One in eight people have a burn-out. We all know someone who has gone through it. The question is thus not so much if it happens, but when, and with whom. Can we build sensitivity for its early signals? Here are four to look for. I am including some advice on how to deal with it yourself, and how you can support another in a dire need of that.
1. You constantly miss deadlines and keep on running a never-ending marathon. Should I give up? you ask.
You get sloppy at meeting your deadlines. Where you were earlier on time, you always come late now. It is as if the world has gone spinning around faster. The direction you are running into, did it become a moving target, or what happened? You literally run after the facts constantly. It’s time to pause. I know, no time to waste. Yet, while it goes unnoticed, you are actually stuck in this moment. So you need a break. I do not immediately mean you take a sabbatical. Just take a coffee break of five minutes inbetween your work. Set your alarm and be strict on yourself. Or put up a black screen every hour. At the beginning of the day, take a minute or five to focus your day. Wake up five minutes earlier to have breakfast. Ask yourself “what is the most important thing that needs to be done today?” During the day, maybe you plan a call with a friend, just so that you break your pattern of staring to that document, project, or excel sheet you are working on. Maybe, before you enter the building of your work, you go a bit earlier, so you have time to watch and enjoy the birds in the pond nearby. For a change, take another route. Surprise yourself, especially when you are the busiest ever. After all, having no time, is giving it not the priority. Especially now you need to choose for your relationship, friends, and your own happiness. When you see someone running around like a hen (a Dutch saying meaning without direction), offer them your help, and help them stop their rat race. Just connect with them. Put your hand on their shoulder. Watch them in their eye. And say “I really care about you. I am worried. Can we talk? I know you need to get things done, but I want you to do it in a way that is sustainable for you too. Please do it for me.” Do not let yourself be put off with a “I’m fine, thanks.” Just be firm – I need you to do this so I can support you better.
2. You act carelessly with regards to what matters most: your health, well-being, relationship, and friends.
You know the story about the drug-addict when he was asked if he was ill? He denied. He only needed more drugs. That can’t be that bad, is it? When you are in a burn-out or running into one, you have only one focus, and all the rest needs to go. All of your being screams “Get out of my way, or else, I will kill you.” When you are addicted, you only focus on getting that kick again, be it from drugs, alcohol, sex, that new sales deal. When you notice “If only… xyz, I would…” thoughts, stop. Take a deep breath. You are running on steroids. As a partner, colleague, or friend, there seems to be almost no way to normally talk with the person. The connection is lost. You notice yourself asking things like “Am I still having a relationship with this person?” or “Do I know this person, it seems he or she has changed without telling me?”. When you or the other keeps on avoiding intimacy, being in the here and now, and instead downgrades the importance of what is actually there, breathe. Do not buy into your own or the other person’s “Nay, it’s just that….” There may be tons of reasons why you cannot talk now, however, let me urge you to be firm with this person. In Dutch we have the saying “zachte heelmeesters maken stinkende wonden” (literal translation: soft healers make stinky wounds). It means that, when you let someone keep on bullsthitting, you end up with more shit than when you address the problem head-on. Face it. We are normally inclined, and most likely also invited by the other to be compassionate with them (“Why is it that you don’t understand I am busy??!”), to give in. However, whereas this sometimes is indeed the way to go, as soon as you detect a pattern that takes longer than a week, it’s time to bring it up. Especially when it starts to affect the quality of your relationship, you’ve got no more excuse. Be prepared for the worst, be prepared to stop the relationship, take a break from each other, give each other space to process their own parts. Crucial is that reality hits in with the other. After all, when in a trance (focus on only one thing), what you need most is to be kicked in the face. You need to break with your obsession with work, clients, and adrenaline. You need to be brought back in the here and now. This is where you are now. And you’d better appreciate that, for it will be gone, before you have time to even notice it. Where did my wife go? Exactly that. Why do I never hear anything back from my friends? Well, most likely you never called them either. In order to stop the sleep-eat-work-rhythm, go to that one party of that one vague acquaintance you would normally not go to. Sometimes, random encounters can actually change your course of life. You need that. Now more than ever. Or, when you are really busy (blablabla), just stretch your body. Can be even in the bathroom when you feel ashamed. Wake up yourself. And put on some good dance music. Maybe even dance together on that one song you both love? Why not make it a party? I know, you are all serious. Don’t bother. Just move. Shake that body. And perhaps even try out that twerking move (PS: don’t try your boss)?
