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  • Writer's pictureMC Mendez

Understanding burnouts

A few years ago, burnouts were rarely identified and widely misunderstood. They were all the more disturbing when they became fatal. Today it has become commonplace. Who does not know of one or more people who have succumbed to this mental, physical and emotional exhaustion? Although some are still perplexed by this phenomenon, the fact remains that burnouts are not only more frequent, but they also increasingly affect younger populations, and they can now manifest in all spheres of our lives.

There are unmistakable signs. Headaches, muscle aches, struggle to think clearly, mood swings, restless or sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, daily tension, a feeling of helplessness, of being in a spiral that never ends, of never really having a break or being able to recover. Fatigue is actually a major sign of a burnout, but unfortunately it can be attributed to many other things other than the real source of the problem. Moreover, when you reach a burnout, it is no longer fatigue, but out-right exhaustion.

Having lived an experience close to a burnout, I feel a lot of empathy for people who go through it, because it gradually creeps in under a cloak of "wanting to do well" and "being responsible and efficient". Values I associate with. I am all the more sensitive to this condition as a person in my family has suffered a double burnout (work + personal life) to the point of putting her life in danger. A burnout is already devastating to begin with, because it deprives the person from his/her resources and abilities, but it can go even further and become potentially fatal if followed by depression. Which begs the question: What makes it come to this?

I discovered the book, “Guide to Burn-out – How to avoid it, how to get out of it” by Anne Everard, thanks to one of my coachees. There is of course a lot of literature on the subject but what is interesting here is that Anne Everard wrote the book that she would have liked to read during her burnout. An easy-to-read, straight-to-the-point book that can be read in small doses. An essential aspect for people who are completely exhausted. So, if you suspect you are an ideal candidate for a burnout and are already feeling tired, the form and structure of this book might be right up your alley.

The essence of the book is equally relevant. It clearly describes how to identify a burnout, its causes and the people most likely to succumb to it. It also provides concrete solutions, and addresses the essential steps and changes necessary to come out the other end. The particularity of this book also lies in the fact that it is full of testimonials that illustrate the different possible forms of burnouts and their different outcomes. It therefore offers an array of opportunities to identify or recognise oneself through others, and also to free oneself from guilt and consequently opens prospects of daring new things.

For a burnout is first and foremost an ultimate signal from the body to communicate that it has exceeded its limits for a long time and that it is no longer able to continue. It is not a sign that the person has shown weakness but that he or she has been far too strong for far too long! The body shuts down to prevent flooding or worse drowning. Anne Everard also compares this phenomenon with “fuses blowing”. People going through a burnout ("Burnies" as she calls them) gradually disconnect from their bodies and follow their minds instead, ignoring all signs of suffering and at some point, they are confronted with a wall that stops them dead on their tracks! Overnight, the “burnie” feels empty and helpless. It’s impossible to start a car that has run out of fuel. Here it is the same, except that we have also exhausted all the pumps!

So, who is prone to having a burnout? According to Anne Everard: “People prone to burnouts tend to over-invest themselves, with a highly developed sense of responsibility. Perfectionists, idealists and enthusiasts, that give themselves body and soul and, above all, neglect to rest.” They indeed give themselves “body and soul” until there is nothing left. If you recognise yourself in this description and know deep down that you have been over stretching yourself for years and that you’re on the verge of breaking down, read this book, take a rest and step back. Avoiding a burnout will be more effective than waiting for the axe to fall and deal with it later. Recovering from a burnout takes time, introspection and a long essential rest. It also requires a reassessment of one’s priorities and limits.

Denial is very common among "burnies". They rely so much on their active, dynamic, and productive skills that without them they feel useless and lost. Who are they if not active, dynamic and productive? They have identified so much with those qualities that they cannot consider being anything else. Everything comes tumbling down. Some "burnies" will even go as far as obsessing on returning to “normal” (especially at the beginning of a burnout), relentlessly chasing the status quo. Paradoxically they want to return at all costs to the context and behaviours that put them in that state of exhaustion to begin with. The good news is that a human being is far more than a set of qualities, skills or values. Introspection and a follow-up with someone neutral will help reveal a broader and more complete vision of the person.

Besides, in addition to regular visits to a doctor, who will follow the whole evolution, support with a psychologist or therapist is advised, first to be able to unload without having to do anything about it. Because “overdoing” is exactly what is at the source of a burnout. So, the very first step is to rest and then rest some more. The second step, to talk to someone and express what is happening within. Gradually we begin to understand where we have lost our way, where we have lost sight of ourselves, and we can then take a new path and put changes in place, preferably in the most benevolent environment.

Anne Everard also looks at the important roles played by those around the “burnies”, family, friends, employers and colleagues. How to explain to them what's going on? How to communicate your needs to them during this difficult time? How to distance yourself from them without feeling guilty? Very important things that involve being able to refocus on one’s needs and communicate them clearly and calmly to others. A precious opportunity for “burnies” to relearn how to listen to themselves and make clear requests.

Indeed, burnouts are still often misunderstood and even judged negatively by some. This could stem from a lack of empathy, a bout of jalousie at seeing someone “taking it easy”, or simply a lack of understanding, who knows. If some people around you do not understand, leave them to their business and come back to you. Make sure you surround yourself with people who do understand or at least try to. Talk to other “burnies” and share your experience and/or let yourself be guided by the strategies and testimonials that punctuate this very practical and concrete book. And if you feel the energy or the interest for the subject, do not hesitate to continue reading some of the other works proposed in the last chapter "To know more".

In the meantime, take care of yourself. Listen to your body. It speaks loud and clear and informs you. Listening to it could work wonders for you. Its signals are not there to upset you but to protect you. Be aware of your energy levels. reacquaint yourself with your needs. Some things nourish us, others drain us. Finding the right balance is essential for lasting mental, emotional and physical health! Put yourself back at the centre of your life, and cherish that vital energy!

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