The Gratitude I Feel For My Experience With Burnout

Why hitting rock bottom ended up being a good thing

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We all have a story to tell and a story to own. 

Without putting it out there ourselves, our lives are left open to judgement & comment by others as they partake in the perfectly natural human behaviour of rationalising what we observe.  If we don’t have the facts, we make up our own context, truth or not. Some might call it gossip.

Funnily enough, it isn’t much different to the monkey chatter that goes on in our own heads.  The thoughts that randomly ping around our brain at 3am when the rest of our body wants to sleep.  They are the stories we create to try to make sense of what is going on around us or within us.  Desperately trying to find a context so life makes sense.

I hit a point almost 3 years ago, where life no longer made sense.  I got in the car to go to work, sat behind the wheel and my hands were shaking on the wheel, tears pouring down my face.  Every physical, mental & emotional cell in my body was retaliating as I kept trying to drag one foot in front of the other to continue the path I had been on.   The problem was, that not only did this path no longer made sense, I was subconsciously rejecting it, despite desperately trying to hang on to the security it provided. 

I had handcuffed myself to that security. 

For months, my body had been protesting.  My hair was falling out.  I no longer slept.  I didn’t recognise the person I was.  I had no relationship with myself, my personal relationships were poor, I wasn’t the person and most importantly mother, I wanted to be. 

Then one day after over 13 years, I gave in. The personal cost was high and honestly, it has taken until now, almost 3 years down the track, to be ready to digest & accept how I let myself get to that point that some might now describe as burnout.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job.  That was a part of the problem.  I loved it too much.  It was unique.  I was a sales professional and without tooting my own horn, could have sold ice to Eskimos at a premium price.  My days were spent selling spinal implants to Melbourne’s surgeons and training them and their staff in innovative technologies that made a positive difference to their patients’ lives.  I worked when they worked and with time, the loyalty I had for my customers became greater than I the loyalty I had for myself.  I was on call for 24/7 for over 13 years.  My mobile phone never left my side. 

It was there for everyone else’s convenience – not mine. 

The adrenalin of sales, challenging personalities and high-performance environment of an operating room, suited me to a tee.  I was successful and that success was celebrated positively reinforcing my behaviour.  It wasn’t easy, I had a son during that time, but work continued to dominate.  He was two days old and I had a Manager in my hospital room drafting an on-boarding strategy for a new customer.  I was back at work when he was 7 weeks old and like many other women had no problem justifying the decision.  My customers & organisation needed me, there was no paid maternity leave then – tick, tick, tick.

As many Sales professionals know, with success comes not only money, but the sudden attention from your organisation that begins to rapidly define your professional journey. 

The more revenue you bring in, the better you are made to feel.  Not dissimilar to a professional athlete.  The more you win, the more attention you receive.  It feeds your ego and becomes your reason for being.

With all of this going on, my personal life was wobbly.  I went from a married to a single parent with a Mr 4 and started juggling a parenting roster, single income with 24/7 on call, a surgical schedule & the needs of 20 spinal surgeons.

Work became the one thing in my life I felt good at, my rock of Gibraltar.  I hit my targets, I was recognised, success was celebrated.  A self-fulfilling prophecy. With time, the daily grind started getting hard but I kept going.  As the years past, Mr 7 became Mr 8&9 and was always the first kid dropped off at out-of-school care in the morning, the last picked up at night. 

He came home to a mother who was physically present but mentally absent.

I was earning the money.  This is who I was.  This was what I did. What else could I do?  I had to keep going.  He seemed resilient enough.  That was the story I was telling myself.

With time, cracks started to appear.  I was growing the business but not myself.  I was feeling conflicted between home and work and I started to lose my ability to focus.  It was like my brain didn’t know how to stop.  I couldn’t be present for more than 5 mins with Mr 9 without losing patience.  I couldn’t focus on a TV show, let alone read a book. I wasn’t sleeping.  I couldn’t sit still.

All of a sudden, everything felt wrong and I did everything I could to avoid that feeling.  

I made work an excuse to avoid the inner conflict and I put the pedal to the floor harder –  became more disciplined, structured and robotic.  People were an unwanted distraction, I couldn’t focus to connect with others and with time, isolated myself completely. 

I was operating like a robot to the point where I even started describing myself that way at work.  “If you want me to do something differently, I’ll have to reprogram myself.” I heard myself saying with laughter.  “Discipline” sat in my top 5 strengths which sat in a photo frame in my Manager’s office. Every time I looked at these strengths, it reinforced my behaviour was unchangeable.  

The thought of it now makes me shudder & want to smash that frame.

The pace and pressure was relentless.  I didn’t want to let anyone down, this was my identity, who I was.  I had to keep going.   Inside, I was miserable, felt helpless and was personally conflicted. 

I was professionally lost and totally burnt out.

