Overwhelm, burnout, breakdown – whatever you want to call it – you have more power over it than you think.
I recently had the pleasure of listening to Ruby Wax talking at the Henley Literary Festival. I should probably start by making it clear that she is one of my all time heroes. So I was always going to nod along avidly to whatever she had to say… but my god it was good. She appraised us all, in her inimitable way, of our inevitable descent towards burnout; the consequence of our prehistoric brains existing, and mostly freaking out, in a 21st century world that is obsessed with being “busy”. There was a collective uncomfortable shifting in the seats as she confronted the truth; that we are all running around brimming with the “stress hormone” cortisol, ignoring opportunities to be sensible about our work-life balance and being insanely pleased with ourselves for our “success”, evidenced by our proximity to total breakdown.
It seems absurd when I hear Ruby talk about it in this way. Yet I’ve seen this march towards self-destruction myself – fabulously intelligent and capable people assuring me that they’ll “slow down when things get better”. People telling me “I’ve just got to get through this and then it will be different”. Or my favourite, “why should I invest time in me – isn’t that self-indulgent?” I hear myself use similar phrases from time to time. No matter how well I understand the science of the mind and the ludicrosy of the lies we tell ourselves, I still catch myself falling into familiar downward spirals. Habit is a stickler for… well, habits. So please trust me when I say, I totally get why this is a challenge for many, but I promise you, there is another way.
And you need to start believing that. Right now.
So first lets call out some of the BS we tell ourselves that ensures our self-destruction. Tick off those that sound familiar. This might sting a little.
3 SIGNS YOU ARE CAUSING YOUR OWN BURNOUT
1. I’ve survived this far….
Do you find yourself saying, “Well I’ve survived this far. I’ll just hang in there a little longer.” This is a comforting but spectacularly unhelpful lie we tell ourselves that is almost guaranteed to ensure that, not only will you crash and burn, you’ll be positively steering the aircraft into the ground. If you’re saying these things, the reality is, the only course you are setting is one of continued self-negligence.
This is not your fault by the way. You’re not stupid for telling yourself this. Your brain is wired for survival. NOT resilience. So the more it feels under threat (impossible work demands being the modern day equivalent of stampeding bison) the more it hunkers down and the less able you are to make balanced skilful decisions. This is why so many intelligent capable people get caught out. It will ensure you keep buggering on, whilst your brain increasingly dissolves into goo and you won’t even see the stampeding bison (or the fact that you left your cat on the car) as the red flag to change course.
This is not a delusion that is going to end well. Please stop this.
2. I don’t really have any other choice right now.
Feel like your’e spinning so many plates and yet there’s no earthly way you could contemplate dropping one. You tell yourself, “I have to go on! I simply don’t have another option! If I drop a plate there is no-one there to catch it!”
I get it. I’ve told myself the same lie. When I decided to start up a business I was a home-schooling single mother and still-serving in the RAF running a human performance and air safety school. I was overloaded and I knew it. The RAF kept asking more of me and I kept saying….Yes. Of course, they were quite clever in how they asked. They would never ask “What’s the solution that ensures maximum quality of output (which would have given me the invitation I apparently needed to factor in my staffs’ performance). Instead they asked me “what is the art of the possible?” So I gave them possible. Not sensible. Not sustainable. Not high quality. And in the world of air safety, that’s actually not that clever. Convinced I couldn’t change anything about my work demands, I briefly considered asking my ex-husband to take on more of the childcare. Briefly. But I didn’t. I definitely bitched about it behind his back though.
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book that we play on ourselves. We convince ourselves we have no other choice. That no-one else can do what we do. Or that there is NO other way of getting to the desired result. Indeed there’s an odd comfort in telling ourselves that, since then we don’t have to feel so foolish for being backed into a corner.
The truth? You always have a choice. It just might not be the easiest one that is the best one.
3. Now just isn’t the right time for me to… (insert BS as appropriate).
During this period when I was effectively holding down 3 full time jobs, I eventually thought about going to see the doctor to get some sick leave. Just so I could take a week off to bury my head in a bottle of Rioja, I mean, meditate. And that’s a big deal for me by the way. Pilots really dislike going to see doctors. They have the power to ground us. So they are scary and we avoid them. To put it into context I once deployed to Iraq with a broken rib and then again to Afghanistan with a broken foot. So it must have been serious for me to consider speaking to a doctor. But then I said to myself, “but I just don’t have time to be stressed!” and I remember feeling that familiar thrill of self-importance as I said it. In other words, EXACTLY when I needed it the most, I decided not to invest time in myself. And again, this is not really my fault. We are hard-wired to honour the greatest threat and put success of the “tribe” ahead of ourselves, thereby overlooking seemingly pointlessly self-indulgent things like self-care.
