Tristan was a Special Education teacher in rural Mississippi. He got into the field with a passion for working with special needs children, helping them to reach their full potential. He loved teaching these children, loving each one for their individuality and their unique challenge. However, dealing daily with the politics in education drained him. Budget cuts, administrative changes and poor school management diverted the attention away from the needs of these special children. He wanted to teach, not slay the beauracracy that allowed lower expectations of achievement to justify the rising class size. He watched as his ability to give the children what they needed to develop adaptive skills and improved communication dwindled with every new policy and class change. He loved his jobs and the challenges of the Special Ed. Classroom. But he gave up. Tristan quit to become a car salesman.
Greta was a juvenile probation officer. She worked with teenagers who had committed sexual offenses. If they were convicted, they often went to a juvenile facility. These kids were normally sullen, angry and completely closed off. But Greta knew there was a story within each of them that went far deeper than their crime. She took the time to engage with them and actually got most of them to open up to her. She found a majority of them had been traumatized at an early age, often a victim of sexual abuse themselves. Greta spent so much time with each of her kids, digging at the underlying issues, she started to get behind on her paperwork. After several warnings from her supervisor, she was officially reprimanded. Feeling completely betrayed, Greta shut down. She began calling in sick. She began coming in late. She lost her job.
And then there was Janet. Janet was a motivational speaker who truly mastered the art of connection. She wore her sincere love and committment to people like an infinity scarf around her neck. She was always “on.” She was always available for consultation, encouragement or an available shoulder on which to lean. She never talked about her own problems and assured the well wishers that her life was good. She was the strongest woman I knew. However when she did face a major crisis in her personal life, she looked around for help but no one was there. Because of her strength and her previous inability to ask for help, it was generally assumed she didn’t need any help. So no one came. Resentment began as a tiny ember in her mind and grew every time she helped someone else. Eventually, she had to take a break from the speaking, the helping and the outreach. She tucked herself into a little ball and hid herself away to heal.
What do these three people have in common?
They were givers. They gave and gave until they had nothing more to give. Without the strength to give one more thing…they collapsed in exhaustion and lost their way.
If you are in a helping profession, you may have experienced similar situations. Some call it burn out. I have attended seminars on burn out and it is often portrayed as the downward slope of a mountain. We are in a sled careening down the slope until we crash on the bottom.
That has not been my experience with burn out. My experience is that burn out is a series of small hills, not a looming mountain. We are all pulling a wagon behind us loaded up with our committment to our career, our expectations of what success looks like and our plan to meet those intrinsic expectations. And we travel this hilly terrain.
Burn out does not occur when we are coasting down to the valley. It occurs when we are ascending the next incline. In other words, when things are going well and I am refreshed and challenged, it’s like I am coasting down the hill in the wagon. But I can see the rise coming. That is when I become tired. Another hill? Another difficult situation? It’s hard lugging a wagon uphill, especially as full as mine is. But that is also when the self talk begins.
I force my brain to engage in self talk. Otherwise, it is happy to throw its little brain hands into the air and shut down. But I remind my brain whose in control and it quickly adjusts its attitude. Speaking (metaphorically) my brain says…” Angela, you have done this so many times. You know you can do it. You know the way back up the Hill is difficult and exhausting. But you also know when you do reach the summit again things will fall back into place. You will be renewed again.”
I have to be willing to listen to the self talk and process it. Yes, It would be so easy just to pitch a tent at the bottom and start a commune with the others down there. But I can’t. Because after countless experiences with these hills, I know I can do it. And I also know that if I just keep climbing, it will all be worth it.
I also had to build a support group of peers. Those who, like me, have traversed the hills with their heavily laden wagons. They know how it feels…when you can’t take one more step. But they have also successfully risen to the summit over and over, giving them an authoritative expertise behind their encouragement to keep going. But more than validation, I realized they can offer help in the form of listening, sharing laughter and even the offering of solutions to difficult problems. My job is to not be so full of my “strong woman” mantle that I am hesitant to reach out to them. I have to give myself permission to be vulnerable enough to receive the help.
So my truth to you is that you will get tired, frustrated and even defeated. Expect it to temporarily surface and you won’t be derailed when it comes. Plan ahead! Teach your brain who is boss and learn to effectively utilize self talk. Allow yourself to be human without self recrimination. And build up your support team to help you haul that wagon up the hill. Then, my friend, enjoy the Summit.