From the outside in, it was obvious to those around me I was a train wreck waiting to happen.  No one could tell me though.  Who would dare?  I would likely jump down their throat as I couldn’t be told. 

I always said to myself, you give so much of yourself to do this job well, you have to love it.  The day you don’t, it is time to move on. For you and everyone around you.  Finally after 12 years, I had the rumblings that day was imminent, but I had no idea when, or what was to come next.

Slowly but surely, I started exploring the answer to “what next?”.  I found safety in a trusted coach who challenged my thinking and asked some hard questions I needed to hear.  She gave me homework and I judiciously completed and handed it in before it was due.  She dug deeper, the questions got harder, more personal and then the realisation hit.

I had let my professional identity become my personal identity and define my worth.  Outside of that, I had no idea who I was, what was important to me or what my values were.  What I did know was I couldn’t keep going, but I still felt like I had no choice.  I wasn’t ready yet.

I was a single mum, single income household with a mortgage, commitments and no confidence I could do anything outside of being a Sales Professional.

How wrong was I?

Every one of us has a choice and I did too. 

It was shortly after this revelation that my late Nan had a heart attack and lived interstate.  Now Nan was almost 100 at the time and had an enormous influence on my life.  Feeling fragile, I needed to be with her.  I organised the household, booked a flight and took off to the airport.  I was halfway there when I realised I had left my work phone on the kitchen bench, personal phone tucked away neatly with me in my pocket. 

After 13 years, that phone was an extension of my arm.  It was there for everyone else’s convenience except for mine. 

That day I decided to amputate. 

For the first time, it would be there for my convenience not everyone else’s.  As irresponsible as it should have felt, it didn’t. I left it on the kitchen bench, forwarded the message and very easily forgot all about that part of my life while I was away.  Seeing Nan was grounding.  After a few days, it became clear she was on the mend and would live to see another day.  I treasured the hours alone we had in her hospital room and one day, like always, she cut through the crap and hit me between the eyes with her wisdom. 

“Pete, enough.”

Nan was right.  I was done.  I wasn’t living a life, I was living an existence that wasn’t sustainable and was making me miserable.

Arriving back home in Melbourne, I went to go to work the next day.  That was the day my hands were shaking on the steering wheel.  I resigned by the end of the week. 

After 13 ½ years, I made a call on my career.  It felt like the only option but it also felt right.  Not for one minute would I put myself in a professional situation when I knew my heart wasn’t in what I was doing.  I cared too much about my customers and team mates for that to happen.  It wouldn’t be fair. 

It was time to think of me & (a now) Mr 10.   We both needed rewiring, reconnecting and to learn how to live a new life. 

If only it were as easy as it sounds.

I find it ironic that I had to close a chapter in my life to fully realise the impact I had and the difference I made to those around me.   I felt overwhelmed and humbled by the messages of support when I resigned and to this day, am deeply grateful to those who took the time to express their sentiments.  At a time when my confidence was an empty tank, they validated my efforts and made me proud of the legacy I had left. 

They also ignited an idea.

If I had been unintentionally helping other sales professionals throughout my career, what value could I put on that intelligence? Bingo, I had unleashed a beast!

For me, creativity is high on my agenda and a strong energy source.  It appears at the strangest of times.  For example, a long haul flight.  The sense of disconnection from life and responsibility unlocked my creative drive and made me feel like I could recreate the world. That is the best way I can describe this period after I resigned, except this time it was off the scale in its intensity.

I dove straight in the deep end, content pouring out of me, obsessively committed to my new purpose.  It was therapeutic, a distraction and very quickly buried the feeling of being professionally lost.  I had a new identity!

In no time, I had a website launched, clients knocking on the door and was having to adjust to the commercial reality of a start-up.  The problem was, it wasn’t enough.  The feelings of being professionally lost, feeling like I wasn’t good enough and now petrified of what everyone else was thinking of me, were like cyclones controlling my brain.  Add to that the financial stress of a single income household reliant on a start-up business and yep, the train wreck was imminent.

It was a business lunch I attended, over 800 in the room.  From the get go, I felt irritable and had trouble focusing.  A grating voice at the table was enough to trigger my panic alarm as the anxiety rose to a point I had trouble breathing.  Excusing myself, I escaped to the carpark only to have my credit card rejected in the pay machine.  I called an Uber, reliant on the same credit card.  I was stuck in the carpark and couldn’t get home.  Negative whirlies took over my brain.

This was the straw that broke my back. 

What followed was messy, confusing, frightening and the biggest lesson in my life.  For three weeks, I couldn’t be on my own.  I had three trusted confidents who wrapped their arms around me and picked up the pieces along with Jo, an amazing psychologist who worked with the three of them to ensure they understood the mess I had made for myself and would provide the support I needed.

I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety that in hindsight, had been with me my entire life. 

Without realising it, I had a created a life designed to avoid anxiety and at the same time, bred anxiety.

