Gateways: Burnout

The Gifts of Burnout

When burnout strikes we tend to feel incredibly overwhelmed, exhausted, confused, frightened, discombobulated, numb, depressed, chaotic and frustrated. It can feel as if somehow our life, as we knew it, has ended - replaced by a ghost of our former self.

Often no matter how much we rest we still feel exhausted and discombobulated. This is because when we burnout, our bodies are literally on strike. They have said ‘no!’ ‘enough!’. Burnout is a clear sign that we have not been listening to the vital messages our body has been sending us in its attempt to keep us healthy and vital. When we override and ignore these messages burnout is our body’s last ditch attempt to get us to listen.

Burnout is about unmet needs.

Our bodies are constantly sending us messages about what we need to be healthy and vital. Many of us have learned to override and ignore these messages because our egos, when being run by fear, have created a different idea about what we need.

Our egos run on fear when they have come to believe that there are certain ways we need to be in the world, and particularly in relationships, if we are going to be ‘good enough’ to be accepted and loved by others.

From a very young age our personality begins to develop in response to the messages we receive from our primary caregivers around what will and won’t make us good enough to be loved and get our needs met. Initially, in early childhood, the development of our personality structure is literally a survival strategy to ensure we get our most basic needs, like food, water and avoiding physical harm, met.
In some cases these childhood survival strategies do literally save our lives - and in all cases they are coming from an innate wisdom in service of life. However most of us carry on living our lives through these fear-driven strategies without even realising that is what is happening, and when they are in fact no longer needed or in service of life. 

These childhood survival strategies become our ‘sub-personalities’. For example if we learned from our parents that crying or shouting are not welcome then we will likely have popped them into the unconscious realms of what Robert Bly calls our ‘shadow bag’ - whilst replacing our authentic response with some form of placating, in whatever way we perceive will meet our parents’ need around how we should or shouldn’t behave. Before we know it much of our emotional expression and behaviours have been resigned to our shadow bag, replaced instead by strategies ingeniously designed to elicit acceptance and love from our parents’, teachers, friends’, lovers’ etc - or to avoid the pain of feeling their rejection. 

In Why does Patriarchy Persist? Caroline Gillman and Naomi Snider, do an amazing job of explaining 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.

Burnout as addiction

Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. Like food, drugs and alcohol, burnout results from us continuing to behave in ways that may bring us gratification in the short term, but which cause us pain and suffering in the longer term. Burnout is the result of an addiction to living as our sub-personalities. Recovery from burnout requires us to identify from the core beliefs about who and how we need to be in the world to feel accepted and loved. Recovering from burnout requires us to do the inner work that liberates us from these beliefs so that we are free to listen to the messages our body is giving us about what we need, and find healthy ways of meeting these needs.

In ‘My name is Claire and I am in recovery from addiction to activism’, Claire shares about the core beliefs and strategies and found to be at the core of her addiction to activism.

The gifts of burnout
When burnout strikes life is offering us the opportunity to pause and take a good, hard and compassionate look at our life. When we experience burnout our body has effectively said no! It’s gone on strike to let us know enough is enough and until we start listening to it on a regular basis it ain’t gonna play along any more.

The human body is perfectly designed to continually provide us with feedback on what we need to stay healthy, well and vital. Often this feedback comes in the form of feelings. Perhaps someone asks us to do something and in response our body clenches and we experience a rush of fear because we have so much on our plate already. This body and heart response is our system telling us what it needs. In this case it likely needs us to simply say no - rather than overriding this message in fear of being rejected if we do not give this person what they want

burnout is our body’s attempt to liberate us from the fear-fuelled sub-personalities we wisely developed in response to our childhood survival strategies, but which no longer serve us as adults who are free to meet our needs in healthy and regenerative ways

Seen through this lens, burnout is our body’s attempt to liberate us from the fear-fuelled sub-personalities we wisely developed in response to our childhood survival strategies, but which no longer serve us as adults who are free to meet our needs in healthy and regenerative ways. Liberating ourselves from the stranglehold of our sub-personalities frees up our ego (personality) to act in service of soul, rather than of the fear. It is this liberation that supports a revealing of our own unique soul purpose - which is perhaps the greatest gift anyone can receive.

From Self-sacrifice to self-love and radical inclusivity

One of the most common core beliefs that gives rise to burnout is that to be good enough to be accepted and loved we need to prioritise other people’s needs over our own. What’s more, not only is it a leading cause of burnout, it also serves to prevent us from doing what we need to recover from burnout. Recovering from burnout is ultimately about radical self-love - which to those of us who have been conditioned to believe our survival rests on prioritising other people’s needs is a pretty tall order - and can literally feel impossible and like a death-wish, to those parts of us still heavily identified with our survival strategies. As a result we can come to believe that anything related to meeting our own needs is selfish, self-indulgent and privileged.

However, the self-love we are referring to is actually the key to the radical inclusivity that lies at the heart of our deep collective transformation. The fiercely compassionate self-love we are talking about happens through a process of radical inclusivity - learning to love all of yourself, and especially those parts of yourself you find hardest to accept and love. Those parts you buried deep in your shadow bag as part of your childhood survival strategies. It is this process of radical inclusivity that wakes us up to the parts of ourselves we have rejected as unacceptable and unloveable. By coming into relationship with and learning to welcome and love these exiled parts of ourselves we begin to feel compassion for our struggle and the deep vulnerability our survival strategies are built on. And it is only in learning to love and feel compassion for our exiled parts, that we can meaningfully begin to love and feel compassion for those behaviors, beliefs and ways of being that we have been conditioned to reject in others. It is only through radical self-love that we can genuinely expand our hearts and minds to welcome and love all other beings. 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. 

If we are willing to do the inner work, recovering from burnout is as much about learning how to be a better ally to those and that which is marginalised in this world, as it is about reclaiming our health, wholeness and vitality.

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.
Why does Patriarchy Persist? Caroline Gillman and Naomi Snider. 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.

See our Healthy group resources for more burnout related resources

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