Burnout is a real, big, steaming hot problem in our world. But it doesn't have to be the end of the line for us. In fact, it can serve as a new beginning.
Burnout gets a good amount of airtime these days. It's on blogs. It's in books. It's around us enough that it's part of our lexicon in a pretty solid way.
Yet...talking about it, noticing it, thinking about it...it doesn't stop us from succumbing to it all too often. In fact, most of the time, we don't even notice it until it stops us - nearly dead - in our tracks.
In 2014, I left an amazing job as a nonprofit director. I loved the work. I cared deeply about the mission. And at the same time, I was enmeshed in it - it was what I thought defined me...that, and my other roles - longsuffering (read: unhappy) wife, mother, worship leader, a leader in general, and on and on. I had built myself a castle in the shape of what I thought I was supposed to look like and took up residence.
I had built myself a castle in the shape of what I thought I was supposed to look like and took up residence.
But, eventually, that castle was too small for who I was.
Even so, I insisted on staying. I insisted that I just needed to hack off a limb here, cut off a toe there. I believed that if I could just shrink myself and my expectations to fit the shape of the expectations of others that I had developed for myself, if I could just work a little more, a little harder - I would get where I was planning to go. Which was...I don't know...somewhere bigger, more Important (with a capital "i," duh!), more demanding.
It turns out, burnout comes fast and hard when we force ourselves to stay in a place we have outgrown, but not allowed ourselves to move past it to a place that can hold all of us as we are today.
Burnout comes anytime we give more of ourselves than we receive back in energy, inspiration, strength, and love. When we pour ourselves into careers that demand all of us, into relationships that demand all of us, into roles that demand all of us...eventually, we use up all of our reserves.
Burnout is a word that, if you really start to think about it, is a lot more literal than it appears at first glance. It seems at first, that perhaps "burnout" is just a vivid figure of speech - until, that is, you think about what energy and passion really are.
How do we always talk about passion? Fire! Energy is electric. Our hearts - in fact, many parts of us - burn with a fire that can totally be snuffed out if we don't tend to it. What happens when we fail to put wood on the campfire? It goes out. Yeah, it might stay warm enough for a while to let us loiter beside it late into the night. The embers are there...if we put more wood onto it and send in some oxygen we might get a good flame going again.
But if we don't, it goes out. All we're left with are charred pieces of wood, little bits of ash that remind us of what once was there. Ash that reminds us what was consumed.
Burnout can consume us and send us under if we aren't responsive to our needs and desires as they arise. When we force ourselves to stay longer than we need to stay, we invite burnout to come live with us there.
It's not all bad, though. Burnout - if it does occur - invites us to learn something about ourselves. It invites us to rise from the ashes anew and afresh. It invites us to be all of who we are - in a sustainable, refreshing, beautiful way we weren't able to allow before.
When I burned out, I didn't know what was wrong with me. I thought I might be dying. I quit my job out of fury and exhaustion, and then, I found myself basically taking a nap for four months while I stared at the wall and hoped I'd find the energy to write a few grants I had contracted to write with my former employer. It took a long time before I came back from that...maybe years, if I'm honest. A lot of things had to fall away before I was really in a place that I felt was strong and solid again.
Burnout is preventable and can be healed. It takes some learning, though. It takes some learning about how to listen to yourself - your whole self - and how to make choices that allow for space for you. It takes letting go of the need to be everything to everyone everywhere all the time, and allowing yourself some time and spaciousness.
After years of working through burnout and its consequences - and hidden gifts - I've put together a process for prevention and healing, and I'd like to invite you to check it out if you find yourself wondering how you'll get through another day where you are. If you find yourself thinking you have no options. If you wonder what burnout feels like and whether you might be experiencing it - come take a look.
I put this together - finally - after a lot of thought and consideration - when I ran across a post last week on a Facebook group for nonprofit people. It asked how many people had developed an ulcer since starting work in a nonprofit development office (fundraising, for the layperson)...more than 200 responses later, I was floored at how real, how prevalent, and how incredibly damaging burnout is - physically, mentally, emotionally - and beyond - into our very survival and existence - to humans who are just trying to do some good in the world. The time has come to change this story. It starts with you. It starts with me. We get to change this tape. We get to switch this script.
Sarai Johnson is a writer, speaker, and truth-teller with years and years and years of experience in the nonprofit sector - burnout central. Her work has centered on helping people and organizations transform themselves to gain more freedom, liberation, and self-determination. She has been burnout free for two years and four months, and invites you to join her in the land of being OK - even great, much of the time. If you'd like to check out The Other Side of Burnout: Building Resilience and Personal Strength, you can get $100 off through July 7th with the code: UnicornSolidarity.