I'll be back next week with a few super delicious recipes, but right now I'm here with something different. Today, I simply want to share some thoughts related to an area of personal development I've been working on lately. The topic? Overcoming burnout: how to regain a sense of peace, purpose + joy.
More and more over the last few years, I've grappled with feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and overwhelm when approaching the work I truly love to do. There have been times when I've felt a total loss of inspiration and apathy for the tasks I typically greeted with passion. During one stretch in particular—from May of 2015 to June of 2016—I googled "burnout symptoms" on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes, I even followed the protocol for addressing them. Although the vacations and self-care days worked wonders in the short-term, their long-term ability to nip burnout in the bud left something to be desired.
At the time, I was working full-time as a psychologist, writing my cookbook, and maintaining this lovely space. Clearly my overstuffed schedule was the root of these feelings...right? Maybe I could just wait until the end of the school year and then I'd be on leave for a year and all would be well again? Unfortunately, no and no. I thought that by changing my circumstances, I could change my experience. Well, June came and went, and despite having only two of those three things (i.e., book and blog) to focus on, it was the same old story.
So, like any incurably curious psychologist would do, I unpacked my feelings and began to examine the what's, why's, and how's behind them. It didn't take much analysis to see that there was more to the issue than an over-scheduled calendar.
Through this investigation of mine, three things became clear:
1) Much of the overwhelm I was experiencing stemmed from a faulty perspective I had developed. In short, I was placing a higher value on checking to-do's off my list than witnessing and ebbing/flowing with my daily experience.
2) At its core, it seemed to be a well-intentioned perspective that went sour somewhere along the way. What began as, "It's important for me to be productive, and I'm proud of myself when I've created something meaningful," morphed into, "I value productivity above all else. The more productive I am, the more I'm able to control the outcome". This may have been all well and fine except for one problem: life happens. Also, I'm a human being, not a productivity machine.
3) I wasn't alone. Just the opposite, in fact. This experience seems to be all too common. We're led to believe that success hinges on our ability to accomplish more in less time (it doesn't) and that if we're not "hustling" ourselves into the ground, then we're not going to get to where we want to be. It's no wonder we feel crappy when we can't keep up, let alone get ahead.
When high expectations and a desire to control collide with the unexpected circumstances (e.g., bumps that pop up in our lives), we're greeted by unmet expectations. In my experience, unmet expectations led to feeling out of control which led to frustration, overwhelm, and exhaustion. Clearly, the solution is to just work harder...right? Wrong, so wrong, but that's certainly the story I told myself at first. A story that ultimately led me to burnout, because I was operating from a fear-based place of frantically forcing as opposed to a knowing, trusting place of faithfully flowing.
Envision a merry-go-round. Like most, this merry-go-round has a cyclical rhythm to it; it spins round and round in one direction and then it comes to a stop, rests, and eventually repeats. If you tried to stop or even reverse the merry-go-round mid-spin, you'd be frantically opposing its natural rhythm (and likely end up defeated, too). Alternatively, if you attempted to will the merry-go-round from its resting state back into a full spin, you'd be pushing with all your might against the weight of its stillness.
Regardless of which approach you chose, you'd be destined to a similar fate: frantic forcing. Sounds exhausting, doesn't it?
But what if you took an entirely different approach? What if you hopped on the merry-go-round with the intention of simply being and you trusted that wherever you were in its cycle, wherever it took you, was exactly where you needed to be in that moment? With this perspective, you'd be able to flow with the natural rhythm of the merry-go-round, spinning as it spun and embracing its pauses, too.
How would that feel? Not the spinning per se, but the overall sense of relinquishing the expectations, the desire to control, the forcing, and opting, instead, to move with a momentum greater than your own—what would that be like?
After considering the options, I imagine we'd be hard-pressed to find a shred of logical support for "frantic forcing". The irony, of course, is that so many of us find ourselves unwittingly leaning on that very method every day. Whether it's our visceral frustration to an unexpected dilemma that pops up the moment we step out of bed or the list of to-do's that we've inflexibly bound ourselves to simply because we should, we must, we have to. We build barriers to joy when we forcefully resist the circumstances of simply being.
What would happen if we shifted our work priorities around a bit? What if we moved "be productive" down a notch or two and our first priority was "be open to the present possibility"? This shift doesn't mean we give up on productivity but rather that we reorganize our approach from one that grates on us to one that supports, energizes, and better serves us.
