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How Burning Out at 32 Changed My Life

How a dream of drowning woke me up (and saved me) from my autopilot life

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In September of 2016, I had a dream that I was drowning.

I was shaken up a bit when I woke up from the dream, so I journaled about it. But then I just kept pushing through because that’s what I do. It’s what many of us do.

We feel like we have too much going on to slow down.

Within a month or so, I started having trouble with my memory. My great grandmother suffered from dementia before passing away years ago, so I figured I was headed for the same fate…at the age of 32.

I went to see my doctor. With kind eyes, he looked at me and said, “Rachel, maybe you’re doing too much.”

Ha.

I couldn’t help but think to myself: Too much? That’s a thing?! Not for me. I’m different, don’t you see? I have a greater capacity to handle all of this than other people. I’m just going through a more stressful than usual time. I’ll get through it.

In other words, I ignored him.

When December hit, I got really sick. I had the worst sore throat of my life and swollen lymph nodes. For a period of time, I completely lost my voice. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I got to the point where I was leading a cooking demonstration about healthy desserts for a client, and I typed up a script and had someone else read it for me because I literally couldn’t talk.

I think back to that situation and wonder to myself: What took me so long to realize how ridiculous I was being? Why on earth wouldn’t I reschedule the demo, so that I could recover?

I was overwhelmed by the thought of disappointing the client or having to find another slot in my already slammed calendar to reschedule it. That’s why.

Oh, the crazy stories we tell ourselves when we’re blinded by our own inflated sense of self-importance and denial.

My Reality Check

Two months later – on Valentine’s Day, when I was supposed to be at dinner with my husband – I was back at that same doctor’s office, sicker than I’d ever been. My doctor looked at me and asked with a gentle voice, “Would you say this was brought on by work or that you brought this on yourself?”

Yikes.

I wanted to blame someone else. I wanted to be a victim.

But I knew the answer – I had brought this on myself.

My relentless quest to strive and achieve and prove myself and my value drove me to burn out. I had learned to hold it together on the surface, even when I was falling apart beneath the surface. Finally, all of it caught up with me, and my body was done.

No more pushing.

I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Virus, an acute form of mono, and it would be nearly six months until I’d start to feel like myself again. I missed out on moments that matter, like my nieces birthday party. My husband and I didn’t make up our Valentine’s Day dinner until May. It sucked, but it was the wake-up call I needed.

I literally had to be silenced – to lose my voice – so that I would stop silencing my body and start listening to it.

Symptoms of Burnout

Most people don’t have a dream of drowning to signal to them that burnout is imminent, but there are other warning signs we can become aware of that let us know we’re on the brink of burning out.

First, it’s worth mentioning that burnout is not stress. All of us have stressors in our lives that cause tension and even anxiety, fear or worry – things that stretch us and challenge us and frustrate us.

Burnout is different. Burnout is an occupational syndrome characterized by a prolonged, chronic state of stress and overwhelm leading to hopelessness, helplessness and exhaustion. In May of 2019, burnout was recognized as an official medical diagnosis by the World Health Organization.

Here are the three primary, clinical symptoms of burnout. Notice which ones feel true for you or someone you know:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustionThere’s nothing left. The tank is empty, and we have nothing left to give. Sleeping ten hours doesn’t leave us feeling rested. We have never.felt.so.tired.
  2. Increased cynicism and negativity related to one’s jobOur compassion and empathy disappear. We are easily angered, highly irritable and anxious, and have a short fuse. We might even appear apathetic. It’s like our soul is on mute, and we’re just going through the motions.
  3. Reduced effectiveness at work. We miss deadlines, drop the ball, and make mistakes. We’re not usually someone who does these things, so we get even more frustrated and withdraw and isolate ourselves when they do.

Unfortunately, many of us think these symptoms are normal because they’re common, but I’ve got some news for you – a truth that landed in my lap a few years ago and has resonated every since:

Just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s normal.

We’ve accepted that it’s normal to be exhausted all the time, that running around in a state of low-grade anxiety all the time is par for the course. We figure, “It is what it is…” and don’t think change is even possible. We feel like we’ve given up but continue to do everything we can to appear like we’re still okay on the surface.

