Fall is in full swing, bringing with it all the extra stuff that comes with the year’s most beautiful—and busiest—changing of the seasons. Kids are going back to school, some of us are feeling the pressure to get moving on our yearly goals and on top of that, COVID regulations and guidelines are still in flux. As we work through this season of change, I’m hearing the word “burnout” make a comeback. But now that it has achieved buzzword status, I have to ask: are we all really talking about the same problem, or is “burnout” more like an umbrella term for a set of symptoms with various possible causes? That is, will our discussions about this phenomenon lead to a set of solutions that’s really effective?
Change is a fact of life, and the fatigue that comes with big change is definitely something we can all relate to right now. But the way I see it, the magnitude and the emotional experience of these changes can vary greatly by person and by situation. So my question is: what do those underlying emotional challenges feel like? Are some of us just physically tired? Disconnected from our purpose? Doing too much busywork? Comparing ourselves to others? And how do we deal with those various kinds of fatigue?
Just like we carve pumpkins and decorate with the trappings of harvest time to prepare for the transition from fall to winter, we can create better conditions to work through the difficult emotions that come along with change. If there’s one overarching theme here that applies to all kinds of burnout, it’s that you can’t have it all! The first step I recommend is assessing the level of urgency for each thing you’re worried about and prioritizing them so you can deal with one thing at a time.
Let’s take a look at a few common emotional challenges that may get in the way of embracing change and how you can get “in the spirit” to be more fully present, make decisions and live according to your intentions:
Change Challenge 1: You’re not attuned to your own needs
When we’re up against something we’ve never seen before, it’s easy to slip back into patterns that have worked for us in the past—but aren’t right for the current situation or healthy in general. You may survive a situation by behaving in ways that are consistent with what others expect; for example, being the Fixer, People Pleaser, Overachiever, Perfectionist or Martyr. You may feel unappreciated or even victimized. This happens because the most significant role one has played in the family system up to this point becomes the most available way to achieve identity. As a result, what people think about us or how they view us becomes more important than attuning to our own needs.
If this sounds familiar to you, think: Are you helping because you think you’ll be liked for it, or is it something you really want to do? What did you get out of doing this thing? Why is it important for you to be seen that way? Once you’ve started to differentiate your true needs from what you think you need to fulfill this role, you can start redecorating, so to speak, in a way that’s more affirming and less exhausting.
Change Challenge 2: Lack of Boundaries
When you think about it, living with no boundaries or very loosely held boundaries is exhausting enough in itself: it might look like rarely asking for help, striving for perfection so nothing is ever finished, engaging in so much multitasking that you make silly mistakes, feeling constant guilt or experiencing stress and low-grade anxiety throughout the day. Throw some change in the mix and you’ll be exhausted in no time.
Again, we learn to set boundaries and maintain relationships from our parents, who aren’t always the best role models. Some of us turn into over-functioners and tend to move quickly to advise, rescue, take over, micromanage and get into other people’s business rather than look inward. Others become under-functioners who tend to get less competent under stress and invite others to take over.
We need boundaries to guard our self-esteem so we can take care of our own needs and help from a place of abundance. You can start to set the scene for better boundaries by exploring your values and what you want, as an individual and within relationships. Ask yourself what work you’re willing to do and not willing to do in service to those things.
Change Challenge 3: Emotional labor exhaustion
This might sound like a repeat of parts of the previous two challenges, but this dynamic is so common (especially for women) that it deserves another look. The way the term is used today, emotional labor is the emotional demands of a relationship or family structure as well as the work it takes to maintain that relationship. If you are always trying to motivate others or otherwise manipulate their experience to get them to show up and participate, that’s excessive emotional labor. It may also look like accommodating others and taking over tasks that aren’t your responsibility to keep the peace.
In healthy relationships, roles are chosen and flexible; all members can share ideas and feelings openly, and they don’t feel their worth is compromised for it. Changing the dynamics of a relationship will mean setting new expectations and adjusting to them, which can take some time. Ask if you are looking to support yourself, not change someone’s behavior, to know if you are on the right track.
When life is easy and every week is the same, we are more confident because we generally know what we want and what to do. But when something comes along to shake that up, the answers aren’t so easy. As you can see from these examples, the changes happening around us can call into question who we really are, what we want, what tasks we should spend our time on and what our responsibilities are. As an individual, taking a step back to “think about your own thinking” can help you question where those drives and worries are coming from, then make some intentional changes of your own. You may need to exorcise some phantom ideas and unfriendly ghosts still hanging around from past interactions, or you may discover some skeletons of unmet needs in your closet! In any case, identifying your priorities and cultivating deep self-awareness is something you can start doing right now to make the changes in front of you less stressful.
Need a sounding board or someone to help you sort through your specific brand of burnout? Schedule a call with me today!