Once we release the idea that fearing, forcing, gritting, and bearing are the only way forward, we're able to see a much better way: trust, flow, let go, and grow.
With this approach we...
Trust that things will unfold exactly as they should. This doesn't mean that our days, weeks, to-do's, careers, etc. will unfold exactly as we believe they should. Yet we can rest assured that there's opportunity tucked away within each unexpected outcome if we'll simply get out of our own way long enough to see it.
»»» For years, I had a majorly inconsistent meditation practice. I'd meditate for several days in a row and feel great, and then I'd quickly give up the practice when life got "too busy". I was operating from a place of fear and distrust, believing that things would only work out if I forcefully willed them too. Then, one morning this past August, I glanced over at my favorite meditation spot in our living room and my inner voice said, "Just sit your butt down. Not tomorrow, not next week, NOW." As the saying goes, "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour." Ever since, I've made meditation and self-reflection a priority in my daily routine.
We'll always be too busy if we don't slow down. When we trust in the process, we release our fears and create space for the things that will support us along the way.
Flow with our circumstances and embrace their natural unfolding. This means resisting the urge to yank, tug, pull, push, or attempt to break the merry-go-round when its cycle doesn't align with our to-do list, expectations, hopes, dreams, etc.
»»» A few weeks ago, my site crashed just as I sat down to write a post. In the past, I would have resisted the flow and attempted to force the cycle to realign with my own (i.e., called my hosting company; refreshed the page 1,247 times until it finally worked; huffed, puffed, and offered up a few choice words to the universe to be certain my anger was heard). This time, I looked at it as an opportunity rather than a barrier. I shifted my perspective from resisting to embracing, opened up a blank word document, and wrote the post offline. In this case, by flowing with the circumstances, I was able to see a solution. In the end, I wrote more creatively and in less time than usual and was left feeling joyful instead of frustrated.
Let go of our attachments to expectations as well as the desire to control the outcome and, instead, choose to just be. By letting go of the outcome, we relinquish control and realign ourselves with the process. When we're aligned with the process, we're present, which leads to more meaningful, fulfilling experiences in the work we do. From a state of presence, we're able to become curious observers of our circumstances, whether they align with our expectations or not.
Let's give ourselves permission to release the guilt/shame/worry/regret/disappointment we've grown accustomed to shrouding ourselves in when faced with unchecked to-do's, mistakes, and even failures. We are not our unchecked to-do's. We are not our mistakes. We are not our perceived failures. Much the same, we are not our completed to-do's, we are not our correctness, we are not our successes. Sometimes the best way forward is to pause, release, and reset.
»»» For years and years, I insisted on continuing to work while I ate lunch. I believed that by doing so, I could secure the outcome I desired. At times, I was even boastful about the habit, "Yeah, I work through lunch every day. Gotta keep hustling."
With self-reflection on my side, I now see this behavior for what it really is: burnout fuel. In recent months, I've added a different set of to-do's to my daily list: "Take a break for lunch. Take a break for joy".
I make myself lunch and hit pause on conventional productivity for a full hour in favor of something that will nourish my spirit: fun. Sometimes that's reading an interesting article on a topic of curiosity (lately, that's just about anything from Wait But Why). Other times, it's watching an inspiring/funny/feel-good youtube video. The only goal is joy. From the vantage point of my former perspective, this would have appeared to be five wasted hours per week. However, my current perspective sees it exactly as it is: essential to my well-being, creativity, and joy.
Grow by embracing the daily obstacles (read: opportunities) presented to us. These opportunities in disguise aren't necessarily the ones we would choose for ourselves, but they're exactly what we need to move through in order to grow, change, and expand into our most authentic, connected, and courageous selves. And when we're authentic, connected, and courageous, we have a whole to offer not only to ourselves but also to the world. In essence, we GLOW when we GROW.
»»» Looking back on the last (almost) 33 years of my life, it's clear that my greatest obstacles were also my most formative teachers; they shaped, strengthened, and humbled me in countless ways. It's not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn't be the person I am today without them. Interestingly, it wasn't until I stopped resisting these obstacles that I was finally able to learn from them. It's likely that you have similar sentiments when you reflect back on your own life. Maybe burnout is the obstacle you're facing during this particular season of life or maybe it's something else altogether.
I'm certainly not an expert, but I've learned that work, life even, becomes more joyful when we trust the path, flow with the current, let go of our expectations, and grow (and GLOW) in new ways.