This past summer, I "hit the wall" and decided to take time off. I gave myself one month to rejuvenate. I fully intended to return to work to a full slate of business appointments and projects that had been waiting to be moved forward. But things rarely go as planned.
Instead of being back in the saddle, I slipped into a downward spiral on my second day back in the office. At the end of the week, my sister called, asked a mundane question (one so ordinary that I can't even remember what it was) and then said, "Are you okay? You don't sound okay." I burst into tears. I felt worse than I had before my time off. Photo by D'Arcy Norman
Like a battery that had been recharged one too many times, the little juice I had stored up was used quickly. I needed more than a quick plug in the socket. I needed a new battery.
Depleted spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and now, physically, I knew that if I didn't completely stop, my burnout would lead to illness. I was already headed in that direction. I decided to take an extended leave of absence--three months--from my startup, My Alumni Link.
One month after hitting bottom, here are some things I'm learning.
- Burnout occurs when perspective and hope are lost. The late psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, defines burn out as "the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results."
It's only in hindsight that I can see the true causes of my depletion. Two conversations stand out in my mind.
In one, I am talking to a seasoned banker, who asks questions to assess the situation with my start-up, including whether I've invested a lot of money in the company. (I have not.) After hearing the data, he says firmly, "Things will be alright." Later, I send him marketing collateral, contracts and proposals, as a way to understand my sales process. He says, "I don't know why you are concerned. This is very thorough." The more I talked to people, the more I realized that the situation was not as dire as my monkey mind would lead me to believe. I had lost perspective on what I had accomplished and focused on what I hadn't. Photo by renaissancechambara.
In the second conversation, I am talking to a fellow entrepreneur, who has gone through her own journey of burn out. She now provides programs that address the issues of depletion and struggle for small biz owners. She asks me about My Alumni Link and I tell her about products, sales conversion rates, distribution channels and business models. She tells me, "You've done more than most clients I work with. You've got the pieces there, it's just configuring them in a new way--a tweak here and there." I find comfort and more importantly, hope, in her words. It doesn't matter if she can help me. What matters is that I believe there is another way, that doesn't require the struggle that I've experienced over the last two years. Hope is part of the recipe for my recovery. Photo by polsifter.
- Life is not about achievement. It's about experiences. These are wise words from a longtime friend. She went on to say that if we view life as a way to gather experiences, then we can be unattached to outcomes. How the story turns out isn't as important as the fact that we lived the story. Through this lens of experience, nothing is good or bad. It just is.
Author Joan Borysenko points to the downside of focusing on results: "The more attached I get to a particular outcome, the less that Life can flow through me." I think Borysenko is referring to our internal life force, the thing that makes us human and not automatons.
A friend told me that she asks two questions when she finds herself in a tough spot, "What am I learning?" and "Who am I becoming?" Both of these questions point to the opportunity for our experiences to transform us. And they helped me to reframe my idea of failure.
- Ditch control for choice. I went through a period of not knowing whether an innocent remark would lead to a crying jag or whether I would have enough energy for a scheduled appointment. I could not control how I would feel from moment to moment. But I could make the choice to stop playing the game. Even after I decided to take a time out, I persisted in finding a way to keep the sales pipeline going for my start up--asking not just one, but several trusted family members and colleagues to stand in for me on sales calls. It was only after I was willing to shut the business down for three months and walk away from potential revenue that I found peace. Sure, our finances would suffer, but it was a tradeoff that my family and I could live with.
- More people than you think will support your decision. I was humbled by the response from clients, colleagues, friends, and family when I told them I was taking time off to take care of myself. One university contact said it best in an email reply, "I hope you are back to your old self soon." Another called when she heard the news from a colleague and said compassionately, "We want and need you to get better." And yet another revealed that he, too, had gone through his own burn out after a divorce and reassured me that I could rebound, just like he had. My guess is that most adults have experienced aspects of depletion, some more intensely than others. Stepping off the treadmill is neither a reason for shame nor a badge of honor. It is an aspect of our shared humanity, made visible. Photo by vvonstruen.
- Find someone who understands what you are going through. While many people were supportive and sympathetic to my situation, this is different from having someone say, "I've been there and this is what you should know." When I was at my most vulnerable, I needed to know that I was not alone.
Just before hitting bottom, I emailed a friend to ask for help. Her email reply simply said, "CALL ME!" When we talked, her first words were startling. "You are in trouble, girlfriend." Unbeknownst to me, my friend had gone through a similar experience of burn out last year. She knew what it was like to ratchet back expectations, and the price your mind and body pay when you've overdone it. She also knew that recovery was something that couldn't be rushed. And she was insistent that I couldn't keep going the way I had been, without significant consequences. She took a stand for me when my Gremlins were saying, "What's wrong with you?" and calling me names like "slacker" and "wimp".
Later, my friend sent me the book, "Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive". In a perverse way, I found comfort in hearing how the author had trouble returning emails that required anything beyond a pat response. She had nothing left to give. I particularly resonated with her declaration, "I just want to be left alone." Later in the book, the author details the 12 stages of burnout, from Stage 1, Driven by an Ideal, to Stage 12, Mental and Physical Collapse. It was as if she was talking to me and again, I didn't feel so alone.
- There's no resiliency without building up the reserves. I had taken for granted the ability to bounce back, with just minimal time off. It had worked in the past. A friend pointed out that burn out is the cumulative result of neglecting oneself over time. There's no short cut to replacing what has been lost. Photo by @MSG
Building up reserves requires an extended duration where on a daily basis, I'm putting significantly more in my tank than I'm taking out. Thinking activities needed to be tempered with time when I could give my brain a rest. On some days, this looked like an afternoon nap, not answering email, and going on a low information diet. On other days, it meant reading on the patio, puttering in the garden and a walk after dinner. After weeks of this routine, I felt real progress.
- Pay yourself first. This is a saying that encourages stashing away savings after getting a paycheck. It also applies to how you allocate your energy. In the past, I've had more than enough energy to freely give it away to others--for a networking meeting to get to know someone better, to provide advice on a business idea, to talk about a thorny career issue. Normally, this type of giving of attention and expertise is fun and rewarding. But when I was struggling to make it through the day, giving to others--even fifteen minutes on the phone--was energy that I needed for myself. Photo by bigburpsx3
I'm learning to say no more, when yes would have been the default. It's still not easy, but I've come to see how precious one's life force is, how it can be snuffed out while no one's looking, and what it takes to rekindle it. Complete rest, like an exhale after holding your breath for far too long, is the first step. That initial rest gave me the energy to work on re-shaping my life.
In my next post, I'll talk about the road back to joy.