Do you ever feel like things are getting out of control? You have all these grand, beautiful plans, and they are just slipping between your fingers, one missed deadline at a time. The more the days pile on top of each other, the more overwhelmed you feel. It’s such a horrible feeling – your to-do list grows, your sanity wanes and you feel like you might possibly flip at the next person who asks you to just do them a “quick favour.”
Some of my friends don’t seem to suffer from this. I mean, sure, they’ll tell me they’re stressed – and they are – but a little prodding and prompting reveals that “stressed” in their world means they’ve got a lot to do in a short space of time. They’ve allowed themselves time to meet their deadlines, but unfortunately meeting them is going to mean cutting out movie nights, friends time and lazy weekends. This is not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is a horror scene you’ve probably seen. It’s the kind of “stressed” where someone has set themselves an unattainable amount to do in a ludicrously short amount of time and instead of facing reality, they’re just running harder and harder and harder on a conveyor belt that is speeding up by the minute, while everyone around them looks on in stunned, horrified silence.
Now THAT is a horrible feeling. If you’ve never been on that conveyor belt, read on, and be kind to your friends who have.
When that’s the conveyor belt you’re on, you don’t know what to do. You can see that what you’ve “got” to do is overwhelming but you can’t quite see how you can get out of any of it. Sure, maybe some of it wasn’t wise to commit to, but you didn’t know or process that at the time, and now it’s there, looming on the to-do list, gnawing on your mind, even while you click mindlessly through social media sites in a misguided, escapist grasp at relief. You know, of course, that there is always the option of jumping off the conveyor belt, but as far as you can tell, that’s a drastic response – it would mean quitting your job, letting your most loved ones down, breaking your own values or bailing at the crucial moment on something really important to you – so you run, harder and faster, convinced that you can make it if you just push a little harder, and then…then…you’ll let yourself rest, and crash, and burn in your own quiet, private, secret space.
Sometimes you even find yourself wishing you were sick just so you could legitimately sleep.
I know how that feels. Oh, friend, I know how that feels.
So here’s the thing. The burden grows exponentially, right? When you’re completely overwhelmed, you can’t think clearly enough to say “no” to someone who persuasively asks you to help them out with a job. When you’re exhausted, you leave the thing you need in the place you don’t need it and have to add thirty minutes to a job to run back and get it. When you’re stressed, you don’t have the perspective to figure out if not going to your friend’s birthday party would ruin your friendship forever, so you go just in case. Soon you don’t have time to shower, to eat, to sleep, so you grab biscuits for breakfast, cover your hair with a hat and drink more caffeine. When you’re insanely busy you don’t have time to take a step back, reflect on it all, prioritise, rest, and figure it out.
It’s a horrible feeling.
It’s also not helped by the “What the heck is a conveyor belt?” people who give useless advice like “You should get an early night” and “You just need to switch off.” If you need to say a few words to me when I’m running full pelt towards a breakdown with a look of insanity on my face, please let “should” not be one of them. “Should” is what got me here in the first place. I should volunteer for that. I should make my friends happy. I should save money. I should save the earth. I should research this thoroughly. I should do my best. I should help you out. I should be a good citizen. I should take this opportunity. I should, I should, I should. Even if it’s great advice, saying “you should” to someone who is drowning in an ocean of “I should” is pretty much the worst thing you could do.
“I cooked for you” works though. You can always try “I cooked for you.”