3. It feels like you’ve got no time to waste (but in truth you are totally fed up with yourself and others).
You feel there is not time to waste. Your bedroom is one big mess. Clothes everywhere. The parking garage bulges out. You have a whole list of to-do’s in your head. There will never be an end to it. And you know it. Whatever you try. The perfectionist in you creates more items than the time it takes to even get started. Your list grows like youtube: over 400 hours of material is uploaded every minute. Good luck keeping up. You can’t. A tutor (and physics scholar) once taught me that you can’t spend energy that is not generated somewhere. That is, you can only spend as much as you can recharge your battery. You can’t unload an empty truck. It’s that simple. Obviously, people charge in different ways. The question is: when was my last weekend or holiday? Obviously, in order to learn, we need to move out of our comfort zone. We need to push our boundaries. However, at some point, you break. The string does not bounce back anymore. Constant learning, constant changes, they take lots of energy. I remember how I was once for a language course in Italy. While I already knew the basics, for the first month I went to bed at 22hrs every evening. I was dead tired from speaking in another language. Whole new connections need to be made – in your brain, habits, when interpreting new impressions. Imagine you change jobs, move house, get sick, or have a baby born. There is a reason not to be ambitious in all fields of your life. What is crucial, however, is that you need to charge, express emotions, and discharge. That is how body therapists like to work. You throw it all out. All your power. Then you express your anger. Your sadness. Your fear. Your happiness. And then you find the part in you that you disregarded for so long. The little you that was once hurt. Fortunately, we do not all need therapists for this process. As a society, we have our traditions for that. Take for example that moment that everyone is asleep. We are collectively processing the things of the day. With that simple habit (and physical need), we can start everyday afresh. When you wake up tired for a longer period of time, you know you should do something about it. Perhaps go to bed a bit earlier than normal? It can be that simple already. My mom used to say that the hours you sleep before the middle of the night count as double. I notice the difference each time I go to bed early. You can’t sleep? No worries, you already relax from just laying just there. Breathe in. Breathe out. And what was ever bad about thinking about your life when trying to sleep? Often we are scared to slow down. Then we suddenly feel what we have been suppressing for so long. Enjoy the time to make sense of it all. I must say, experiencing this ‘space of time’ in bed used to be my favorite part of traveling and sleeping in hotels. When at home, I was quickly busy with everyday or tomorrow’s practicals. However, when I was gone, far away from family, I had the time to explore from a place of nothingness. For example, I took the time to look at myself in the mirror. Where did those wrinkles come from? Why did I not notice that earlier? Wherever you are, regularly schedule a meeting with yourself (yes, you read that correctly). Just do it. The sole purpose is to re-align yourself. Do something you normally never have time for. Eat that icecream while watching netflix. Pick up that one book. Clean out your bookshelves. Take some time to plan your next months or the focus of your next year. Want to do something for everyday? Take some time before you go to work, or after. Make it a tradition to stop your car for a few moments at this one place with a mind-boggling view on nature or the city. Breathe it in. And thank the universe for the family, friends, colleagues, or clients you are on your way to. Switch from work to family mode before you come home. After all, did you know that most fights in relationships happen within the first half hour, where both partners come home stressed? And do not forget: turn on that music. It’s a real gamechanger. Or, when you are angry at the end of the day, open the windows of your car. When you drive on the highway, scream out all your not-that-day-expressed cursing. I seriously know people who do this with their children. And a whole therapuetic school is dedicated to it. It’s called primal scream therapy. Look it up. So nothing strange about letting it all out. I promise. Let the lid off the cooking kettle. Why? Because when you always keep it in, it either bursts out suddenly (when the temperature has been boiling for a while, poor fellah who is near) or it will drain your energy (because you use that energy against yourself), and you will never perform at your full potential. It sounds bad, and it is. You can only spend your power once if you do not fill up the tank. Send your colleague home when you see him or her fall asleep. Ask someone why he or she feels tired. What’s the story behind? Underwrite the importance of presence. They better sleep for an hour and perform the rest, rather than stay, and underperform for 8 hours straight. Let’s not think about all the mistakes made. If this is a pattern, invite coaching for the employee. Yes, even when it concerns personal matters. This is your moment to truly make a difference and build loyalty. You are not in the mood? Send someone else to check up and offer the needed support.
