all done, and she had time to rest and recharge in the evenings and spend quality time with her family. When she was at work, she was focused and productive, and when she was at home, she could relax and reconnect with herself and others.
You see, avoiding burnout is all about setting boundaries – for yourself as well as others. It’s about not saying ‘yes’ when you should be saying ‘no’. It’s about knowing what you are required to do – and only doing that – and allowing other people to find their own way to discharge their responsibilities.
I think a lot of people who burn out are the people who think only they can do something properly, or they need to help everyone around them who needs help, or they know how to do that best … basically, we’re know-it-alls in self-allocated Super(wo)man capes.
And that’s detrimental both to other people and to you. It’s detrimental to you because you try to do too much in a day, and there are limits to what even you can do. Sorry to break it to you, but you are a mere human being. It’s also harmful to those you are ‘helping’ because you disempower them. People might do things wrong, but mistakes are how we learn, and you have to give them a shot at making their own mistakes.
I personally had to learn that I don’t have to be the perfect mother and partner and friend and daughter. That it’s okay to stuff up. That it’s okay to have a meltdown every now and then. That it’s okay to get under the duvet at 5pm for a good sob and let the children make cheese on toast for their dinner. Everyone will survive, and tomorrow will be better.
In fact, parents, it’s really good for your children to see that you can be vulnerable and have a bad day too – in fact, I think it’s essential for the development of their own emotional intelligence. An older and wiser friend of mine, who has three well-adjusted children, often reminds me that you have to let your children down sometimes.
And finally, the most important lesson is this: rest is essential – for everyone. No-one is immune to that very basic human need to rest and recharge. Sleep is not a nice-to-have – you really do need about seven hours to function properly, and sleeping only between 3.30am and 5am, as I was doing far too often, is just not sustainable. And in fact, if you get enough sleep, you get more done in your waking hours because you can focus, and your neurons are all firing properly.
My new mantra is ‘extreme self-care’. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, I’m happier, healthier, and more productive, and when life throws me a curveball, I can pretty much take it in my stride. And with any luck, extreme self-care will help to keep burnout far, far away from me in the future.