I am tired of burn out.
I am tired of talking about it and thinking about it. I am tired of hearing about it and trying to help my clients work through it while I am struggling with it at the same time. We already know we are living through historical times- I think everybody is tired of hearing that too. We need to learn to take care of ourselves during these times, and it has been hard to figure out. We have faced isolation and grief over the last 3 years that most of us have never seen before. This complicates things in ways we could never have predicted or imagined, and we are facing not just work burn out, but life burn out.
I know that you have heard this before but I want you to know there are things you can do, and I hope that you are already working on it. Maybe some of the things I have learned will be helpful to you. I like to say, take what’s helpful, leave what’s not.
One of the things that has helped me significantly is realizing that I don’t have to be afraid to talk about feelings of burn out. Feeling this way doesn’t mean I have to change my entire career- it doesn’t mean I have to stop doing work that I love. I am a therapist, and I hear this misconception a lot from colleagues and clients. When we can talk about the problem, we can find acceptance for the problem, and that is where we find the freedom to change. I know that sounds like the obvious therapist thing to say but here’s what I know; feelings of burnout and job satisfaction will come and go over the course of all careers- it is how we address it in those moments that can help keep us in the work we enjoy.
And especially if you are in a helping profession like me, I want you to know that we don’t have to pretend that we have it all together in our own lives in order to help others. Listen, I am not advocating for doing therapy when you are mentally unsafe. I am saying that it is okay to address your everyday (and even some big) life concerns while you are working. But we must be actively working on our own shit so we can be at our most effective when helping others and more importantly, to help ensure we are causing no harm to our clients. I see people who are afraid to acknowledge their own life struggles because that may mean they aren’t “fit” to help anymore. We all know how it works out when we don’t acknowledge a problem- right?
So do what we ask our clients, our friends, and our family to do: do your own work and go to therapy. These are two separate actions. Going to therapy isn’t enough- do the work the therapy prescribes. Take part in consultation with trusted coworkers and hold yourself accountable for your actions. If you are a helper, I believe you have a higher responsibility to your mental health and I challenge you to bravely face this concern. I think it is a slippery slope when we begin to feel like we are the ones who help, but we are never the ones who need the help. Get help when you need it. I want to be a good therapist for a long time. That means being honest with myself about what is working and what is not, then making any needed changes and holding myself accountable.
We must also learn to reject the title of “burnt out” as some sort of badge of honor in helping professions. In every clinic and agency I have ever worked, the culture of overworking and overextending yourself for the clients is paramount. It’s as if people believe that burn out proves their dedication to their work, and anything less is proof of no commitment.
This is a culture that has been encouraged in many professions, and it is the companies who largely benefit from it- I know colleagues and clients do not. Some professions seem to be addressing this type of work pressure, and people are expecting better environments from their work which seems to be causing big changes to many industries. However I feel the helping professions lag behind, with many companies and supervisors being more concerned about productivity goals than actual outcomes for clients or clinician mental health. We often carry a lot of guilt for work that is never ending, driving us to work more than we should and blur the boundary between work and home. I am working hard to reject the idea that burn out is a normal and expected part of what I do.
Another thing that really helps me when I feel burn out, honestly, is an attitude adjustment. I realize that when I feel burned out, it is often because I feel overwhelmed with things that seem beyond my control. I work with clients who have enduring abuse and trauma, who try to function in systems that seem determined to undermine them, and more than sometimes, it feels very heavy. It can be difficult to balance the complexities of my privilege, my own history of trauma, and the needs of my clients within these existing social and economic systems that I largely cannot change. If you couple that with current events and the vitriol of the political stage- it is just a lot. Too much.
An attitude adjustment is my conscious way of working through this. I remind myself to identify what I can and cannot control. I remind myself to focus my attention on those areas that I can control, and I look for signs that I am doing well, and I try to celebrate small victories and find moments to do little things that I used to like, even if its just for a few minutes, to remind myself that we are constantly relearning how to live.
But I am not one of those therapists that advocates for false positivity. I really hate that shit- its surface level and fake and I don’t have time for it. But I do think we need to romanticize our lives a bit. There is beauty and adventure in the mundane and everyday if you remember to see it. And believe it or not, you can appreciate the beauty of the morning while still being cranky as hell that you had to be up.
Because human persons have a range of emotions for a reason. Our feelings are rarely black and white and we can have more than one at a time. I believe that our feelings are a part of the information we collect about our environment and our experience. And because of that, I try to think about what the feeling is trying to tell me. So I believe that within the feeling of burnout is some very important information about how we need to work or live to be at our best. If we slow down and listen to that voice, we can make adjustments in our life that will help us to get through whatever we are dealing with right now.
I think that it is worth noting that whatever we feed, grows. There is a difference between understanding and honoring our feelings and living in them. We can become “stuck” in a mood, subconsciously feeding it while desperately wanting out. Our thoughts and behaviors can settle into unhelpful patterns and we can become resentful and feel hopeless. Moving out of these patterns means recognizing them and consciously working to change them. This is hard to do and requires that we both give ourselves grace and hold ourselves accountable for doing the work.
I also would like to add, and loudly for the people in the back, that mindfulness will not fix this. At least not as the cure all coping skill it is made out to be by some people. Please see my thoughts about false positivity. And a vacation or time away can be a great place to start if you can manage it, but your burn out will still be waiting for you when you come back into the office- ask me how I know.
I know that in many fields including the helping ones, burn out was bad before the pandemic and has become an increasing concern over the last three years. I think we need to listen to that message that many of us are receiving collectively and really take a look at how we define work and how we can stay healthy for the long term as we do it. Because I believe the other part of managing burn out is about setting real boundaries with our work and life and making objective choices to change our environment or reduce our load or begin to work in areas or projects that we enjoy more. A big part of what helps me is the knowledge that I am in charge of how I spend my time, whether working or not. If my environment isn’t working well for me, then I am not going to be as good as I can be for myself or my clients.
Some days I feel like I have it all figured out and other days I am reminded that I don’t know anything at all really. I know we are all doing the best we can, and we just have to keep riding these waves as best we can.