8 surprising lessons about burnout that are essential for working mom success
Burnout is a term that is common in the working world. And while it used to be something that only seemed to happen to ambitious people taking on too much in a demanding industry, it now seems to be an inevitable result for many working professionals, especially working moms.
As a mental health professional, I have had an understanding of burnout from 2 perspectives:
1. Clients bringing up burnout during a therapy session
2. Witnessing colleagues going through burnout
I now can add #3 to the list:
3. First-hand experience of burnout
So, instead of focusing on what I learned from #1 and #2, which essentially will look like any other post on burnout (common causes/contributors, basic prevention methods, etc.), I’m going to tell you how burnout crept up on me, despite being a mental health professional and what I’ve taken from the experience.
What surprised me about burnout and the lessons I learned from it.
Surprise #1: Despite being a stressed out working mom, I didn’t know I was burnt out.
Yep, even though I was on a mental health leave from work, it didn’t hit me that it was burnout. I was as if everything was going so well and then Bam! Anxiety and depression struck me down.
I was in complete denial - minimizing the stressful nature of my work, ignoring the demands in multiple life areas. If figured - I still care! I’m still functioning well. I’m still laughing! It can’t be burnout.
I had a set idea in my mind of what burnout is, and who gets it. I’m not old, jaded and void of energy, therefore it can’t be burnout. Boy was I wrong!
Lesson #1: Sometimes we (especially working moms) are not the best judges of our own wellness.
Surprise #2: My mental load was in the red zone, but I was fighting pretty hard against my support system.
My husband (who is my closest friend and happens to be a fellow therapist) approached me multiple times over the course of a year and “gently” asked, “Do you think you might be depressed?” I would tell him a simple “no” and list the “reasons” (ahem, excuses) for why I didn’t seem like myself. This included: I didn’t sleep well last night, I had a demanding session today, this weather always drains me, etc.
My ability to rationalize is one my superpowers. And my husband, faced with my myriad of excuses and defensiveness would let it go. Until the next time. At the end of the summer 2018, he brought it up again and I got EXTRA defensive.
Afterwards, I reflected - why would this mental health professional who knows me extremely well be suggesting I have depression? And I did the obvious (in hindsight) next step. I asked him what made him think that and what he was noticing in me.
His answer was hard to ignore. He observed 2 different versions of “Beth” — one a highly productive, ambitious superstar and a sluggish, unmotivated zombie. (I’m paraphrasing for effect). And while ‘Zombie Beth’ was sluggish, she was also edgy, critical, defensive and anxious. My clients and my kids got ‘Superstar Beth’ leaving Zombie Beth for my husband and for me when I was alone. I couldn’t rationalize my way out of this one.
Lesson #2: If reasonable people you trust are worried about your mental or physical health, it may be worth hearing them out.
Surprise #3: Maintaining the illusion I was a happy successful working mom was actually contributing to the burnout.
Throughout my life I have been an on and off journal keeper. In the 6 months prior to my leave from work, I was keeping an active journal, consisting of free writing of whatever came to mind. In October 2018, I finally started listening to my husband and spoke to my doctor about feeling depressed and anxious. She asked me: “how long have you been feeling this way?”. I thumbed through my journal going all the way back to the first page dated in April 2018, and answered “At least 6 months”.
It wasn’t until months later that it occurred me that I had experienced depressive episodes in the past and white-knuckled through them. This time around, I didn’t have the luxury of “crashing” at the end of a work day or drinking with friends until 3am, because I had young children who depended on me. There was no room for depression or burnout in my life, so I pretended it wasn’t there to the point I believed it wasn’t there.
I was working so hard at keeping up external appearances, that I actually dug the hole deeper, taking on more work, getting overwhelmed and neglecting my self-care. And I was good at keeping up appearances. It’s easy to write of that a working mom of two young children looks tired or seems frazzled from time to time. The fact is, even people that know you well are generally going to believe you when you tell them you’re doing OK.
Lesson #3: Cut the bullshit and allow yourself to be honest about what you’re going through.
Surprise #4: My burnout wasn’t caused by what I thought it was (at least not entirely)
My job is objectively stressful (I provide counseling to low-income individuals most of whom have a complex trauma history, substance use, suicidal ideation or all of the above). I’ve seen many people burnout in this field during my 15 year career.
But it wasn’t the nature of my work that led to burnout; it was elements that were far more universal that got me there. This includes: wanting to do more, be more, give more, trouble saying “no”, the desire for increased challenge, and underestimating how long tasks will take me to complete. I was being pulled in multiple directions and yet it was of my own doing.
When I was in high school my summer job was as a hotel housekeeper. In many ways, drastically different than what I do now and yet it was arguably more stressful than my current job. Again this wasn’t the nature of the job. It’s my nature, and my choices. I can be stressed out cleaning a toilet, or stressed out speaking with someone who wants to take their own life. What I am doing during my day, when I leave work and, most importantly, how am I speaking to myself are what will lead me toward or away from burnout.
Lesson #4: Dig deep - the obvious isn’t always the problem.
Surprise #5: I knew what I wanted and lost what I needed.
This is a double whammy. I kept saying “I don’t know what I want” which was a lie I was telling myself AND my needs weren’t even hitting my radar.
Let me explain. Last summer, I met a therapist for a “career clarity” session. I said several times during the session “I just don’t know what I want”. She took notes during the session and sent a summary to me, along with some suggestions as to what I can do to move forward. When I realized in the fall that I required more than career clarity, I scheduled another session with her and have been seeing her since.