But there’s a price to pay.

The Impact of Burnout

At home, burnout can lead to marital distress, kids acting out, and a slew of health issues like digestive distress, depression, loneliness, weight gain, insomnia, and unexplained aches and pains.

The consequences of burnout in the workplaces are significant, too. When employees are burned out, it negatively impacts morale, relationships, performance, engagement, and retention. In fact, according to a 2015 meta-analysis by Stanford University, 46% of HR leaders say burnout is responsible for up to HALF of turnover.

What’s more, Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workforce Report revealed that over 70% of employees are disengaged at work. Only thirty percent of employees feel like they have what they need to do their work or feel strongly about having received praise or recognition. Only 20% feel that their manager manages their work in a way that motivates them to do good work.

Employees are disengaged, overworked, and feel under-appreciated.

Most of us feel like functional robots more than human beings.

We don’t feel alive, seenheard and valued at work…or at home.

Burnout is particularly likely to affect your high performers. There’s a group of people called the “engaged-exhausted”. These people need more support and resources, acknowledgement that they’re doing good work, and opportunities for recovery. We don’t think about them and how they are doing because they typically get things done without a fuss and aren’t the squeaky wheels. It’s especially important to check in with those people because they’re probably not going to tell you they’re struggling.

They don’t want to fear being perceived as incompetent, inadequate, insecure or weak in any way, so they isolate themselves, withdraw, act out or become cynical, negative and easily angered. We talk about them behind their backs, “Geez, what’s wrong with Amy? She’s been so hard to get a hold of lately. She’s been irritable and short with me. She’s really dropping the ball with some of our clients. She needs to get her act together.”

Instead of saying anything TO Amy, we grow increasingly frustrated that she isn’t showing up as her normal, high-achieving self.

We don’t pause to ask if she’s okay.

I was fortunate to have several brave and courageous friends give me the gift of truth during that season. One of them told me that she wished I could see all of the good that others see in me. She lovingly called me out for posting on social about not being defined by achievement and about the importance of slowing down, yet she rarely saw me slow down. She said I didn’t seem content or fulfilled.

She was right.

Another woman asked me, “Are you happy?” after hearing me deliver a workshop about building thriving workplaces to a group of human resources professionals.

I held back the truth in the moment but later shared how much I was struggling. Instead of being met with judgment, I was met with love.

Little by little, I dropped my defenses and let people speak truth into the places I’d been too afraid to hear it. Little by little, I asked for and began to receive help and support. I began to change how I prioritized myself and realized this truth bomb:

We are more concerned with disappointing OTHER people than we are with disappointing ourselves.

We’re afraid we won’t be “enough” to someone else, so we live our lives for their approval instead of our own health and happiness.

We think we’re not “doing enough, making enough money, working hard enough, far enough along in our career, working out enough, getting enough opportunities, involved enough at school, home enough, available enough.”…”I’m not a good enough parent, partner, son, daughter or friend.”

It’s so exhausting to think that way, and it’s causing us to burn out.

Living By Design

We need to realize something if we’re going to even begin to change our circumstances and how we respond to them:

Our lives happen by design or by default.

Either you intentionally design the life you want or you end up with one you don’t. (From experience, the latter situation kind of sucks and it’s where I spent too many years of my life.)

The first thing we have to do is be honest with ourselves and at least one other person in our life. We have to be willing to unmask and unmute ourselves, to take responsibility and ask for help, and to stop blaming other people and living in victim mode.

I was so impacted by my journey with burnout and literally being silenced that I named my company Unmuted to reflect the power of speaking up and speaking out to ask for help and support. To show that using our voices courageously and boldly to speak truth and love to others is one of the most important things we can do. That’s how much my burnout experience shaped me.

What’s one step you can take today to begin to pay attention to the nudges, to care as much about disappointing yourself as disappointing others, and to put yourself first?

If you know someone who would benefit from reading this article, please share it with your community or forward it to a friend or colleague. We don’t have to stay isolated, silenced, and burned out.

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