Breaking Free from Burn Out

Feb 05 2020

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Dawn birds at Sharpham

Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, standing stock still, staring at the carrots, unable to figure out whether you need carrots? What would you use them for anyway? What's the point in carrots? Or food in general? Or standing up? In fact, what's the point of anything that isn't lying quietly in the soft, muffled sanctuary of your bed? Would anyone notice if you were to crawl into the carrots and have a little nap?

Welcome to the Land of Burn Out! It's a simple place where there are no decisions to be made. All there is, is crying, shaking, despair, bed, telly, carbohydrates and sugar. A bit like a spa, but without any of the nice bits.

Some of you may have been there once or twice. Others of you might be frequent visitors. For those who are eager to find the road to Burn Out, here's a few top tips of how to get there:

  • You could put yourself in a toxic environment for a long time, preferably somewhere where you have to ditch your Self in order to get by. 

  • You could get a job in one of the the caring or supporting professions, expose yourself to limitless suffering and trauma, with limited holding on offer to help you process and release the trauma you will inevitably accumulate. 

  • Another popular route to Burn Out is through caring for and supporting friends and family, just make sure you put everybody's needs above your own and you'll be on your way! 

  • You could become an activist and boundlessly hurl all your time and energy at an important cause, to be greeted with negativity, fury, resistance, disrespect and - possibly the most effective route to Burn Out – stasis / indifference.

  • Or – and this is my favourite - you could follow your passion and create the life of your dreams – do what you love, when you want, totally on your own terms. Then watch how the unbridled joy of giving your gifts to others overrides every warning signal that you maybe need to stop and rest every now and again.

Up until 4 or 5 years ago, I regularly worked myself to Burn Out, as a lifestyle choice. I'd developed superhuman stamina and endurance as a kid growing up in the circus and as an adult, I found myself in jobs where working yourself to Burn Out is normal / admired behaviour.

Through a decade and a half of meditation and personal therapy and 8 years of clinical supervision, I've become more and more aware of my patterns and triggers. This consciousness has led to me making gradual lifestyle changes in pursuit of sanity and sustainability; I've learned to take time off work, to be more sensible about the amount of projects I take on and to prioritise my own self-care. I'm proud of how far I've come, but as we all know, change is never linear...

Oh yes readers, you guessed it, I only went and fell off the wagon, didn't I?

Back in Summer 2019, I was in the midst of planning a lovely spacious autumn term, with interesting and fulfilling teaching and facilitating projects and lots of time off in my diary. Then along came TED

Don't get me wrong, doing a TEDx talk was an absolutely incredible, life-changing experience, but I allowed TED to ooze into every single gap in my diary, from when I first auditioned in August to when I performed my talk at the Bristol Old Vic in November. 

Between the script-writing workshops, the multiple rewrites, the public speaking workshops and the endless scratch performances for my friends and students, I was dealing with debilitating bouts of stage fright, heated head-to-head negotiations with my inner critic and trying to manage near constant adrenaline-overload. 

I hit Burn Out in October, but thanks to my awesome quantities of circus-raised stamina, I kept going all the way to TEDx and beyond. In my addled, Burned Out, auto-pilot state, I found myself saying yes to more projects, taking me all the way up to Christmas. 

My incredibly high professional standards and love for the work have always meant my work will never suffer. Time and time again, I've proved that I actually can do it all, as long as I spend every spare moment in bed, shaking, crying, watching telly and eating carbs and sugar (which, reader, is not really doing it all). 

By January, I had become twitchy and tetchy and totally unable to slow down. A very clever, previous version of me (we'll call her Olden Days Holly) had given me a month off from public-facing work, but Burned Out me had forgotten how to stop. So I filled my days with inefficient procrastination-drenched admin and desperate gawping at carrots in supermarkets, until three weeks into January when I arrived at the door of Sharpham House.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Sharpham House

On top of a hill, in the middle of the luscious Sharpham estate in Devon, overlooking the river Dart, stands Sharpham House, an 18th century “Palladian villa.” (I got this from their website. It's basically a huge grand house with massive windows, enormous chandeliers, a hefty spiral staircase and a load of big old paintings of very serious looking people on the walls.)

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Sharpham House staircase

Way back in October, when I'd first started displaying the early warning signs of Burn Out (ulcers, eczema and the classic twitchy eye), Olden Days Holly had cunningly booked January Me a place on a retreat at Sharpham House, entitled: “Sustaining Ourselves; Breaking Free from Burn Out.”

For 5 days, I was one of a group of 20 people in various degrees of Burn Out, being led through a beautiful, nourishing process by two kind and gentle facilitators, Ollie Frame and Lucy Chan. They offered guided sitting meditations, gentle Qigong exercises, theoretical and practical explorations of the theme of Burn Out (exploring internal pressures, interpersonal pressures and systemic pressures), periods of silence, ritual and celebration and great swathes of time to rest or walk in the beautiful, frost-covered grounds. All this was interspersed with regular banquets of delicious, fresh, vibrant, healthy food.

The retreat was magic and I left feeling like a different person, lighter, softer, slower and grounded. I am determined to maintain a sense of all that I experienced, as I glide into a new term of teaching and facilitating...

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Sunrise at Sharpham

I'd like to share some of the important things I learned / remembered, with you, dear reader, in the hope that they will be of some use to you and also for Me In The Future when I've forgotten all of this.

