Burnout was always something that happened to the other person. I would read about someone who had experienced burnout and wonder how they ever managed to get themselves into that place. For some, it was an experience of recognizing they needed to take some time and hit the reset button on their life to regain balance. For others, it was a complete implosion of their life with family and friends often experiencing collateral damage. I would shake my head and wonder to myself, “How could they have let this happen?”.
And then I burned out.
It was approximately my fifteenth year of pastoral ministry. In those fifteen years I had pastored one other meeting and had also served a stint in a Yearly Meeting administrative position. At the time of my burnout, I was serving in a highly active and growing Friends meeting. It would be easy to blame the externals as the cause of my burnout, but the truth is that burnout always begins within. We may have external responses and coping mechanisms that manifest outwardly but it is always a journey that begins inwardly. And I use the term “journey” intentionally because burnout is never an experience that happens instantaneously. Rather, it is the result of weeks, months, and years of soul neglect. In fact, burnout is like the “Check Engine” light on the dashboard of your car. When that light goes off, you are being alerted to pay attention and deal with the issue lest you damage your engine. Likewise, burnout is a big “Check Soul” light going off inwardly and inviting us to pay attention lest we damage our soul and the relationships around us.
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger is generally credited with developing the term burnout
. In his book he identifies several signs that can signal a person is experiencing burnout. These signs include exhaustion, detachment, boredom and cynicism, increased impatience and irritability, psychosomatic complaints, and depression just to name a few.
In fact, there is no end of books one could Google and read about burnout and its symptoms. These can all be very helpful and offer someone a beginning point on their journey back to health and wholeness but simply knowing the symptoms doesn’t guarantee we’re addressing the source of our burnout. For me, I needed to address the source.
As I have reflected over the years, I have identified these areas as the source of my burnout.
Approval Addiction – One of my growing edges has been valuing myself and my sense of being without the need for external approval. In my hunger for approval, I would get caught up in the trappings of appearances, image-management, and external markers of success. This would turn me into a driven person who was willing to neglect my soul in pursuit of meeting people’s expectations and appearing as if I had it all together. As in all addictions, I would often come down from a high but then go looking for the next “hit”. Therefore, to this day, I often refer to myself as a person in recovery. One day at a time.
Poor Boundaries – Another growing edge has been doing the hard work of defining myself and what I will take on and what I will not take on. This is part of my recovery journey. When I am not clear about my call and my limits, I have a hard time saying no. When, though, I am clear about the big “YES” in my life, I can define my limits and serve comfortably within my sweet spot. My boundaries also have to do with being honest about my energy level and taking time to rest and leaving enough margin in my life to replenish my body and soul.
Lack of Connection – A final source of my burnout, and a growing edge, has been deepening my connections. What I mean by “connections” is nurturing my relationships with the valued people in my life as well as nurturing my relationship with the Divine. I have come to discover that living disconnected from my relationships and from God sets me up to seek out “connection” from other sources. Unfortunately, though, this sets me up to seek out validation and affirmation from achievement and success as well as look for comfort from less then healthy sources.
In addiction and recovery language, I bottomed out. Without going into many details, my “bottoming out” cost me a job, cost me my integrity, and almost cost me my marriage. But when you “bottom out” you have a chance to find your way back.
Here is what I did to find my way back.
First, I found a good therapist and engaged in counseling for about two years. I still go back when I feel I am in need of emotional maintenance. Second, I did some honest self-reflection on why I would exit my relationships and seek out false intimacy elsewhere. This led me to deepen my connections in my marriage as well as with good friends. Third, I sought to regain balance in my life by engaging in engaging in activities that replenished me and brought me joy. Neglecting healthy enjoyment can set us up for burnout. Fourth, I met regularly with (and still do) with a personal coach that served as a “Though Partner” and helped me think through “next steps” in my life. Finally, I have been more intentional in contemplative practices which help to nurture in my life a disposition of mindfulness as well as being more present to myself.
The late Henri Nouwen refers to burnout as “spiritual death”. If that is the case, as people of faith, then, we know that on the other side of death is always resurrection. Burnout does not have to be the end nor carry the stigma of shame. In fact, it can be the beginning of a renewed journey filled with deeper self-awareness and hopeful energy for each day. Burnout can feel like death but, in the end, it always has the potential for new life.