By: Sarah Normandin – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
I’ve been burned out before, more than once, with no good explanation. It was not because I had too many responsibilities or was working 80 hours a week. Unfortunately, it was for a more mundane reasons that I found myself both physically and mentally at ground zero on several occasions. Someone had been pushing me pretty hard, and it was taking a toll. You see, I was in an abusive relationship with my own mind and it had been going on for far too long.
I tend to have extremely high expectations of myself. I’m not a big fan of feeling vulnerable, possibly looking like I don’t know what I’m doing, following directions, failure of any type, or not appearing like I totally have my shit together. That’s a fairly redundant way to say, I like to do things the “right” way. I fear criticism and not knowing the correct answer. And it has taken me a long time to accept that being perfect is not really possible. In order to get out of bed in the morning, I have to be prepared–I need to accept that I’m probably going to make a mistake in the first 3 minutes of being awake. And the mistakes will only add up from there. That’s a lot to swallow when your main goal in life is to live error-free.
I cohabitate with a tiny, demanding voice that tells me exactly how I can do this. There are rules and punishments and shaming if I don’t do what it instructs. The voice tells me about how I’m scoring on the productivity scale, what other people probably think about me, how I can look more attractive, how much I should exercise, what I should eat, how I should parent, how much I’m allowed to sleep or rest, and a million other things that seem too tedious to put down. This voice isn’t exactly malevolent. It is invested in my success in life and social acceptance. It is trying to take care of me and make sure I don’t end up an outcast–it wants to keep me safe. But this theoretical safety comes at a cost, and I’ve been paying dearly for many years.
The last time I got burned out, it was pretty bad. Bad enough that I realized I could no longer function the way I had been for so long. The perfection I had been seeking was making me sick. And my body had been telling me this for a long time since my mind was hell-bent on not listening. I had to go back to basics–I spent many hours in bed, switching back and forth between games on my iPhone and Netflix. And to be honest, this was exactly the therapy I needed. When I was physically weak, my expectations of myself were low. I could kind of just exist. At ground zero, I was ok with just being human. I wasn’t fighting anymore, and I felt a freedom that I hadn’t in a long time. Some might call this a spiritual awakening. To me, it was a total release. I had to let go of everything because I was mainly useless. And what I had been avoiding, been so afraid of, the big failure, felt really good.
Of course, once I started getting better, my mind got right back up to its old tricks and I soon realized that I needed to figure out how to hang on to this experience, because there was no way I could keep on living how I had been. I tried a lot of different things to “fix” myself, and I was committed. In some ways I took my perfectionism and applied it to my self-care. Perfectionism is tricky that way and I suddenly found myself trying desperately to be “well.” I sought healing in every place that promised I would find it. Now as you can imagine, I simply got so stressed trying to feel better that I nearly ended up back in bed again. So I returned to doing nothing, this time without needing to get sick in order to give myself permission to rest. And I listened.
And I healed myself. And as I healed, I heard another voice, but this one was more subtle and less pushy, but seemed to have all the answers I needed. We all get “feelings” and “knowings”–at least I always have. Whether or not I listen to them is another issue altogether. Ignoring these feelings, especially the ones that tell me “not” to do something has always been my downfall. How many of us, when confronted with a situation or a person get that sense that something is off and ignore it? Most of the time, my gut has been right on and that person or situation was not a good fit for me. After my burnout, I began slowly to lean into these feelings more. Every time I ignored them, I noticed that I get stressed out and anxious, because I knew I was making a mistake. We live in an “evidence-based” world these days, which is shorthand for I need to see it in order to believe it. But sometimes, we can’t actually “see” what is making us uncomfortable. It can be in a person’s body language, their tone of voice, the way they compose an email or how a certain schedule isn’t good for your energy level, but your cognitive mind hasn’t figured it out yet. Still, part of you KNOWS, stay away from that person, don’t commit to that, you need to rest right now. We hear the voice, but we’re not listening.
These days I consult this voice about almost everything. For the most part, if I’m not feeling it, I’m not doing it. Of course, I keep up with my major commitments, but if someone asks me for lunch on a Tuesday and I feel that particular sensation in my gut, I don’t do it. Now, that may just mean I’m tired and I’m not up for it, or that person drains me, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve learned that following that voice makes me happier, makes me a nicer person. My energy levels are better because I do what I can and what I want, not what I feel like I have to. I think we traditionally call this voice the intuition. And it can sound kind of annoyingly new agey or esoteric, but my intuition is what I’m using to keep my sanity right now, and it seems to be working.
I apologize if you were looking for some kind of 5-step plan to become superhuman, I don’t blame you–I was looking for that for a long time myself. But what I’ve found is that just being me is plenty. I can go hard on the caffeine, or I can build a life that gives me opportunities to rest when I need to, to play when I want to and work when I feel inspired. I’ve learned that pushing through eventually takes a toll you might never be able to recover from and I don’t plan on taking that chance ever again. For those of you who think this isn’t possible, due to the many “shoulds” you have in your life, I know it’s difficult, but it may be time to question if those obligations are really serving you. You can keep going, but eventually, it will catch up with you. If like me, you want to find a different way, it might be worth your while to take some time to quiet your thoughts and pay attention. See if you can hear that other voice, the one that really knows you, that wants only the best for you. Maybe experiment and notice what happens if you do what she suggests. I’m pretty sure you’ll start feeling better, and at risk of sounding horribly cliche, you may realize that what needed has been right in front of you all along. So good luck friends, I hope you find her, I hope she treats you well, and most of all, I hope you listen.
More by Sarah:
Sarah is a therapist and coach who has been supporting women for over 12 years in creating lives that align with their own values. As a mother and a wife, she understands the complexity of modern life and how to manage stress while juggling many responsibilities. She believes in having fun, taking naps and saying no as often as possible. If you’re interested in exploring motherhood, imperfection and doing less to have more–or just want someone to tell you to take a break, you can find her at sarahnormandin.com.
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