1.) Burn Out begets Burn Out

In my experience, Burn Out is generally not a great time for making big life choices. Whenever I've made decisions in Burn Out, I've tended to create more Burn Out. Stop, rest and refuel before taking any action. 

If you're anything like me, stopping might be difficult and you might need to call-in support. Check yourself into therapy, or put yourself somewhere where you can be held without judgement or pressure (like a retreat). If that's out of your reach or not something you fancy doing, then call your friends, ask them to take you somewhere that you find restorative; the seaside or a forest or a cafe for tea and cake. If that all feels too much, then batten down the hatches and crank up the self-care. Really. Actually do it. It's unlikely that you'll make any great choices when you're in Burn Out!

2.) Become aware of what or who is driving you to Burn Out

Ollie led us into an exploration of the Transactional Analysis 'drivers', described as:

  • Please others

  • Hurry up

  • Try hard

  • Be perfect

  • Be strong

Do you recognise any of these phrases? Each contains a powerful force towards action. The theory goes that we unconsciously internalise one or more of these phrases in childhood, either by having them modelled by our care-givers or as a survival strategy to help us navigate the choppy waters of childhood. 

Becoming aware of the internal forces at play, brings them out of the unconscious and gives you choice as to whether to follow these impulses or allow them to ripple through you. Changing your inner script can take time, but being able to spot the drivers when they emerge is the first step. 

3.) Cultivate Self-Compassion

Lucy introduced us to the Self-Compassion work of Dr. Kristin Neff, which follows three basic steps: 

1.) Acknowledge the suffering that's happening; feel it in your body, notice your emotions and the thoughts that go along with them. 

2.) Acknowledge this suffering as a universal experience; widen your attention and visualise other people who are going through the same thing as you.

3.) Offer yourself compassion and kindness, as you would to a friend.

On her website, Dr. Neff describes Self-compassion as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.” 

In my experience, developing self-compassion has taken a lot of practice. My inner critic still likes to remind me that it’s “indulgent, selfish, namby pamby nonsense” to be kind to myself, but learning to be gentle with myself has been one of the most transformative components of my evolution. 

4.) Self-Care Is A Practice

Closely linked to self-compassion is self-care. Yeah, yeah, I know you know all this. But let's go over this once more, just for luck. Self-care doesn't come naturally to a lot of us. Especially those of us who have very noisy inner critics. Like Self-compassion, self care is a discipline which needs regular repetition in order to become a habit. And the great thing about a habit is... you can start again at any time!

During those five days of carefully structured activities, without my phone, laptop or to-do list, I was able tune into what I actually needed to be doing with my unscheduled time. I lay on my bed and stared out the window, I took long, hot baths, I meandered through the forest paths and noticed the shapes of the trees and the leaves, I ate slowly, danced secretly, read sparingly, journaled fervently and got up early to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus. Those were my actions of self care, what are yours? 

5.) Learn To Establish Boundaries

Learning to establish and maintain boundaries is essential in the battle with Burn Out. Learning our limits can only happen through trial and error and we will not always get this right. Then there’s the whole learning to say no thing, which can be a huge deal for many of us who have carved out an existence through being available, responsive and up for it, whatever it is. At Sharpham, Ollie led us through a playful, experiential workshop, where we got to try out different ways of saying NO to each other.

Here’s an adaptation of an exercise that you could try out right now, if you like. Try saying “yes” in many different ways. Let your body join in – notice how each “yes” feels, physically and emotionally. Now do the same with some “no's.” What were the differences between saying yes and saying no? What associations do you have with the word NO? Imagine a familiar situation, where you might ordinarily end up saying yes, when you mean to say no. What might an effective NO look or sound like? 

6.) If the system that you're living or working in is not nourishing you, you have choices

At Sharpham House, we explored how unavoidable systemic pressures can contribute to Burn Out. We pondered over the following options: 

a.) stay and do nothing

b.) stay and accept it

c.) stay and try to change it

d.) go and do nothing

Which have you chosen in your life? Are you making one of these choices right now?

Writer, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote in Man's Search For Meaning; “...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” 

I believe we always have a choice – even inaction is a choice. When I take responsibility for the choices I make, I access my power, which allows me to affect change. 

We can all take responsibility for our part in the curation of an imbalanced life, and make changes to find more ease and flow, but ultimately, if we want to eradicate Burn Out (and other system-induced mental and physical health issues), we need to create new systems.

In a perfect world, our systems would give a shit about the people they contain, they'd listen and they’d be flexible to accommodate the needs of each individual. But we're not living in that world.

Burn Out is a clear signal that something isn’t working and in order to affect any kind of change in our imperfect systems, we need to gather support. 

I saw the healing power of connection bare fruit a-plenty on the retreat. We 20 individuals shared our stories with each other and discovered we were not alone. If you want to make a change, there is support available. Reach out into your community, ask your friends for help, join a support group or join a trade / community union, or call in a guide – a therapist, a spiritual leader or an elder. There are so many of us on this planet with so much wisdom between us, why should anybody have to deal with life's trials and tribulations all alone? 

I would heartily recommend the Breaking Free from Burn Out retreat at Sharpham House. These retreats run several times throughout the year, along with various meditation and wellbeing retreats.

If you're interested in finding out more about Self Compassion, there are lots of guided meditations and writing exercises on Dr. Neff's website

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