Now in my experience there are several ways this should-fuelled conveyor belt grinds to a halt. One, of course, is total utter burnout. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if you’re lucky, your body knows this and it will shut you down. It doesn’t feel very lucky when this happens, but I have learned to appreciate when my body and soul and mind intervene. “We love you, lady” they say to me, “and we’d rather live with you past the grand old age of forty, so if it’s all the same to you we’re going to prevent a future heart attack. This is an intervention. You’re not really listening are you? Ok, we’re just going to throw up repeatedly until you listen to us and then maybe you could go to bed for like, maybe four weeks…or months.” And so begins the long, hard, slow road of recovery. Burnout is my least favourite way of healing and I’m so glad that after loads of hard work on healing and prevention, it’s one that I haven’t experienced for years…but even burnout is filled with hope. Through burnout I have learned that no matter how bad things get, no matter how humiliated I am, no matter how much I messed up, there are people who love me and who will help me find my way home. Through burnout, I have also learned so much about myself, learned to spot when things are starting to spiral out of control, learned to watch for my warning signs, and learned how to pull back. Not coping is not a failure; there’s always a reason for it, and that reason can be dealt with.
Burnout is not the only way out, though, so for those whose body and mind and soul have not yet staged an intervention, I wanted to share with you a few of the things that have helped me pull back when things are starting to spiral.
Spot the Spiral
There’s a sort of centrifugal force that means the further you get into spiralling out of control, the harder it is to pull out, so I have learned to recognise my early warning signs and take them very seriously. For example, if I find myself feeling overwhelmed because there is “so much” to do but I can’t even remember what it is, or if I catch myself thinking “I don’t have time to eat or shower,” I know I need to check in with myself. Other signs for me are things like being messy at home, feeling claustrophobic when I’m around other people, getting really withdrawn, eating unhealthily with a “who cares” attitude, spending money chaotically and feeling like a tiny unexpected demand might tip me over the edge. I’m an extrovert who is very relational, and I’m tidy, pretty spontaneous and great with money, so I guess what I’m saying is if you see some of your characteristic personality traits ‘flipping’ then you might want to sit up and pay attention – those may well be your warning signs.
As I said above, the deeper you get into the spiral, the harder and more costly it is to pull out. The problem with this is that once you’re in pretty deep, you really feel the cost of pulling out. You know that if you are honest with yourself about the fact that you simply can’t manage everything on your plate, there’s going to be a price to pay, so instead of facing that overwhelming price tag, you carry on, convincing yourself that if you just try harder, you can make it all work – somehow. It’s denial, but it’s easier than facing reality. This is like someone with credit card debt not opening the bills because they’re scared of how much they’re going to have to pay – but today they have less to pay than tomorrow.
One cold, hard truth has helped me act in the face of this denial instinct:
Today is always your cheapest day.
I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it feels like you can somehow make it work, but I have learned that, for me at least, once I’m in that spiral the price tag only gets more every day, until the spiral has run its full course and you have no choice but to pay the full cost – with burnout. Somehow even that feels easier, because you’ve got an excuse – you’re sick! But I’ve learned the hard way – it’s really never worth it. What would I advise a friend, a sister, or a young person I was mentoring, I ask myself? That’s the advice I need to take.
Today is always your cheapest day, so no matter how hard it feels to face reality now, open that metaphorical bill, look it in the face and figure out a plan for paying the cost, because today is a bargain compared with tomorrow! Today is always your cheapest day.
The way I face reality is painful but helpful. I write down everything that is overwhelming me and then I figure out what I’ve got to cancel and what I’ve got to deal with. Then I add some more things to the “cancel” list because I know I’m tired and exhausted and stressed and what I think is “realistic” is probably not realistic. Then I cancel those things, by email usually. It’s no fun at all, but it’s always cheaper today than it will be tomorrow. And then, when it’s done – oh, the relief! Plus, bonus tip, cancelling those things almost always works out better than I think it’s going to (people are kind).
I know you probably don’t have time to write everything down, and the only way to get that time is to cancel something first. That thing has to be something that is happening in the next three days, because pulling out is urgent. Cancelling is always hard to do, but it’s also worth it, and you don’t even always have to explain. “I’m not feeling very well” (true) or “something came up” (also true) along with an apology are often more than enough.
In the meantime, go a little easy on yourself. Maybe you really believe in walking to work to save the environment, but is taking the car once going to kill you? Maybe you really believe in cooking from scratch, but it’s ok to buy a jar every now and then. Just give yourself a little time to recover – your values won’t go away.
