What is burnout? I must be a totally modern person, because the first place I went to clarify my terms was — Google, of course.
Burnout (n.): 1. The reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion. 2. Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
Both definitions seemed to apply to me: the first, on a metaphorical level; the second described the phenomenon I was experiencing. Others perceive me as an energetic, creative, and positive person. I no longer perceived myself that way. I felt like I was “out of gas.” I was not simply moody. I felt exhausted, cosmically tired, yet wound up. I sensed a strange, low-level, idling pre-panic state of agitation. Given the choices, Fight? Flight? I was done fighting. I wanted to flee, escape, get-me-outta-here!
What was I overusing? What were the origins of the combustion? It is ironic that I found myself in this position. As a teacher of the Feldenkrais Method, I ask my clients exactly these questions. My business is to teach people how to find sustainable ways of using their own bodies, their own thoughts, sensations, feelings, and actions. I was not being a good model for the work I believe in so strongly. I had overused myself. I saw a long “to do” list that stretched over the coming months, and, for the first time, wondered how the hell I was going to make it to the other side. I felt overwhelmed, unimaginative, resource-less rather than resource-full. Not a happy place.
Three major factors contributed to my most recent experience of burnout. (Yes, I’ve been here before.) I’ll share a happy ending with you now, even though it’s a spoiler — I am doing much better now. But here is what was going on.
1. My partner’s best friend of nearly thirty years was in the end stages of a terminal illness. He was in the role of primary caregiver for over two years, and he needed my emotional support. This person was also my friend, and during his last four months I too was involved in his care, and hospice visits, up until days before his death.
2. I was being sued for my part in an auto accident that happened in February of 2010. The plaintiffs in the suit had not accepted repeated offers of settlement from my insurance company. Despite the fact that 95% of these claims are settled and never go to trial, my case did. From the initial notification that I was being sued, through about eighteen months, it was a constant, nagging, and worrisome distraction. Ultimately, the case went to a jury trial. While I was found at fault in the accident (the facts were never in dispute), the jury found overwhelmingly in my favor. After the plaintiffs pay their lawyers, they will end up with less money than they would have, had they simply settled. The waste of time and energy, the expense, the bad timing, and the blood-sport that is our adversarial civil justice system, all contributed to my feeling frustrated and helpless.
3. We train Feldenkrais teachers in Houston. We have a fantastic training program, with wonderful students. Part of my work involves all of the local arrangements and logistics for the training. Our group comes in for 40 days each year, for four years. They arrive each year, in May, for a three week stay. Another three weeks in September are followed by two weeks which fall right after Thanksgiving. It is hectic and wonderful, with many details to attend to. The interpersonal relationships are also foundational. In addition to our regular trainers, we host guest trainers from time to time. Each student is undergoing a profound transformational learning process, which is sometimes difficult. I care deeply for everyone involved in our program. There are about 25 students in our training, which means countless verbal and non-verbal interactions just in the course of one training period, or one day, for that matter! I realized that there was a “weight” that came with caring for that many people, and being on-call, in service to them. I also came to realize that this 40-day training, which should occupy about 15% of my time and attention, had actually gobbled up about 40%.
As a bonus; the trial (#2) was scheduled to occur around the time that our next training segment was to occur. As it turned out, I had to do all of the preparations (scheduling, printing, schlepping things from storage to the venue, liaison with accommodations for our trainers) with the idea in mind that I would not be available and on-site for several days. This was, indeed, what came to pass. The trial and the training occurred just two weeks after our friend died.
You may think that none of this describes anything particularly arduous. Teachers, clergy, caregivers, elite athletes undergo much more of an intrusive and grueling schedule that I have described. What I have learned is that the feeling of burnout was not just because it was a lot of work (I have worked harder at different times during my life). The stress came from the uncertainty of each situation, and from the meaning or interpretation I attached to each. Examples of uncertainty include: When would our friend transfer to hospice? When might his extended family come to visit? When might he die? When will the trial be? How long will it last? What will be the outcome? Which students will attend this segment? What will they need? Examples of meaning and interpretation include: I will not subject myself to this kind of pain at the end of my life. I need to talk to my children about my end-of-life wishes. My partner is losing his best friend: how will I take care of him through this? Relationships and group process in a company or training program can be a bit bumpy from time to time. What does it all mean?
The more these three events began to converge in time and space, the greater my sense of overwhelm. During a state of overwhelm (or even “whelm,”) one’s possible options, resources, and strategies are not clear. I started this blog to create space for myself to figure out how I got into such a bad way, and to bring myself out. From my research, I realize now that I was experiencing a “triple whammy,” a perfect storm where caregiver, personal, and professional burnout all showed up simultaneously.
The short answer to the question, “What did I do about it?” is this: I had to be able to think clearly about how I was spending my time. What would resolve on its own, whether I did anything or not? What tasks could I delegate or delete to make life easier and free up some time so that I didn’t feel so swamped? Then, upon seeing how I spent my time, I needed to think clearly about creating something better. How DO I want to spend my time? How do I want to feel day to day, concerning my health, my emotions, my thinking? That led me to the most important questions of all: What makes me feel most alive? What activities make me most happy? How can I create more space for THAT?
Tune in for future episodes in our continuing saga. . .
When have you felt overwhelmed? What helped you? How are you doing now? Please leave a comment.