4. You are stuck in the same-old, same-old, and you don’t know your way out, so you almost give up?
In France, they say “l’histoire se rêpete” – history repeats itself. We all know our own patterns. Take this for example. Each time we start a project, people drop out of it. Each time we have our plans ready, there is no budget. Finally you think everyone is aligned, this one MT member shows up and raises concerns about your project. Why again? You are not alone to run into the same situation time after time. Take the guy who has been fired five times, each time after three months. Once you wake up and dare to look at yourself and how you create what comes at you, you can see patterns emerging. Don’t we all have a friend who says he or she wants a relationship but quits as soon as the word ‘relationship’ is mentioned by the one who takes the risk to love him or her? What I often see in my coaching is that we project our family and parent-issues onto others. Wherever we go, we bring ourselves. Period. No wonder we regularly get to project our daddy-issues on our boss. When working with long-time employment contracts, most employees assume management should take care of them at all costs. However, if you want something, you should ask. You are no longer this helpless child trying to please his parents, or are you? On first face, sharing something private at work looks like a win or lose situation for many people I work with. When we do share ourselves, we might get into trouble. We might not be accepted, loved, or received in the way that we need, were expecting, or would have liked to be welcomed. You try it a few times, and then you learn your lesson (“shut up!”). Practically speaking, however, we can only bring our full potential if we can fully express who we are – our experience, knowledge, and intuition for the job. Fact is that this mighty wisdom that each one of us carries also comes with the unresolved issues from the past, especially when we do not feel well at work. How did you deal with suppressed anger when you were young? How do you deal with it now? What conclusions about who you can be or can’t be did you draw back in your youth? What stories do you now tell yourself, aren’t they somewhere similar? At some point in life, often repeated later, we decide to never show our full selves again. This way we can avoid the pain. We pay a price for it though: what if we are found out for this insecurity deep inside ourselves? Metaphorically speaking, the problem when we do not show our true colors is that we try to hit the nails (our job) without a hammer (the experience we need for it). We need our past to create the best possible future. So, in short, the ugly and the bad comes with the good. Yes, it sometimes hurts, a lot. However, we can break cycles of patterns that were given to us by our parents. And we will pass this on into every interaction we have with others, especially when we get children ourselves. What we have not yet confronted and looked at, we keep on meeting time after time. Wherever you go, you bring your own and family issues. Until you decide to do something about it. A very normal and human thing not to do it, or wait a little. So, then, what is the reason that we seek bosses who are like our parents? Simply put, it reminds us of our past. We feel as innocent as we were back then as children. Besides, we think we know how to deal with that situation, don’t we? Aren’t we used to this one parent (and replace this for your boss, partner, friend) who is always critical of us? The problem is however this: we quickly find out that these magic (childlike) thoughts and convictions no longer serve us. We are now grown ups and society expects responsible adults. The unprocessed emotions come at a cost. What if our fighting, fleeing, or freezing no longer works for us? We are grown ups and more often than not acting like babies or young children. Think for yourself what question keeps on coming back at you, at every turning point in your life. What to do with it? Maybe it’s time to settle with it. When we know ourselves well, and we feel we can trust our inner compass, we can take the step into the unknown. What if we are asked to put forward our opinion, even when we would otherwise escape the question? Do we trust it is safe now? Celebrate it when you are stuck. You finally stopped re-traumatizing yourself. Embrace it. After all, when one doors closes, another opens. And that is not just stereotypical talk. It may take a while to find the next door indeed, however, once you have found it, you will be prepared. Trust that this time is well spent. Give reassurance to people when they are on this discovery path towards self-awareness (from what they don’t want to do towards what it is that they actually long for deep inside themselves). Truth is that we all know what we want, somewhere, even if we cannot access it in that moment. It is very normal to lose something. It must be somewhere. We just can’t find it. The big question then becomes: “Can already admit that we know but that we have blocked access towards tapping into it (for the right reasons, it might hurt going there again)?” This is the process. Once we can admit how we inhibit ourselves to fully show ourselves, we can share our joy with others. For someone in this place to grab the courage that is needed to come out of their shells, you need support. External presence is crucial. When witnessing this (often painful) process with the other, it often invites close ones and facilitators to be touched into their hearts as well. As much as you would love to fix it, trust the other to take the right steps. You can’t do it for him or her. Rather, I would say, sometimes you need to let the frustration get so high that the person will move by itself. Aggression is energy, and lots of it. Or let the person wait for the intrinsic urge to do something about the situation. Only when we really feel it deep down into our guts, that we are 100% responsible for our own lives, we can make a move again that strikes a hit. And then, hopefully, it will be closer to who we are. Give yourself time to find out what it is you need and want. Take the time to make that decision while taking a new step. As a general rule of thumb, it takes three to five times longer than your ego would like this process to take. Nothing bad about it. Growth goes step by step and it takes time. For anyone it is worth pointing out the steps already taken through this black hole. It helps you see the bigger picture. Not all negative is negative. It is part of life but there is an upside. Mind you that no solutions will help at this stage. No suggestions. No help. Not from you. Not from another person. Just being there in this dark place is all you can do as a bystander. Presence is already work enough for most of us. The only thing I would recommend is to express how it makes you feel seeing the other person in this state. Where does this touch you? Are you feeling emotional about it? You feel sad, helpless, angry about it? When you both share your own vulnerability, love can heal you both, and you both can learn from also knowing this place, together. The good lies in the bad. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a good story as well, right? It is in this moment of giving up, that we can find ourselves again. We finally let go of the old stories. We start to open ourselves to the emerging future, to what it is that wants to unfold. So, though it may feel like the same-old, same-old, and you certainly meet your old pain, you may want to realise you are further on your path than you might want to admit to yourself. Love all of that journey. And don’t forget to celebrate the successes. When you both look back, you actually find out that you now know yourself better than before. Isn’t that something to be proud of? It is. It definitely is. We can only move to our “yes” to life by living past our resistance to feeling what lies under our “no”. Embrace the hopelessness, sadness, and “not knowing” that lies within. It makes you stronger. Always remember: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Heavy emotional experiences feel like dying. They are not. When we were small, it was life-threatening indeed. However, the reactions that are stored in your body need an update of their navigational map. The put-away emotions and convictions need to be re-programmed. You are doing that. Keep on hanging in there. It will open new doors. Pinky promise. You need some help? Feel free to call.
Oscar Westra van Holthe is the CEO of BLOCKBUSTERS and independent coach for clients with a fascination to learn more about themselves. You are welcome when you think business culture change should be personal, seen from a wider angle than just the individual, and when you want to work with therapists specialized in business change and radical honesty.