Burnout seems to be one of these “dirty words” that we use to describe some kind of failure to produce. Whether a person is describing themselves or someone else, I don’t know that the weight of failure is a helpful thing to add to an assessment of a person’s state of being. Not that failure is the worst thing - in fact, it is an important part of growth. The issue is that sometimes the cultural understanding of the word failure triggers a shame response because it is tied to some form of character flaw.
That is simply not accurate, and while we’re not going to be focusing on that larger issue of shame and its ability to devastate our personal wellness and health, I believe it is something that we need to keep in mind when unpacking the concept of burnout. When we become more aware of the subtext of words, we can be more intentional about how and when we use them.
I mention this so that as we move forward, we can remember that burnout can carry with it some larger meaning. So, let’s begin a deeper dive into burnout. Burnout is not simply a descriptive term; it's a psychological term that communicates, “I am mentally and/or physically exhausted because of excessive and prolonged stress.”
No one is a failure when they are exhausted. They are just a human who has a limited amount of resources. I recently had a conversation with someone where we talked about how he was fully skilled and able to work on specific tasks but found himself frustrated because he wasn’t being given the opportunity to use his talents within a project setting. Because I have a good relationship with this person and I have developed a level of trust, I was able to reflect a little bit of truth into the conversation. What I shared was that there is a difference between ability and capacity. We may have the full ability to do something and have even done it before, but there are seasons of life where we just won’t have the capacity in our systems to access all of those skills or to sustain their use.
This is not failure. This is not a reduction of worth. This is just the reality that there are not enough resources to engage those skills and apply them in a healthy and helpful way.
When our identity is tied to being helpful, solving problems, or being the expert (note: this is not an exhaustive list of things that our identity might be entwined with), this becomes a bit of a pain point for us because it threatens our sense of value and worth. It's understandable, as there is a cultural tie between worth and production. That connection of understanding is not helpful for developing a healthy sense of self. Instead, it can further deplete internal resources or inhibit the recovery of those essential pieces.
Coming to terms with being unable to access something in our systems is a helpful piece of truth-telling that allows us to enter into an appropriate grief and loss process to release the things for which we were hoping and then find a new way of being. Not in the ‘let it go’ dismissive fashion, but instead within a healthier process that helps to build a piece of neural strategy pathway.
This connects with burnout because that same process of letting go with compassion is the most helpful way to frame the reality of burnout. We can’t access our resources when we have already used them. Or, more pointedly, burned them. The consumption of our resources and the reality of not having any more tells the truth that there just isn’t any more at that point. While we’ll talk more later about how we might be able to buffer ourselves from burnout and build strategies for rebuilding resources, burnout is simply a state of being.
These factors combined create a circumstance where one is no longer able to fully function in that particular area, and often, others as well. Unfortunately, it is a sustaining cycle as these three factors can continue to increase each other if there is no interruption.
It is essential to point out that burnout is not a sign of psychological weakness. People from all walks of life and types of circumstances can find themselves in a season of burnout.
So if any of these factors resonate with you, carry with you the truth that it is not anything deficient in you; it is a normal defensive response to excessive and prolonged stress. It is your brain and body distancing themselves from an onslaught of stress.
I think it is also important to note that burnout is meant as an early warning system for our brains and bodies to create an awareness that if we continue on this pathway without any change, we can come to an even deeper level of harm that will result in lasting and harmful effects beyond just one season. Burnout is the cautionary alert that invites us to become more attuned to ourselves and the circumstances that trigger our stress response system. When we learn from these important times of life, we can identify what would be most helpful to add or remove to our practices, support systems, and ways of being.
Understanding burnout and making sense of how we have arrived at that state gives us an opportunity to create more capacity and compassion in our lives so that when stressors emerge, we can better cope and bring our full and authentic selves into all of our spheres.
Can you identify with any of these factors in your present life? What about within the last three years?