Most of us know what burnout feels like, one way or another. It's common, especially for new parents, educators, entrepreneurs, mental health clinicians and individuals whose roles are integral to the well-being of others. This is because in these fields, juggling our responsibilities to those we serve as well as our own needs is a tricky dance if we're being mild.
Burnout is a response to accumulated or extreme stress that manifests in "physical or emotional exhaustion, cynicism or numbing out, and diminished meaning or engagement in one's work," (Mindful Schools). Symptoms include feelings of isolation, irritability, poor boundaries, loss of meaning, and over identifying with others' pain or avoiding it altogether.
It's possible to experience these symptoms without being "in burnout," but these states are cues to slow down and attune to avoid slipping into it. If you are experiencing burnout, or symptoms related to it, there are two things to know:
1) It's time to slow down and prioritize more self-care.
What is your self-care routine? Do you have one? Sometimes, we avoid self-care thinking that it is selfish amidst all of the need in the world. Or, we go hard at our goals, get lost in the sauce and when we look up, we're running on fumes. We can't give from an empty cup and big dreams are a marathon, not a race. By learning how to slow down and prioritize your own needs, we can create overflow from sustainable routines.
2) Burnout is not a personal weakness or failure.
A significant contributor to burnout is working within systemic structures outside of our control. The systems that are designed to meet needs and inequities in larger systems like education, healthcare, justice, housing and other realms afflicted by growing disparity often operate in ways that directly counter the needs of the people they are meant to serve.
This can feed a feeling of hopelessness or overwhelm (and even existential crisis) for those of us who have dedicated significant energy to lifting others within these systems.
If you find that you are frequently feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, or generally disconnected from a consistent state of hope, ease, gratitude and joy.... You are not alone and this is also an indication that it's time to make a conscious effort to cultivate more positive states in small ways on a daily basis. How?
1) Practice naming and observing your emotions as you feel them.
Humans are emotional creatures and there is growing neurological research that indicates we can cultivate greater control of our emotions than previously believed. You can't think your way out of feeling, but you can think in ways that allow you to process and direct your emotions in ways that benefit you. Growing our emotional intelligence is linked to greater levels of happiness. I approach mine through reading, journaling, daily mindfulness practices, yoga and prayer.
2) Pick up a hobby.
Often those who are experiencing burnout have overcommitted and get stuck in the shame loop of underperforming amidst unrealistic expectations. Disrupt this chain by pursuing something just for the fun of it. No need to perform or achieve here, just let loose and enjoy the power of play. Making art, dancing, singing, hiking, cooking... what's fun to you? Let fun refresh your efforts.
3) Be gentle with yourself and others.
You never know what someone is battling with beneath the surface of social media and small talk. Your own complex inner terrain should be a clue. Most of us are doing our best on most days. Generous assumptions for others and compassion for ourselves is easier said than done, and can ease the burden of burnout.