I’m telling the story because it’s a familiar one to many people I work with.
The great thing is, they can, and often do, turn things around.
I hope you do too.
This man, a senior leader in his organisation, had been overworking for months and years. Finally he broke down with exhaustion. He’d ignored the signs for years, and tried to cover them up, but now he couldn’t fight it any more.
He realised that the burn out had a purpose: without pain we don’t change. He also realised that things were wrong with the whole of his life. If he didn’t change, he was not going to make it. Just when he’d hit rock bottom, he discovered he was desperate enough to do something to start to get better.
To fully recover, he had to stare his ‘junk’ in the face. If he didn’t, nothing would really change, and he would be right back to square one. He had been pushing himself to achieve more and more. Yet success doesn’t fix anything. We have the same problems and compulsions and addictions, only now we have more stress and more problems and more pressure.
It’s easy to try to fix things by dealing with what’s on the surface. If we’re stressed we make adjustments to time management, for instance. But the question is, why do we take on so much? Or even, why is it so hard for me to say no?
Facing his pain
This burnt out man discovered that some of his experiences in childhood produced a drive in him to succeed and prove himself and show others. He also knew it had been easier to keep going than to stop. To stop meant he had to face his own pain, and that was scary.
The problem is, we usually do just keep going. We find just enough reserves to keep up the pretence, but actually we’re barely hanging on. The ‘little blips’, as we keep pushing ourselves, such as ill health, exhaustion, or complete break-downs, are ignored at our peril. We have to change.
There comes a moment when the pain is so great that the need to change is the only option. Anything else is just window shopping; we may look for a moment or even try it on, but we aren’t taking anything home with us.
Turning things around
This man began his recovery by starting to identify how much of his life was about making sure the right people were pleased with him. As he became clear of how much this impacted his life, he realised how little he was pleased with himself. He knew what he was NOT, but had little idea of who he really was. He knew he was not a super leader, or good at being in the office 9 to 5, or happy in meetings that were too long, or good at managing his time.
His life had become all about reaction to things, most of which he didn’t like, and nothing to do with what he liked or proactively chose.
So this man decided he had to make some choices; to say yes to certain things and no to other things. He realised he had a deep sense of shame and guilt because he felt he wasn’t working hard enough, and he believed that lie because he didn’t function as a super leader. This image sustained itself in him through years of believing that was how he needed to act and work and be. He realised he had to kill off this super leader in order to move forward.
A new start
He decided to start by taking one day a week off work. At first he couldn’t even do this; he would become so depressed. He realised that his life was all about keeping the adrenaline buzz going, and that he was only happy when he kept going all the time.
When he finally did manage to stop, he discovered that he was loved just because he existed, not because of what he achieved. His day off now is a day when his work is done, even if it isn’t. A day when his only job is to enjoy, fully available to himself and to those he loves most. When at the end he says “I didn’t do anything today”, and doesn’t add, “And I feel so guilty”. A day when he sits still and stares out of the window and lets the engine come to an idle. When the phone is turned off, he doesn’t check his email, and non-one can get hold of him.
This man discovered his approach of years had to be replaced with a whole new way of life. An honest way, completely congruent with who he is, not living a lie, or being driven by forces he hadn’t chosen. One that allows him to get to really know, and appreciate who he is, and one that means he is living from his soul.
Adapted from Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell
Avoiding Burn Out
His story of burn out is, sadly, familiar.
We keep going, pushing ourselves. Even when all the signs show we’re breaking. Probably to hide the real work we need to do.
And that work is the route to real fulfilment and contentment.
What are you ‘driven’ to do or to be?
When do you feel to be on a treadmill, rather than enjoying life?
What do you need to stop, face, and change?
When will you accept, or even love, yourself, and allow yourself to be you?
What has to happen for you to stop and choose your life?
When will you live from your soul?
You can read more about stress, including take a quiz to assess your own stress levels, in my article How to Manage Your Stress.