She has been an incredible therapist (and trust me, I’m picky!), and just a few weeks ago I once again said to her “I’m just not sure what I want”. She referred back to our first session together saying that I spent the first 45 minutes of our session explaining what I wanted, and the last fifteen minutes talking myself out of it. I realized this a very common pattern for me. It’s not that I don’t know what I want, it’s that I have trouble giving myself permission to pursue my wants.
Never one to go halfway, not only was I denying my wants, I was neglecting my needs. I was so caught in doing well and being the best, that I was losing my sense of values and priorities. So, even though I was engaged passionately in a job that fulfilled a sense of purpose, I was getting lost in the busy work, and spending my energy reserves in the process.
Lesson #5: It’s worth it to take the time to listen to the quieter parts yourself – working moms really need to understand their values and priorities.
Surprise #6: I’m not as invaluable as I had made myself out to be in my head.
Overall, I am a humble person, and yet I hold a confidence (borderline cockiness sometimes), about the quality of my clinical work. I love what I do. I am good at it and I continually strive to learn more and be better. I have a reputation among clients and colleagues that matches my assessment. When I told my clients I was going to be away from work for at least 6 weeks for personal reasons, most of them offered compassion and well wishes. While there were a few groans about me being away, no one gave me a hard time.
Well, except one person---Me.
I was convinced that I couldn’t just take time away, that I would be “letting everyone down”. I’ll admit, I was downright irrational about how much my absence would impact those around me. The reality is, no matter how good I am at my job, I am not really that special. In fact, I frequently say that I know I am doing my job well if I am less and less needed in the lives of my clients.
I wasn’t using facts to back up my story about letting everyone down. It just wasn’t accurate. Quite the opposite. Something that was likely obvious to other people (refer back to surprise/lesson #2) is that at the rate I was going I was risking not being much good to anyone in the near future.
The oxygen mask analogy has almost become a cliché as an anthem for self-care for helping professionals. In case you haven’t heard it. When you’re on an airplane, a flight attendant will say that in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments. They will instruct passengers to be sure to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others (such as children) who cannot do it themselves. How can you take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself?
Well, not only had I not put on my oxygen mask, I was busy running around the plane making sure EVERYONE had their mask on. Hell, I probably asked the flight attendant to have a seat. It wasn’t actually my job to save everyone, and it took me some time to figure out how to actually get the mask on myself and trust that other people would be cared for.
Lesson #6: Taking time for me (i.e., true self-care) was necessary and everyone else survived it.
Surprise #7: Making lists and charts wasn’t going to solve my burnout or improve my work-life balance.
Not gonna lie, I love me a good list and/or chart (it’s okay if you are thinking “yeah Beth, we figured that out since we are on number 7 of a list you made”). For many years, I was noticing patterns within my work – falling behind on paperwork, taking on too much, procrastination, etc. Through the years I have made some beautiful charts, lists and problem-solving strategies that I could probably make a book out of.
And they didn’t work. At least not for long. I was under the illusion that I just needed to make some minor habit shifts and that I would be able to successfully solve this issue. I was trying to will myself to be different, instead of fixing the root causes of the patterns to begin with.
One of the biggest challenges during my leave from work was to do the internal work and gain a better understanding as to why I fall into the traps I do. It wasn’t about making a chart (but to tell on myself I certainly made a few of those on my leave too). It was about healing, finding greater acceptance for who I am, what my strengths are and where I need support from others.
Lesson #7: There was no external fix to get over burnout. I had to do the internal mental and emotional work.
Surprise #8: No matter how much self-reflection I did, I needed outside help.
I am still struggling with this point. You would think as a helping professional I would be all about this, and yet getting beyond the mindset of “I can fix this myself” has been an immense challenge. You know the phrase “doctors make the worst patients”, try being a therapist of a therapist.
And it’s not that I am opposed to going to therapy. I have had various periods of therapy throughout my adult life. But this was perhaps the first time I allowed myself to truly listen to what my therapist was telling me and not try to convince her that I already have the solution figured out. I wasn’t seeking an “attagirl”, I was seeking answers.
This wasn’t limited to my therapist. My family doctor has been a major support and I have a core group of loved ones I confide in to help keep me honest. I have also asked for assistance from my employer to set up systems of external accountability. I didn’t come in with a pre-planned solution. I expressed my needs and asked for what I needed and listened to the ideas of others. Trust me. This is not my norm. And like the previous 7 items, it’s still a work-in-progress.
Lesson #8: Find competent, trusted professionals (and loved ones) and let them support you.
So, let’s be real, burnout doesn’t fix itself. It can go into remission or feel more intense at certain times of the year, but unless you face it, it will grow. I didn’t want to be a zombie, full of regret that I didn’t do more “when I had the chance”. If any of this resonates with you (which it probably does if you have made it this far down the page), think about whether any of these lessons could help you?
Lesson #1: Sometimes we’re not the best judges of our own wellness.
Lesson #2: If reasonable people you care about point something out, it may be worth hearing them out.
Lesson #3: Cut the bullshit and allow yourself to be honest about what you’re going through.
Lesson #4: The obvious isn’t always the problem.
Lesson #5: It’s worth it to take the time to listen to the quieter parts yourself.
Lesson #6: Taking time for me was necessary and everyone else survived it.
Lesson #7: There wasn’t an external fix. It has to be the internal work.
Lesson #8: Find competent, trusted professionals and let them support you.
I would love to hear your experiences or learnings from getting to or near a place of burnout.