Last year I published an article in Quartz arguing that teacher burnout is one of the biggest social justice issues of our time. I really meant it. If our passionate teachers continue to burn out and leave education, our most vulnerable kids will suffer, the opportunity and achievement gaps will widen, and the health of our economy will continue to erode.
But do you know who else is suffering from burnout? Therapists. And that’s at least as important; burnout is so painful when you are passionate about your work. It feels like a major betrayal to the part of you that loves your role as the caretaker.
About two years ago, I was in the throes of major burnout myself. I just didn’t give a sh*t anymore, despite being a person who was always deeply committed to my work.
I was wrung out by the pace, hadn’t had a real break–even a weekend–in months, and finally, I just ground to a halt. Exhausted. Miserable. Done.
Battling burnout with kindness
Within that Quartz article is this provocative statement: “When you start to feel the first signs of burnout, the worst thing you can do is push through.” This statement sits on two pillars of evidence:
- Real World Experience. As part of my work, I’ve spoken with educators, therapists, and corporate warriors who have come out on the other side of burnout. They (and I) have been able to care deeply about their work again. There are many different tips and tricks they offer, but the one thing we all agreed on is this: You can’t just push through.
Burnout doesn’t resolve through sheer force of will; you have to pull back and give yourself a break. You need to create space where you aren’t doing the work nor are you thinking about the work.
- Psychology. When I think of burnout from a psychological perspective, I see it fall into two categories.
- One is the deterioration of your ego recovery program.
- The other is the accumulation of small emotional traumas until you feel like you are in a full-scale emotional crisis.
Both of these require kindness, not brute force, to resolve.
The newest part of your brain, evolutionarily, is the prefrontal cortex. It’s responsible for helping you to make decisions, make interesting connections between the things you see, and suppressing your negative responses. Think of these things as ego management.
The interesting thing about your ego is that it gets tired. Other parts of your brain don’t; your limbic system, for example, doesn’t ever get tired of helping you to breathe.
But this newer part of our brain does run out of energy. Think about it: by the end of the day, you are much more likely to eat a whole box of cookies, yell at some lucky person who lives with you, and cry. Right? You’re also much more likely to avoid making hard decisions as well as avoid new and novel problems like the plague.
But that’s okay, because you are about to unplug, decompress, and sleep. These things give your brain the time it needs to take care of business–to consolidate memories, resolve open loops, and generate resources–and rebuild your ego for all the new innovation, creativity, decisions and negative suppressions you’ve got going on tomorrow.
But wait–what happens when you’re so busy that you’re not sleeping? How about when you aren’t taking time off on the weekends, and not ever decompressing? You will begin to fray around the edges, starting each new day further and further behind. This will make you feel like a crazy person, wondering why you aren’t able to avoid hollering at your kids when they’ve asked a simple question. This is a vicious cycle that can’t be resolved with anything but rest. You need to take a real break. Read more about that here.
The other strain from burnout is emotional wear and tear. Working with people all day who are in distress, deeply depressed, or processing trauma, will wear on you. If you aren’t processing the impact their trauma has on you, it will begin to build up and drag you down.
And you can’t just tell yourself to “deal with it” indefinitely. Your own emotional well-being deserves to be processed and given the time to Think about a child whose feelings have been hurt because a friend has told her she’s stupid.
How effective is it to get in her face and yell, “DEAL WITH IT! THAT’S LIFE!”? Not very.
So stop doing it to yourself. You get enough emotional trauma from the outside world; your job is to offer kindness, space to heal, and whatever is going to give you some some space to heal and regain some inner balance.
There you have it. Burnout– whether it’s primarily from a self-care deficit that has crippled your ego response system or an accumulation of emotional trauma– MUST be handled with kindness. This brow-beating that you’ve been doing is making everything worse. So stop it. Now.