If you’ve ticked off any of these things, there is a good chance you’re cruising, no, accelerating towards, burnout. Don’t worry you’re in good company. But please, for the sake of you and those you care about, please read the next bit carefully.
2 THINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW
There are actually loads of things you can do……but you’re feeling overwhelmed so I thought I’d go easy.
1. Get back in control.
One breath at a time. When you’re feeling anxious, frazzled, angry and/or overwhelmed the FIRST thing is to go back to basics. To quote Ruby Wax (did I mention she is my all time hero), your attention can’t be in two places at once. So take a moment to simply focus on your senses. What noises can you hear in the room? Notice the contact between you and surface beneath you. Notice your breath as you inhale and exhale. By focusing on the physical you divert your attention away from the thoughts that are almost certainly causing imminent meltdown. And when these thoughts have no attention, something really magic happens. They fade away. And what you are left with… is clarity. Then you can proceed to step 2.
2. Pick one thing and do it well.
The reason you have been feeling overwhelmed is for the same reason we all feel overwhelmed. As we appreciate the growing mountain of things “to do”, our instinctive reaction is to try and do more in less time. We end up frantically trying to tick things off the list and darting from task to task in a maniacal frenzy, giving ourselves the comforting, but totally false, illusion of productivity. But recall what I just said…your attention can’t be in 2 places…which means trying to achieve multiple things in one moment DOESN’T work. Your brain simply isn’t designed to do it. So give yourself some breathing space (see point 1) and then decide what the most important task is for you to do next. And then do that ONE thing. And do it well.
This has multiple benefits; a) you are basically practicing mindfulness when you uni-task which has extra calming effects and reduces overwhelm b) you get to feel good at something which is proven to increase happiness c) you’ll do the task quicker and avoid making career-ending mistakes in the process.
Important point – do NOT try to step 2 without doing step 1. If you try to prioritise your most important task whilst your brain is dribbling through your ears you will most likely prioritise based on fear or anger. This is NOT the most skilful way to tackle the neighbours annoying “parking-over-your-line” tendency.
Give yourself a chance. Take a breath. Let the fog clear.
Then go get ’em.
THE ONE THING THAT WILL STOP YOU DOING ABOVE.
The fear of saying No.
At some point we evolved to be tribal, which meant our survival relied on us being accepted by the tribe… which meant we became hard-wired to please others. So saying No or dissapointing others is intensely uncomfortable for most. For years in the military we celebrated a “Can-Do” culture. I realise now it was simply a disguise for “Total-inability-to-say-No-incase-you-hate-me” culture. So if you feel crippled by this too, at least you can comfort yourself that the people that fought for our country’s freedom share the same condition.
But just take a moment to reflect on what will happen if nothing changes. If you need reminding try re-reading my first 3 points. This doesn’t end well. For you or for those you are so determined to turn up for. So the ability to say No and live with the dissapointment (in yourself, mostly) could be the most potent weapon in your arsenal against burnout. And it’s easier than you think. We are programmed to react immediately to our emotions so when we feel uncomfortable with the idea of saying No, our instinctive reaction is to eliminate that discomfort by saying….Yes. But here’s a secret that will change your life. Feeling uncomfortable won’t kill you. You can say No and you WILL survive. The world won’t end if you disappoint some people.
Ruby Wax summed this up beautifully when she was being interviewed at Henley Literary Festival. She was launching her latest book The Mindfulness Guide for Survival and was asked “Are you planning your next book?” She responded, “so a book, a show and a community of mindfulness cafes isn’t enough? You see what I mean about this busy narrative?….. No, I am not planning my next book.” I’m paraphrasing, she was MUCH more elegant than that. But hopefully you get the point.
You don’t have to be a victim to the busy narrative or the other lies we tell ourselves. We can live richly and abundantly and have all the time we need for the people we love. You just have to give yourself permission. Start today. One breath at a time.
You got this.
This article is just scratching the surface and is meant to serve as a lifeline for all those fabulously intelligent and capable people out there. Burnout is a serious issue that affects many. If you’d like to know more about how I can support you through talks, coaching and workshops please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Afternote: The irony is not lost on me that I finished writing this article at 9pm at night. We are in all this together. ☺️)
Author: Sarah Furness – Founder of of Well Be It
Performance Coaching, Wellness, Health, Wellbeing