I’ve been struggling for the past few months. Honestly, I’ve probably been struggling for much longer than that. I just finally became aware of how bad it was recently.
To start with, I was exhausted all the time. Regardless of how much I slept, I never seemed to find that point where I felt rested. Hitting the mid-afternoon wall had become the norm.
One reason I wasn’t sleeping was that I was drinking too much in the evenings. That comfortable numb of a few drinks became a respite each night from whatever was wrong.
And something was definitely wrong.
I wasn’t showing up in my life as the best version of myself. Not even close.
On a few occasions, my wife had come to me to brainstorm some ideas with her (a task at which I generally excel) Then, after about 2 minutes of my responding to her request, said “Nevermind. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Around the same time, I had a networking call with someone who I admired. When the call ended, I thought, “Who was that guy talking? If I was her, I wouldn’t ever want to talk to me again.”
These are but a few of many examples where it became clear to me that I wasn’t myself. I was impatient, terse, and cynical. Sadly, it was at its worst with the people I care about the most.
On top of all this, my creative spark dimmed. I couldn’t find the inspiration or motivation to make new stuff within me. When I had no other choice, I found a way but it required about four times the effort to do so.
My friends and loved ones started checking in on me. They were worried about me.
Honestly, I was worried about me.
Finally, a thought began to creep into my mind.
“Maybe I’m burnt out again.”
I didn’t want to believe it. I’ve been there before. Twice. It was something I thought I had learned how to prevent from happening again.
My Burnout Gut Check
A few days after I started to consider this question, the universe sent me a sign. My weekly email from Big Think featured a video from Dr. Laurie Santos talking about burnout.
She explains that burnout is a clinical syndrome with three specific symptoms.
- Emotional Exhaustion – This is not just about being tired, but feeling like you cannot emotionally handle another thing on your plate.
- Depersonalization (or Cynicism) – You are on a short fuse with the people around you. You also get cynical about people’s intentions.
- Personal Ineffectiveness – Feeling that even if you do your job well, it doesn’t really matter and it doesn’t give you the same value it did before.
If you’d like to watch the video, you can see it here. It’s a great 7-minute explainer.
As I wrote about back in 2020, the way I knew I had burnout was that I began experiencing a sort of emotional flatline – I just didn’t feel much of anything.
The same thing happened in August of 2022. Now, it was happening again but this time with an intensity greater than in the past with a healthy dose of physical exhaustion to go with it.
Cynicism and being short with people had become way too common for me. This is the part of burnout that we probably don’t talk about enough because it’s painful. We don’t want to hurt or mistreat the people around us.
But when we are suffering in this way, we often do. I know I did, sadly.
Finally, I was really struggling to feel any kind of motivation in my work. Even when doing work that I knew was having a real impact, it didn’t feel like it really mattered. Intellectually, I knew it did, but it didn’t feel that way in my body or my heart.
Thanks to Dr. Santos, there was no more avoiding it. I was in deep burnout.
How did this happen?
In a weird way, knowing I was experiencing burnout was sort of a relief. It at least helped explain why I had been feeling and behaving in the ways I had, which meant I could start working on healing.
But I was also feeling a mixture of frustration and bewilderment. How did I let this happen again?
I’ve narrated my journey through burnout in my work as a way to live my mental health out loud. I’ve shared what I have learned about the importance of self-care in both preventing and healing from burnout.
Yet, here I am again.
Despite the lessons from my past experiences with burnout and a commitment to self-care, I ended up in the same place–maybe worse.
Burnout apparently still had more to teach me.
Treating the Cause vs. the Symptoms
Self-care is important. In fact, self-care is vital when it comes to our mental and physical health.
When you have a meaningful and effective self-care practice, it makes you stronger and more resilient to the stresses and challenges of everyday life.
Sometimes, self-care acts like a vitamin to help you build strength to prevent you from getting ill. Other times, it acts like a pain reliever, helping to make the current stressful situation survivable.
But here’s the lesson I seem to have missed: Self-care doesn’t address the root cause of burnout.
Imagine finding yourself in the middle of a lake with heavy weights tied around both of your legs.
At first, through pure strength and determination, you might keep yourself above water but you get tired quickly and start to struggle.
A self-care practice acts as a life preserver. It helps you stay afloat and not get pulled under by the weights tied to you. The heavier the weights and the choppier the waves, the more life-preservers you need to just stay near the top of the water.
