Updated: Feb 12
Burnout is a buzzword that seems to be everywhere and indeed, an entire industry calling itself “wellness” has cropped up to “help” us with burnout. Sadly, that industry has actually created more guilt and shame for us. Guilt that we’re not doing the “right” things to feel better, shame that it’s our fault for just not quite being able to manage the 1000 things on our metaphorical plates at a time. Better yet, that industry has made it a competition of sorts – how well can you be and how fast can you be well?!
Maybe if you just get one more smoothie recipe book, set aside just 10 more minutes in the morning, buy just one more piece of exercise equipment or gym membership, you’ll get “better” at being “well” this time or faster!
False! Or you could even say, “bullshit!”
So, what is burnout and how do we actually make a dent in it?
The funny thing (maybe funny “sad” instead of funny “haha”) is that the minute I say “burnout” or that you read it, you likely know exactly what that means without much of a definition. It probably echoes in your bones.
A great definition comes from Freudenberger (1975) where he states that burnout has three parts: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. Breaking each one of these down, emotional exhaustion is the fatigue that arises from caring too much or for too long; depersonalization is the depletion of empathy or when caring and compassion are depleted; and a sense of futility or feeling you can’t make any difference is what makes up the decreased sense of accomplishment.
Skipping the mountains of science and tedious wellness rhetoric, I’ll dive right into what you can do to support yourself during trying times and how to help yourself cope with life. It’s not the big things that tip the scales, it’s usually the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, right? We’re going to skip diving into sources, because you know the sources – living your life is the source.
A side note here, though: things like healthy relationships, boundaries, and so on are components of helping yourself with burnout. I won’t go into that here. We’re going full steam in the more practical aspects of burnout care. I’ll give some book recommendations for you to go further into areas that may be specific to you later on.
Conquer Burnout With:
1. Connection. A huge pet peeve of mine (seriously, I could do a whole blog ranting about this one thing) is this idea that got pushed on us that said something like, “You have to be ok, 100% whole, all by yourself, with or without others, with or without the approval of others.” That sounds good. If you’re scared, it sounds empowering. “Yay! I need no one!” It’s also helpful to say to folks if you’re too scared to sit with their pain. “You’re responsible for yourself and your feelings! You need no one and no thing! Next!” Truthfully, you are not an island. Connection is healthy and necessary. Period. Connection with friends, pets, family, and your preferred spiritual path is vital. Human beings are not built to function as islands. Through connection with others we co-regulate. Some connections can create energy when we need it most – like the energy and comfort we get from venting to a friend that has had a similar experience. Connect when you feel low, when you feel angry, when you feel lonely, and when you feel that your efforts aren’t getting anything done.
2. Rest. Freaking rest! People die without proper rest. Being tired and finding time for resting yourself are survival issues, not “first world problems”. Nose to the grindstone and hustle hard are very much facets of our culture. If they worked and were good for us no one would have burnout.
3. Practice Self-Compassion. We’re somehow convinced that the best way to improve ourselves in whatever way we have decided we’re lacking is through our internal drill sergeant voice. If our health is bad, we internally converse with ourselves about how it’s our fault, we needed to stick to some diet, or we should stop being so lazy, etc., etc. We don’t talk to ourselves kindly or compassionately with truth and love. Like, “You had two pieces of cheesecake because you are so exhausted and sad. I’m sorry you’re feeling so sad and tired lately. Let’s rest.” Instead, we opt for the drill sergeant. If that voice worked, no one would fall off any wagons, no one would feel bad. You are allowed to accept, love, and be kind to yourself before you meet some miscellaneous definition of perfection.
4. Listen to your body. How will you know if you need rest or food or a walk if you don’t listen to your body? It talks, it knows, and it’s wise. Tune into yourself. Take some breaks and see what it’s saying to you and then do those things.
5. Close out your stress cycle. Everyone is familiar with fight/flight at this point in the internet age. What we’re less familiar with is that this is a naturally occurring and helpful cycle. We just don’t use it properly anymore. Think of it like this – that fight/flight is necessary when we’re faced with an emergency or crisis. Back in the day, if we were out walking and a tiger approached, and began to chase us, we could fight/freeze/flee/faint/fawn. The adrenaline kicks in, ancient self-preserving parts of the brain take control. A decision is made. If we survived that situation in the past we used the system. Maybe we stand and fight the tiger. We win! We’re alive. We run all the way home and tell our family and friends. They sing and dance and so do we and we’re so grateful to have survived. The running, singing, and dancing closed out the fight/flight response. It used up all the things our bodies produced during the stress response (fight/flight), and we returned back to center. (Coincidentally, also back in the day – while life was more dangerous in a visceral sense, we had less pressure from hustle culture, and so on. We woke with the sun and went to sleep at night. We rested, we got activity, we were a society of family-villages and had connection…). Several times a day (or many times) your fight/flight is triggered. You get a big project with a deadline at work, boom; you get a call from your kid’s school that they’re sick and you have to take off to go get them, boom; your boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t text you back in a timely manner and this hurts, boom; and on and on. We don’t run, we don’t sing, dance, or otherwise communicate back to the body that our stress response isn’t needed anymore. You can close your stress response cycle with physical activity like jumping around, tensing your body stiff as a board and letting it go, walking, bouncing around, holding a plank, or having a hard heaving cry. EFT tapping (tapping on pressure points), Havening, and progressive muscle relaxation are also great physical techniques. A long hug, snuggles, a decently long kiss, writing, drawing, singing or chanting are also great ways to help close it out. Take a few moments to do something to close it out a few times a day, just for good measure - don't wait until you're completely frazzled after a stacking of stress on stress!
Managing burnout, supporting yourself in wellness, and even preventing burnout require a pretty radical shift. It's a short list of helpful items I've created here: healthy connections with others, self-compassion, closing out your stress response cycle, and resting. That may all sound very simplistic. If it really was, you wouldn't be here.
You'd be well rested, happily connected, and kind to yourself, doing little things to help yourself manage the waves of little life stressors. Somewhere along the way for all of us (really, all of us) we forget that others aren't entitled to 100% of all we have to give; that we don't owe that and no one owns it but us. We give so much we have nothing left over for us. We are entitled to our own energy and entitled to use it for ourselves too.
Wellness and managed stress aren't a destination that you arrive at and then you're done - it's a daily balancing act of effort to utilize some of the energy, time, and other resources you generate on yourself. And freeing yourself from the idea that this is selfish.
Some great resources to utilize to further your knowledge here and on some topics within this larger topic:
Self Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, PhD.
Radical Compassion by Tara Brach, PhD.