Ugh. I have to admit that when I go back and read my first blog post about burnout, I cringe.
I cringe when I read and remember the people along my journey that spread messages that burnout are an individual’s fault, which honestly further contributed to my self-blame and negative self-talk.
I cringe when I read how willfully I shoveled that bullshit in my mouth and then into yours.
But I am honestly damn proud of my persistence, my strength.
Today, I want to talk about burnout from a different perspective, because since July 2019, I have learned a lot and I feel entirely different about “burnout” and “mental illness” now. I no longer see these things as my fault. I still believe that, at the end of the day, we are responsible to make changes in our lives. And I also still believe that getting stuck in the helplessness that is the identification with the role of a victim, is real and unproductive.
However I see these things with much more nuance now. And I recognize how making changes and taking responsibility for our lives is immensely difficult when we live in a patriarchal and capitalist society that bombards us with messages of wealth, productivity and individuality. I also recognize that feeling like a victim is honestly something that happens as a result of continuous gaslighting, disempowerement and blame by our system. It is essentially learned helplessness. And that certainly is not any one individual’s fault.
I will speak here of my own story and how I now understand what lead to my tendency towards burnout because I think stories are the best way to help us understand and connect to concepts. However my story is just one story, and it may not reflect your own. However I do hope that by sharing my story, I give you the courage to look at your own life and your own self so that you can learn more about who you are, why you are, with the purpose of feeling empowered.
I have written about my people-pleasing tendencies before, and I am not sure if I have named this before but I have also come to notice how I also have identified as someone who is an over-achiever, a perfectionist and a bit of a chameleon. I previously boasted about my ability to fit in anywhere I went. And this was true. But I no longer feel such a sense of pride about it all.
By learning about trauma informed approaches to care and just trauma in general, attachment theory, as well as learning about our nervous system (mostly the polyvagal theory) and emotional (dys)regulation, I now understand that the above tendencies are actually just coping mechanisms.
Part of me had suspected this in the past but I never had the guidance, the support, the frameworks and the tools to really dive deeper into this exploration of my self. I was not ready.
Here is how I understand these things now: somewhere along in my development (and especially in my first few years of life), I was conditioned (by my environment) to believe that the way to receive love, to have my needs met and to stay connected to those around me (and by extension, society) was to appease others, perform, impress and fit in.
It is hard for me to write about this because I am immensely aware of how my parents will receive this information. However I want to make it abundantly clear that my parents provided for me in all the ways that they were told to by society and they both loved and cared for me with their entire beings. We were a middle class family and I never wanted for anything. We had a home, food, toys, clothing. I went to school with a lot of support from my parents and I excelled. We learned to swim, to skate, we went to summer camps, I enjoyed so many extra-curricular activities, we went on family trips, I had a loving extended family, and the list goes on. I never experienced abuse of any kind.
Wow, you are probably thinking, that sounds like the perfect up-bringing. What more could you want, Michèle?
Well, as I have recently learned, our needs go beyond the physical and the social/societal ones. My parents raised me to fit in to society, and fit in I did.
But what I never fully learned from my parents, and this is likely because they never learned it from their own parents, was how to regulate my own nervous system and my own emotions. How to process big emotions when they come up. How to listen to my body and give it what it needs. How to nurture a relationship with my self and my intuition, and let that guide me when making decisions and commitments in life. How to set boundaries and prioritize my well being. These are all things that, I believe, my parents were never taught themselves. Because they had their own difficult upbringings. But mostly, because society does not value these things, does not promote emotional regulation, self-prioritization and the honouring of our bodies and our needs as a way to succeed in life.
So, when I take all of this new information into consideration, it becomes obvious to me why I have perpetually been burnt out over the last 6 years.
And honestly, I can look back even further now and see how stress and overwhelm had been present for quite some time. There were signs, my body was talking to me, but I was entirely unaware of it and oblivious to my body’s messages. As were my parents, my teachers, my doctor and my therapists. We are simply not a trauma informed and emotionally competent society, generally.
Here are some of the messages (in the form of symptoms/illness) my body had been sending me over the years:
- Sometime in my early teenage years, or maybe even before, I started picking at my toe nails. I would rip them off, often causing bleeding and pain, sometimes infections – one time I even required antibiotics and an incision and drainage of a small abscess.
- I was generally quite sickly in my teen years, and maybe in my younger years but I can’t remember now. I caught colds all the time. Having a cold in the summer was normal for me. I eventually started having bacterial pharyngitis and this lead to my getting my tonsils removed at the age of 21.
- I had a nervous bladder. There was a running joke in my family growing up that Michèle always needed to visit the bathrooms wherever we traveled. I even dealt with some urge incontinence in my early 20s.
- I had palpitations and headaches and always thought of myself as someone who “ran hot” because I sweat easily and often.
- During my masters, I had this persistent cough and would have the coughing fits that often led to regurgitation. I also had difficulties swallowing food and once require the heimlich maneuver when I was at a placement. I even had a baryum swallow study done because of the severity.
- Growing up and up until the last few years, I struggled with intermittent constipation and diarrhea. I remember in school having these incredibly painful cramps as a results of constipation and gas build up.
- I struggled with insomnia starting in my tween years and relied on sleeping pills almost continously up until 2019.
When I put all of these things “on paper”, and looking back, it now seems so obvious that body was just immensely stressed. But I had no idea – I was entirely unaware and dissociated from my body and the present because I simply did not have the capacity and the tools to cope with the emotions and the stress that daily life brought up for me.
The final straw was the panic attack I experienced at work in 2015. I believe that was my body finally saying NO, Michèle, we cannot keep going like this.
We call this “burnout”, and I suppose in a way, it is an absolute overwhelm of our bodies and nervous systems.
But what I want to highlight here is the fact that burnout was not my fault, nor is it yours. It is not an individual’s fault if they have been raised in a society that pushes them to do more and be more and to disregard their bodies and its needs.
Sadly, for now, it also won’t be society that takes responsibility for burnout. The responsibility is our own, albeit, not necessarily something we have to do alone. I am surrounding myself with people who understand my reality and are encouraging me to honor my needs. It is up to me (with support from others) to cultivate a relationship with my body, to build awareness of my needs, to practice asking for what I need and set boundaries to help protect my self and my needs. And this work is brutal.
It is brutal because we get messaging from everywhere that if we can’t keep up with the pace of society, that we are ill, we are weak, that something is wrong with us.
I don’t believe that anymore… at least, not all the time. I am starting to change the way I live my life to take better care of my self and my body, to live a more present, joyful and fulfilled life. But it is hard work when the rest of the world does not necessarily understand, and maybe perceives my choices and limits as weakness. So I still, on the daily, struggle with thoughts of “what is wrong with me” and “why can’t I just keep up” and “am I really asking my employer to drop to part time?!”.
However I am not letting those thoughts and beliefs take over my life like I have in the past. I am done with trying to keep up with a way of life that does not bring me health, joy and fulfillment There is a part of me that longs for a more free, energized, joyful and connected life. For the first time in my adult life, I am deeply hopeful and excited for the life that lays ahead of me. I feel confident and empowered. I am done with burnout.