From Burnout to Balance

There is no denying that the increasingly widespread phenomena of burnout is wreaking havoc on our groups and movements - and society at large. Many of you reading this will have experienced it or know people who’ve lived the physical and emotional collapse that is its calling card. In a nutshell, burnout results from a culturally created and endorsed habit of ignoring one's needs (communicated as emotions and body sensations), to privilege productivity and efficiency. It is the bodys’ loud shouting for balance after all its many whispers and nudges have been ignored.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Burnout: the marginalisation of rest 

In the dominant culture there is a blinkered belief that progress is the only confirmation of success. More is better underlies the single story of progress as a straight line from less to more. This conviction is what brings us to our knees with burnout; when the work ethic this conjures is coupled with an underdeveloped ability to listen to one's inner world of body sensation and emotions, we lose the ability to take action in healthy ways - at great cost to ourselves and earth.

Because modernity also has an overarching story of humans being separate from the web of life, we believe ourselves to be separate from the cycles of winter and summer, night and day, life and death…we live as if pursuing more light, more summer, more life, is somehow sane and sustainable, and perceive it as an error when we get slowed down by illness or when someone dies (which isn't to minimise the suffering and grief involved in both). Our current state of global emergency can be tracked back to this consuming belief in more is better that has decimated ecosystems and other cultures who have a more balanced relationship with the universe we are part of. 

With that straightline story of progress we marginalise the natural necessities of death, endings and rest. Nature works in circles rather than in straight lines - rest feeds work; death, through composting, creates the environment for new life to emerge and so on. By continuing to work at changing broken systems without attending to the way those broken systems show up in each of us, and our groups, organisations and movements, is ultimately counterproductive because we will be creating more of the same, no matter how earnestly we seek the opposite outcome. 

In Why does Patriarchy Persist? Caroline Gillman and Naomi Snider, do an amazing job of explaining how our childhood survival strategies go on to shape how we show up in the world as adults who perpetuate the patriarchal power-over model of relating at the heart of our destructive ways of being modern humans.

Mainstream schooling and many modern parenting techniques prioritise strategic thinking and the suppression of our emotions. The focus is largely on conformity and obedience to a power-over structure, with punishments on tap if you don't do as you are told. A four year old who would authentically be playing outside within reach of the people who love them most is removed to an environment where they are surrounded by over-worked strangers who coerce them to largely stay seated and to apply their minds, regardless of whether they are curious or not. If they express their feelings about a mismatch between what they feel/ sense to do and what is being required of them, more often than not they get shamed and/or punished.

This type of out-of-balance education squashes the development of our ability to listen to our emotions, body sensations, and most of all, our wild imaginations. By using punishment to enforce the regime, schooling and mainstream parenting creates a conformity of workers that slot neatly into the industrial military complex - priming us perfectly for our current burnout epidemic. Very few of us in modernity live with access to all the ways of knowing (sensing, feeling, imagining and heart-centred thinking) nor follow a mature yearning to be what earth made us to be. 

There’s a kind of radical inclusivity that lies at the heart of our deep collective transformation that is a fiercely compassionate self-love. Learning to love all of yourself,even those parts of yourself you find hardest to accept or even admit to having! By coming into relationship with these parts of our psyche exiled in childhood, we begin to feel compassion for our struggle and the deep vulnerability our survival strategies are built on.

In the absence of self-love, and the process of radical inclusivity it rests on, our attempts at embracing diversity, collaborating across difference and anti-oppression and social justice work risk primarily being based on projections of our own self-loathing and our need to be seen to be good and self-sacrificial. 

Inner-led change is the antidote to burnout, supporting us to live fully and attend to the intelligence of feelings and earth/ body, because we’re not going to strategically think ourselves out of these catastrophic times we are living in.

If we have the capacity to do the inner work, recovering from burnout is as much about learning how to be a better ally to those who are marginalised in this world ( human or otherwise) , as it is about reclaiming our health, wholeness and vitality. Like all ailments of our body, burnout is signalling imbalance, and has the potential to be a gift in that its symptoms and its healing demands us to slow down. It might be true to say “as above, so below”. We are earth, and the way we treat our own body biome is replicating the extractive practices that have brought earth to the edge of mass extinction and the “ burnout” of global warming. 

To slow down in times of crisis—times that in so many ways require action on all fronts—can seem counterintuitive. We are constantly met with pressures to achieve more, act faster and be better.. Urgent times…call for quiet; for rest and respite." Bayo Akomolafe


Canada geese flying in formation

Recommended reading

In Wild Mind: a Field Guide to the Human Psyche, Bill Plotkin offers a rich and inspiring map of our sub-personalities - and of the inherent ‘facets of wholeness’ that live within all of us and which long to be returned to the core of our experience and expression in the world. 

In Nature and the Human Soul: cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world, Bill Plotkin offers an in depth model of how to become a healthy human being in a world trapped in ‘patho-adolescence’ - adults run by their outdated childhood survival strategies.

In Why does Patriarchy Persist? Caroline Gillman and Naomi Snider offer a brilliant exploration of how our unresolved early childhood attachment patterns, and the resulting childhood survival strategies, go on to shape how we show up in the world as adults perpetuating the patriarchal power-over model of relating at the heart of our species’ destructive ways.

In Belonging: Remembering ourselves home, Toko-pa Turner maps a path to belonging from the inside out. Drawing on myth, stories and dreams, she takes us into the origins of our estrangement, reframing exile as a necessary initiation into authenticity.

Check out more resources here:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - 
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver
Image credits

Aaron Burden on Unsplash