It feels apt that I should be introducing myself as Transition Network’s new Inner Transition Coordinator as part of a blog on burnout. I have lived most of my adult life through the lens of burnout. In many ways I am incredibly grateful as it has supported me to find meaning and depth in my life that otherwise would perhaps have eluded me.
The extent of my burnout meant I had no choice but to listen to my horribly neglected body. She was literally screaming out to me in utter despair. The magnitude of my refusal to listen was directly proportionate to my overwhelming exhaustion and growing sense of helplessness and despair.
All this led to a fascination with inner work. I felt baffled that despite knowing that I needed to look after myself better, I felt utterly unable to prioritise this over my obsession to help co-create a more equitable, loving and peaceful world. I found myself totally caught up in my activism and very scared to let this go in any way. It was incredibly painful to witness just how impossible it felt to simply love myself enough to take care of myself. I remember a potent moment when it dawned on me that if I metaphorically saw the unwell parts of me as my children, dependent on me – the adult, to take care of them, then I would literally be put in prison for child neglect and/or abuse.
Increasingly I came to realise my addiction to activism was a means to avoid feeling the pain of what it is to be alive in the world today – a world in which we are taught love is conditional on us being a certain way.
Being acutely and chronically burnt out left me no choice but to surrender to my exhaustion, vulnerability and ‘not knowing’ – all of which I had been unconsciously avoiding like the plague. My identity and self-worth were very invested in feeling strong, capable and able to make a difference in the world. I learned that when our sense of self-worth in the world feels like it depends on us being a certain way – then our investment in denying anything other than this is pretty high. This is where our blind spots or ‘shadow’ comes from.
Survival strategies and core beliefs
My journey taught me about the ‘survival strategies’ (behaviours) I had developed to protect me from feeling pain and fear around not being loved. I discovered a deeply buried bunch of core beliefs around what makes me ‘good enough’ to be loved and accepted in this world, including:
- To be loved/liked I need to sacrifice my own needs.
- To be loved/liked I need to be confident and positive.
- To be loved/liked I need to be good at stuff, productive and effective.
I developed these ‘core beliefs’ in response to the conscious and unconscious messages I was getting from my parents and the world around me.
Like many mothers, mine modelled that a good mother/woman/person sacrifices her own needs over those of her children and husband. I remember aged 11, when I started a new secondary school, being struck by how many of my new friends were in pain because they didn’t feel unconditional (read self-sacrificial) love from their parents. I remember very clearly committing to myself that from then on I would show everyone unconditional love. Sadly it took me until recently to realise that I am part of that ‘everyone’.
A classically Christian emphasis on being ‘nice’ and kind towards others also led to me subconsciously believe that having a negative impact on others would mean they wouldn’t love/like me.
Meanwhile I was becoming acutely aware of my privilege and power in a world where inequality and profound suffering were so rife. Add to the mix; extensive visits to ‘developing’ countries; a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development; and working as a Campaigner for various NGOs, awakening me to the UK’s role in systemic injustice. And hey presto – middle class guilt and shame provided the perfect mid-wife for the birth of my addiction to activism.
2) I need to be confident and positive
Like many, my mum largely attributes unhappiness to a lack of confidence. This meant being confident was heavily emphasized in my upbringing, leading me to repress any feeling or behaviour that might suggest I wasn’t confident. Vulnerability, fear and sadness were definitely no go areas for me. Add to this the bad rap anger gets, particularly for females and those of us attached to being ‘nice’ and kind, and emotions other than joy (read confidence!) became off-limits for me. This meant I literally shut off from experiencing my feelings and emotions.
3) I need to be good at stuff, productive and effective
I grew up ticking mainstream society’s Patriarchal boxes. From a young age I was given very positive feedback about how I showed up in the world. I was that annoying one who seemingly had it all – academically bright, good at sport and, needless to say I had confidence nailed. Added to which my mum was of course big into telling me how great I was, in the belief that this is what brings happiness. I remember from a very young age learning to seek this affirmation a bit like a drug. Add to all this a firmly embedded work ethic and addiction to activism starts to make so much sense.
To a large extent, the mainstream cultures within the various activist circles I have been in, represent the perfect breeding ground for burnout. Whilst everyone’s story is utterly unique, the Patriarchal Paradigm has underpinned the development of each of our individual stories and personalities – even those of us so intent on co-creating new paradigms.
It gradually became obvious to me that my recovery from addiction to activism rested on me freeing myself from the stranglehold these survival strategies had over me.
The relationship between burnout and stress
The other key dimension of my recovery has been experiencing the extent to which I have been repressing my feelings – and the role this has played in my burnout.
