I have worked with many people in burnout, and in my experience counselling them, pretty much everyone has recovered that has worked hard to learn what they needed to learn.
I once worked with a client, however, that wasn’t recovering as quickly as I was expecting him to, which left me confused. He appeared to be working hard to recover but something was strange about his situation.
(Details have been changed to protect privacy.)
I told Jake, my client, that I was confused he wasn’t recovering at the rate I was expecting him to. He was as motivated to recover as I was to help him.
Together, we discussed Jim’s moment-to-moment activities in an attempt to determine what was keeping him from recovering. After much discussion, it became apparent that he was using up what little energy he had restored, as soon as it surfaced.
Said in other words, Jim was using the gas in his gas tank as quickly as it appeared, which was keeping the level of gas in his tank from rising – and keeping the tank empty.
Read more about Signs of Burnout: Running on Fumes?
I asked Jim to describe what he had done over the previous couple of days in an effort to help figure out what was going on. He replied that his adult children had come to visit. Jim had picked up his daughter at the bus station on the Saturday and they had spent the day together.
On the Sunday morning, Jim had gone to the gym early and worked out to ensure he got his exercise in. Then he had taken her daughter to their favourite dinner for breakfast and had shopped for groceries. They had then driven to the airport to pick-up Jim’s adult son and daughter-in-law, whose flight had arrived mid-morning.
Jim said he had taken everyone to his home, fed them, and then they had spent the afternoon visiting. He said they had all gone out for a nice supper at a restaurant, which had consumed the remainder of the evening.
Jim told me that his adult children were still at the house and that he was exhausted. I asked him whether he thought he had “paced” his activities very well. He reflected and said, “No,” but indicated that he was at a loss about what he could have done differently.
It was at this point in our discussion that we truly uncovered the problem. We reviewed every activity Jim had participated in over the previous two days, from picking his daughter up at the bus station on the Saturday to going out for supper with all three family members on the Sunday. When asked whether he could have eliminated any of the activities he participated in, Jim said he believed he could not have eliminated any of the activities, with the possible exception of going to the gym.
I asked Jim why he felt unable to eliminate other activities from his schedule. Did he have to pick her daughter up at the airport? Visit with his daughter? Pick-up his son and daughter-in-law at the airport? Visit with everyone? Join them for dinner out? Was it possible to get a nap in somewhere? Could an adult child have taken a taxi? Could his adult children have made dinner at home? Could they have ordered in?
To each question, Jim said that he would have disappointed his adult children if he had not behaved exactly as he had. I suggested that perhaps his children would have understood that he was trying to conserve his energy because they were all aware of his burnout. Were they so demanding that they couldn’t have taken a taxi from the airport?
Jim was able to realize that it was he who was putting pressure on himself to be the perfect parent. He shared that his son and daughter-in-law would have understood if he had not picked them up at the airport. After all, they travel for work and takes taxis to and from their own house regularly.
Read more about How can I pace my activities if I am in burnout?
We discussed the idea that sometimes, in order to take care of ourselves, we will disappoint others. Maybe Jim’s daughter wouldn’t have understood if she had not been taken out for breakfast, but did that mean that Jim had to wear himself out to please his daughter?
Following this important discussion, Jim was able to truly begin pacing his activities. He was able to tell his wife that he didn’t have the energy to go skiing over the weekend, or to visit with friends when they spontaneously dropped by. To his surprise, and much to his delight, Jim discovered that his wife supported these assertions. His wife went skiing without him because she had been looking forward to the adventure and spending time with friends. Similarly, she was comfortable telling friends who stopped by when her husband was sleeping and needed to not be disturbed.
It was at this point, when Jim at last learned to put himself first, that his recovery from burnout truly began.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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