What Burnout Looks Like

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A couple of months ago, I thought I was depressed. I was living under a soul-deep exhaustion I hadn’t felt in years, the kind where an unbidden I am so tired echoes in your brain constantly. I’d experienced a lot of changes in a short time without a real chance to process them. I’d been busy every night and getting home at 9 pm for what seemed like forever. Every day I woke up thinking, What do I have to do today?, and every day I felt a little more defeated by the answer. In my few hours at home, I’d make a chore list, then flop onto my bed and stare at my phone for an hour. I cried a lot, sometimes for no real reason. My near future blurred into an endless stretch of full planner pages that suddenly felt more like a prison than evidence of a happily active life. After years of constant busy-ness, my tank was finally empty and I knew it. I had no reserves left to draw from and nothing left to give anybody. I wanted to sleep for a week while someone cleaned my house for me and brought me food. I even lacked the energy to feel ashamed that I felt this way with only myself to take care of, on a hamster wheel mostly of my own making. When the harried wife and mother in my head started in, Let me tell you what REAL exhaustion is, I waved her away with a Yeah, whatever.

I thought I was depressed. I’d get better. No big deal.

A couple of weeks into this, the head pastor at my new church announced that he was taking a sabbatical. No crises or scandals, he assured us. He and the elders had just agreed that he was burned out and needed a rest. He read a list of signs of ministry burnout, and even though I’m not a professional minister, I had every single one. I don’t have his exact list, but here are some signs of burnout I’ve drawn from various sources:

– Decreased motivation and productivity
– Increased cynicism/despair/hopelessness about your life, future, and potential impact on the world
– Reduced sense of personal accomplishment
– Reduced ability to deal with stress
– Feeling disconnected and withdrawn from, and easily irritated by, others, including your loved ones and even God
– Oversensitivity to negative comments and/or people not liking you
– Assuring everyone (including yourself) that you will slow down “soon”
– And the checkmate, for me: Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. I’d been trying to relax whenever I could for a few weeks, but it wasn’t helping at all. I’d actually just told a friend that I felt like it would take a month holed up at home to even start feeling rested.

I knew then that I wasn’t depressed in a typical sense. I was burned out. Turns out, burnout is a very real thing and it can take A YEAR or more to fully recover. (It’s kind of like losing pregnancy weight, I guess. You didn’t get there overnight; you’re not going to get back overnight.)

When I shared my revelation with friends, they agreed and firmly encouraged me to take a sabbatical too. Unfortunately, rest for rest’s sake is not a thing in corporate America, so I couldn’t take a real break from work. But I’ve stepped back and de-structured in other areas. I’ve been doing this crazy thing where if I don’t feel like doing something, and it’s not urgent or important, I just don’t do it. I’ve never reached this point before, so this is my first genuine proof that if I’m not always at the top of my game and don’t do everything asked of me, the world keeps turning and nobody dies. I don’t plan to live this way forever (she assures everyone hurriedly), but I’m not going back to the old way either. This is a reassessment of my lifestyle and of what I can reasonably expect of myself. I’ve heard about the Spoon Theory from friends dealing with various conditions. Well, I think I’ve always allotted myself a freaking drawer full of spoons instead of an average amount for one person, and judged myself accordingly.

This week has been my busiest since I scaled back. The holidays are really over, everything is cranking up again, and it’s getting tougher to maintain the balance. I was out late-ish after work three nights in a row – things I wanted to do, but each night I hit a wall early and collapsed into bed as soon as I got home. Dejected, I told Alanna, “My tolerance for activity is really down. I wonder if I always felt this way and wasn’t paying attention.” She replied, “Not necessarily. Your body may be saying, I’ve had it and these are the new rules.”

These are the new rules.

– I don’t have to say yes to everything. I can sometimes say no, and no is a complete sentence. People will understand and will not instantly dismiss me as selfish or boring. If they do, I probably don’t need them in my life.

– I don’t have to be 100% dedicated to every group or organization I’m involved with. It’s okay to miss some meetings or band practices. They will be fine without me. If they disapprove of my “inconsistency,” maybe quitting entirely would do us both a favor.

– I don’t have to keep a perfectly spotless, perfectly orderly home. I used to believe I had no excuse because it’s only me in the house. Now I’m like, it’s only me in the house, and it’s okay if you can tell someone lives there. Also, I need to be there enough to make home more than just the place where I sleep and feed my cat.

– I don’t have to accomplish All The Things every single day. Life is not all or nothing. It’s okay to do things in stages. The end result is the same – it just takes longer.

– I don’t have to post on this blog a certain number of times per week. Lower page views are not the boss of me. I will write when I have something to say.

– If I’m exhausted when I get into bed at night, for goodness’ sake, I can go right to sleep. That book and the latest Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battle will still be there tomorrow.

The good news is, I’m beginning to feel better. I’m thinking more clearly, feeling less overwhelmed, and looking forward to things again. In the past, I’d respond to this slight improvement by jumping back into everything full throttle. This time, I know that would put me back at square one or worse. This is a struggling candle flame, and I plan to tend it very carefully here in the dead of winter.

About Brenda W.

Christian. Memphian. Reader. Writer. True blue Tiger fan. Lover of shoes, the ocean, adventure, and McAlister's iced tea. View all posts by Brenda W. →
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10 Responses to What Burnout Looks Like

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m so glad you’re taking care of yourself! You always have so much going on, and especially as an introvert, I wondered how you managed to get it all done and be out all the time. You do need this time to recharge and take care of yourself.

    *big hugs*

  2. Anonymous says:

    Girl…I’m so protective of my downtime, I’m sure some folks think I’m crazy or boring. I don’t care…I know I need it to be at my best…just like I need to eat & sleep. I’m SO glad you are making an effort to reclaim your downtime. Plus, boring means “uninteresting.” So people that equate downtime with boring need a dictionary. There is nothing boring about rest, calm, lack of chaos, relaxation, &/or recharging. You are a very interesting, thoughtful, insightful person who just needs a break. That’s totally the opposite of boring!

  3. Katharine says:

    I wonder if your life as a single, unattached person, which does give you more freedom, has actually backfired in that you somehow don’t feel you’re entitled to an excuse to say no, or you feel like this is what you’re “supposed” to be doing. For instance, I feel absolutely no guilt about saying no given that I’m mom to two small children AND in grad school. But somehow you feel like you can’t. And I think you’re discovering that you CAN.

    • Brenda W. says:

      Right. I DON’T feel like I have an excuse, because we all know the general perception that single people have all the resources in the world. No pressure!!!!

  4. I’m glad you’re starting to feel better. Burnout is hard. And if it isn’t dealt with, it leads to depression.

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