Burnout is effectively chronic stress that we continually ignore and override. When we experience stress our whole nervous system reacts and adrenaline and cortisol (hormones) are released into our blood stream and speed up the heart and breathing rates, blood pressure and metabolism. When we respond healthily to stress (and emotions generally) we allow the physical and emotional sensations to pulse through us and we then respond to these messages from our body appropriately, for example by changing our behaviour. My understanding is that burnout results when we have lost the ability to allow this healthy response to stress. Many of us have become conditioned to either freeze or somehow distract ourselves from stress – and it seems to be this that leads to the debilitating symptoms we call burnout.
Science tells us that when we over-ride the messages our body sends us when we experience stress, a pathological dysfunction of the mid-brain structures is created – particularly within the hypothalamus gland. Effectively, the mid-brain structures have gone into overdrive resulting in our major bodily functions (immune system; endocrine system and autonomic nervous system) being flooded with signals to correct the imbalance. This means the body is horrendously overworked and gives way to the vast array of debilitating symptoms associated with burnout.
The body uses emotions to convey its needs to us; emotions are the body’s messengers. If our body feels its needs are not being heard, rather than stop trying to make itself heard, it turns up the intensity or volume of the messengers. Burnout symptoms are these louder messengers: they are the body shouting to get our attention.
In her editorial piece, Sophy Banks offered the framework that burnout needs two conditions to unfold in a system (be that an individual, species or the earth). This very much mirrors my experience:
1. Out of balance
In my case, the ‘survival strategies’ I adopted led to a very unbalanced identity and way of being in the world focused entirely on qualities that mainstream society – and therefore Patriarchy, rewards. These had become addictive patterns of behaviour because, despite leading to burnout and extremely unpleasant and debilitating physical symptoms, I felt unable to choose self-care. For example:
- Thinking and living in my head as a way to seem confident – rather allowing myself to feel what is really going on and be seen in my emotions, whatever they might be.
- Doing rather than being as an attempt to get external validation rather than trusting that I was enough through simply being as I was in any given moment.
- Giving and being self-sacrificial rather than receiving support and risking feeling the fear of being rejected for being a burden.
- Presenting as positive, optimistic, strong and fearless to ensure I seemed confident and to mask my inherent vulnerability and growing sense of helplessness and despair in the face of my rapidly deteriorating physical health.
2. Missing Feedback Loop
In the case of us humans, our feedback loop is contingent on us being able to feel and respond to the messages our body is sending us about what it needs, often in the form of emotions. As I have described already, my feedback loop was defunct in that I had shut off from my feelings and therefore the messages my body was sending about what it needed.
From addiction to choice, freedom and self care.
My journey with burnout has therefore primarily been shaped around three processes:
- Discovering who I am beneath my ‘survival strategies’ and without the mask they have created.
- Re-learning how to feel my emotions – especially those I learned to believe weren’t safe to feel – and in so doing, become increasingly sensitized and responsive to feedback from my body about what it needs.
- Reclaiming my choice and freedom from these addictive and destructive ways of being.
From ashes to beauty
Exhaustion now resides deep within my bones and psyche like an old ghost unwilling to let me forget my mistakes. And thank goodness for that, as at a more surface level I also feel the acute conditioning and allure to repeat this destructive pattern of overriding the messages from my body, forgetting its deeper wisdom and momentarily being lulled into that seductive illusion that my mind is the only tool in the box. My body and emotions are now my greatest allies and teachers having relegated my mind, and its infinite and passion-infused ideas, to co-pilot in this adventure we call life.
What’s more, this journey has gifted me with the self-awareness necessary to more and more free myself from the strangle-hold of the ego’s demands and rather be able to act from a place of choice – less and less beholden to the addictive strategies nurtured by current mainstream society. The journey burnout has taken me on has reconnected me with a much richer way of experiencing life, centred around re-learning how to feel and therefore fully experience the fullness of what it is to be truly alive today. Not only are my physical and emotional health radically improving – but even more profoundly, being prepared to feel this pain and allow myriad parts of my identity to die, has opened within me meaning, depth and texture which enrich my life in ways I did not previously know were possible. More and more I am able to be present and in connection with who I really am in each moment, and in turn to choose what will best serve my integrity around the sacredness of the earth and all beings. And most importantly, I am learning how to love myself and include myself within this integrity equation.
In PART TWO I will share about some of the processes I have been through to reclaim my choice and freedom from these addictive tendencies and give you a taste of what life can look like post-burnout!
Claire is also part of a new collective of facilitators offering workshops to support those working for social and ecological renewal to develop sustainable and nourishing approaches within our work. You might be interested in the following:
Please also consider sharing the event across your Facebook via this post and forwarding on this email to others you think might be interested.