Discovering the Cause
The recovery process of burnout is long and hazy. This post will unpack the deeper and ongoing recovery process. Part 1 discussed the signs and symptoms and Part 2 discussed the initial recovery steps. My hope is that in Part 3 you will be encouraged to do the hard, inner work to bounce back.
There may be a variety of reasons that have led to burnout, and it’s important to work through them. If these issues aren’t worked through, you may find yourself in a similar state of burnout again and/or never truly able to move on and heal well.
What do you attribute to your burnout? If you have experienced burnout then this question may feel unsettling. It may produce an unpleasant taste to you because it seems blindly obvious why you burnt out.
We often attribute causes of burnout to external sources, e.g. “I was overworked… they took advantage of me… they abused me… the culture was toxic… my boss was difficult… I was micromanaged… I was supposed to do X and was forced to do Y… they never listened to me…”.
There is absolutely no doubt these causes can trigger burnout, and many people are victims of abhorrently sinful behaviour or simply poor management, however, often this is where self-reflection stops and concludes with the thought, “I was wronged”.
At this point, you have trigger/s and symptom/s. But we’re missing the key piece, you.
What I found in my experience of burnout is we often get so caught up in our own self-righteousness that we forget that we play a significant part. Over time, prayer and wise counsel helped me to see the difference between the triggers and how I responded (either rightly or wrongly).
When I first started receiving counselling my inner life felt like a chaotic mess. I could not conceive how the triggers had produced such a response in me. Trying to understand myself was clear as mud. After many months of deep work, I began to see how the situation brought up issues of my identity. I began to see how my insecurities led me to work absurd overtime hours. I started to see that my craving for approval was driving feelings of anxiety. I started to realise that my own sin and shortcomings had significantly contributed to feeling burnt out.
Think about the reason/s you attribute to your burnout. Do you think you will encounter them again? Almost definitely! We live in a fallen and broken world so it is highly likely you will encounter the same or similar external triggers again. We cannot take responsibility for how we are treated but we can, however, take responsibility for how we respond to stressors so next time you encounter it, it might hurt but you won’t get burned. In my own experience this is critical to recovering from burnout because you start to take responsibility for you. This is not to diminish the way you may have been wronged, yes, wounds will need to be worked through and external factors may need to change, but we become more aware of ourselves and the areas we need to own. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own thoughts, desires and actions; counselling and support will probably work on these areas.
The Heart of Burnout
Three signs of burnout are emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced sense of personal accomplishment, they are not simply amoral signs and symptoms; there are right and godly responses to when we find ourselves struggling from burnout.
Consider emotional exhaustion. Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:38). If we feel like we are carrying an anchor then we are probably not wearing the yoke of Jesus. We have taken on burdens that are not ours to bear. We have pursued things that are not our responsibility. Emotional exhaustion is not just physical, mental or emotional: it is also a spiritual and heart issue.
Consider depersonalisation. Is it okay to be cynical and look on others with contempt? Do we think it is okay to think of some people less than human? Are they no longer made in the image of God because they contributed to your burnout? Of course not, this is a heart issue.
Consider a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Do we get our self-worth from what we can or can’t do? Should we find our identity in our capabilities, from the approval of others, in our performance or successes? Again, we do not. Our worth has been set and our identity defined by who God says we are. Again, this is also an issue of the heart.
The deep work that needs to be done is to have a deeper identity in Christ. This requires humility and repentance. By doing this deep heart work, burnout can be recovered from and it can be used for good and for our growth.
In part 4 of Recovering from Burnout we will consider living with the scars of burnout.