I thrived on structure, discipline and control which made it easy to avoid the unknown.  I had found a job where operational success relied on my ability to sniff out risk (a classic trait of anxiety sufferers) and was so demanding, I could easily use it as an excuse to disconnect and isolate myself from others as I felt so socially awkward (another classic trait).

All together it enabled me to avoid having to confront the lack of relationship I had with myself. 

That is where Jo and I started.  Time to hold up the mirror I had avoided for years and learn to love and understand the person I was. 

I was given permission to stop and was instructed that for 3 months, I had to down tools and sit I my own mess.  I was not allowed to strategize my way out of it, make any big decisions or to do anything aside from my core obligations – and it sure was messy.

At first, I couldn’t sit still and the brain space felt like my enemy.  It kept wanting to default to an exit strategy from uncertainty and would amplify the worst-case scenarios – What if I never find what I want to do? What does everyone else think? What if I lose my house?  I am a failure.  I had to sit in it.

I found solace in meditation.  It made my brain stop which was a reprieve but it took some time before I could manage it myself without being guided by someone else.   The negative “whirlies” would hijack my brain when I was on my own, distracting me from the space I was trying to create. 

One day I thought I would pick up a book.  I had no idea what I enjoyed but knew I enjoyed Robin Sharma’s pod casts on personal mastery.  They provided hope and were acutely positive.  That is where I would start.  I managed a page the first day.  By the end of the week, I could focus on a chapter a day. Before I knew it, I had finished the book.  It sounds like a small feat but for me, it was an accomplishment.  What’s more, I loved the content I was learning, it sparked an energy similar to what I had felt before but this time, it felt healthy. 

With Jo, we worked through my core values and how I needed to craft my life to ensure they were front and centre.  They became my decision-making compass. 

I fast developed what I call a compassionate based exclusion policy. 

That is, anything in my life that didn’t align with my values, I would steer away from – no hard feelings or judgement.  Equally, anything that sparked my interest for the right reason, I would explore. 

That exploration started re-engaging me with life. 

I began to discover where my energy came from – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and along with my improved ability to focus, I started putting the pieces together. 

Anxious thoughts became something I learned to acknowledge and live with rather than something I was constantly trying to avoid.  I was in control of them rather than the other way around.  I learnt how to detect their presence and knew what I needed to do to manage myself through the process before I sent them packing for another day.  Tomorrow would always be better. 

My ability to connect with people is probably the most profound difference I have felt throughout this process.  It is not that I couldn’t do it in the past, it was who I was prioritising to connect with that was out of whack.  Fascinated by this, I began researching the process of communication and spent time consciously trying to change my behaviour to improve this crucial life skill. 

I would learn rather than judge, listen rather than tell and most importantly, I would be focused and patient. 

When the time was right, Jo and I started to explore the question “What next?”.  By this time, I was flying through a book a week, loving learning and ready to start exploring the answer.

Reflecting back on my experience to date, we unpacked my capabilities focusing on the difference I made to those around me.  I started drawing parallels between my industry and others and put my networking hat on.  It was a conversation with John Bertrand, skipper of the winning Australian yacht in the 1983 America’s Cup that instilled the belief in me I was capable of change and that my skills would be transferable and of value within different Industries. 

I needed to know others believed in me so I could believe in myself.

That was all I needed. 

For now, that journey is evolving.  I continue to invest in myself on a daily basis.  My coaching clients provide constant inspiration and more often than not, I find myself guiding them through similar scenarios to what I have been through myself.  My love of being able to connect like-minded people who can benefit from knowing each other has seen my network swell to a widely cast net full of diverse talent, expertise, opinions & insights instead of limited industry with limited perspectives.  The effect this has had on my self- belief has been profound.   

As for my next chapter, I am currently living it.

As I explore those sparks of curiosity continue to get brighter, it is becoming clear that the future will be bright, full of new challenges and provide many opportunities to contribute and make a real difference.

I could never put a value on what I have gained over the past 3 years.  They are priceless benefits and life lessons that can’t be brought or acquired through an MBA.  They have helped me understand what is important to me and taught me how to live a proactive life with my core values front of mind. 

I am now a person I like. One that I understand and that I feel very comfortable taking out into the world to introduce to others. I have clarity on what I have to offer and fully believe I can deliver.

My sense of self-worth is no longer tied to my previous life or successes.  It comes from within me, not from what I have won, the money I have earned or the compliments from others. 

Everything I give to my professional world I now do with a deep-seated intention to help those I choose to serve.  I come from a position of asking and helping rather than telling and taking.   

When people ask, do I miss the money or the travel?  Sure, there are things I miss, but I don’t need those things anymore to make me feel good about myself.  Those rewards will return when they are meant to. 

In my view, they are the by-products of a purpose driven, intentional professional life -something I am well on my way to achieving.

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