In time, the numerous self-care practices start to consume a lot of time and energy. You struggle to hang on to all of those life-preservers, losing your grip on a few as you begin to sink.
This is what it felt like to me. No matter how many self-care practices I tried, no matter what they were, I was getting pulled under the surface.
It wasn’t until I realized that I was getting pulled under that it finally occurred to me what needed to happen.
Untie the weights.
Burnout has a Cause
As I’ve taken time to reflect and begin my healing, it’s become crystal clear that I’ve been avoiding the root cause of my burnout.
My business was wearing me down.
This cycle started in the summer of 2020. As the world was disrupted by COVID, my business and work had to adapt to survive.
In hindsight, I’m grateful and proud of my efforts at that time. I adapted to seize opportunities that were available at the time. By most measures, the business did really well throughout the pandemic considering the circumstances.
This took me down a path with the business that led to a place where my work began taking far more energy to run than it was returning to me. I’d created a business that was slowly and steadily consuming me.
It became the weight that I had tied to my own legs.
As a result, I didn’t have the resilience I might have otherwise had to rise to the challenges of life. This led to burnout in the summers of 2020 and 2022.
Each time, I turned to self-care life preservers to stay afloat. But I never considered untying the weights that were pulling me under. In fact, I think I may have added more.
Then I arrived to this summer.
When I told a friend that I had realized I was burned out, she replied, simply, “Of course you are.”
When I look back over the past few years, it’s been a doozy of a ride.
There was that whole global pandemic thing.
Then there was death. I lost both of my last living grandparents and one of my closest friends.
Add onto that the experiences we’ve had with my wife’s campaigns for mayor and state legislature. Both were hard-fought, intensely partisan battles that didn’t go our way. This alone is enough to break a lot of people.
Pile this stuff on top of a business that was grinding me down and it seems almost comically obvious that I’d end up in burnout or worse.
The Lessons in the Struggle
As I work on healing, I’m approaching the process differently this time.
While I’m still leaning into self-care practices like meditation, sleep, exercise, and retreat time; this time I’m also focusing on addressing the root cause–untie the weight that’s pulling me under.
My work is a calling. It’s what I was put on this planet to do and when I do it the right way, it fills me with energy and joy and passion.
The necessities of the pandemic forced me off course for a bit. I’m grateful to have weathered the storm. But, it’s time to get back on the path.
It’s time to cut loose the weights that are pulling me under.
There will be changes coming and I’m still making sense of it all. But I am feeling energized and optimistic about the path ahead.
I’ve learned a few things through this experience, and I’m sure I will learn many more as I process and heal. Here’s a few insights I’ve gleaned thus far.
Perhaps they will help you take steps to avoid being where I am.
- Listen to the people who know you best. When they ask if you are okay, it’s not a question. They are telling you that they can see YOU AREN’T OKAY and they are worried about you. Instead of shrugging it off (“I’m fine”), take it to heart and do something about it. Ask for help if you don’t know what to do.
- Find the weights. When you discover you are burned out or that you might be burned out, remember to both heal yourself and determine what caused the burnout. If you don’t, you’ll likely find yourself right back in the same spot again in the future. This might mean taking a hard look at your workload or finding a new job. It might mean finally getting out of a bad relationship. It might mean finally investing in taking care of your health. Whatever it is, find that weigth and care deeply enough about yourself to cut it loose.
- Name how you are feeling and talk about it with others. The more I’ve shared my experiences with friends and colleagues, the more I understand it (and feel understood). In these conversations, people share their similar experiences with you and you know you aren’t alone in the struggle. Plus, when you talk about what you are going through, it allows those who love you to provide more help and support.
- Slow down. Life isn’t a race and you aren’t falling behind. You are right where you are supposed to be. This is a lesson I’ve needed to learn for the past twenty-five years. And I’ll credit this one to Brianna West, author of a book I have found really helpful as I’m recovering, When You’re Ready, This is How You Heal. Pick it up if you need someone to remind you that you are worth the effort it takes to heal.
My hope is that I won’t need to share future posts about my experiences with burnout. I’m optimistic that this was the lesson that I had yet to learn that equips me to move forward and onto the next chapter.
If my journey feels resonant to you, know that you aren’t alone and that it’s not your fault. If you are feeling burned out, talk to someone. And find some time and space to unplug. It isn’t permanent. You can find your way to the other side.
Reach out if I can help you on your journey.
Until next time.
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