First Aid Kit
Back when I was really struggling with this issue on the regular, I made myself what I called a “First Aid Kit.” This was a series of tiny letters that I wrote to myself in beautiful coloured pens on one piece of paper. I used these tiny letters instead of my brain when my brain wasn’t doing me any favours.
Brain: You don’t have time to shower! You’ve got so much to do! Ahhhhhh!
Tiny Letter: Beautiful Rachel, I know you feel so overwhelmed but you really will feel better and be less likely to get ill if you are clean – have a shower today or tomorrow at the latest!
Brain: You can do it – you can do it, if you just try harder. You brought this on yourself, so you’ve got to sort it out. It’s not anyone else’s problem.
Tiny Letter: Ask for Help. I think this is the step you find the hardest, but it really can help – can someone do a food shop for you? Can your deadline be extended? Can someone cover for you at work? Do you need prayer? You won’t know if you don’t ask – you are normal and not a failure – ask for help.
Brain: TRY HARDER! You can’t cancel anything, what about your RESPONBILITIES and your VALUES? Cancelling things is INSANE! You’ll ruin your life!!!!
Tiny Letter: Cancel: you’re going to have to trust me on this one – far better to prayerfully cancel now than to crash and cancel it all anyway. I know it’s really scary and feels insane. Trust me. Pray through your diary and cancel anything you feel guided to cancel – even if it “lets others down.” This is going to make it a lot better.
Brain: No time to sleep! You have so much to do! Oh my gosh, you fell asleep – you’re such a failure!
Tiny Letter: Sleep: You really need to sleep. Start making getting 9 hours sleep a top priority. Cancel whatever you need to to make sure you are in bed by 11.
It’s sort of embarrassing to share my tiny letters because they are so personal, but I hope that if you struggle with this, you will make yourself some tiny letters of your own and then you will listen to them until your brain calms down.
Finally, I just wanted to say that once you’ve pulled back and recovered a bit, or even before you have, I would really encourage you to get some outside help – a mentor, a counsellor, a spiritual director – just someone who can help you figure out what it going on inside when things are feeling so out of control. I have had a lot of help, and I’m here to say that healing really is possible and it’s so incredibly freeing. It was even really fun sometimes.
There is hope!
The awesome thing is that change is possible.
About three years ago I hurt my knee running. I think I felt little twinges at first, but not knowing what they were I ignored them. Silly, I know, but I wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. I didn’t realise that the first day I felt a twinge was my cheapest day for dealing with it. Then one day something tore and my left knee couldn’t hold my weight any more. It was excruciatingly painful. After scans and meetings, I was referred to a wonderful physiotherapist who not only taught me how to heal the pain, but diagnosed what caused the injury in the first place. I began to do the recommended exercises and over time my knee recovered. I’m stronger now, I have a better understanding of how my body works, and I rarely feel the pain, but when I feel a twinge, I know there’s a potential weakness there. I pay attention and I know what to do.
It’s the same with this burnout issue for me. Before I had ever experienced burnout, I felt the pain that was warning me all was not well. I ignored it – silly, I know – but I wouldn’t have known what do anyway. I didn’t realise that the first day I felt the twinge was my cheapest day for dealing with it. Then one day, something broke, and I simply couldn’t hold the weight any more. It was excruciatingly painful. After tears and meetings, I was referred to a wonderful GP and a counsellor who not only taught me how to heal the pain, but helped me figure out what caused the injury in the first place. I began to do the recommended exercises, and over time I recovered. I’m stronger now, and like with my knee, I rarely feel the pain, but when I feel a twinge, I know there’s a potential weakness there – and better yet – I know what to do.
Until I wrote this post, I hadn’t referred to my tiny letters for years, because a lot of what I wrote in them is pretty much second nature now. I still get overwhelmed and sometimes start feeling out of control, but I know what to do with that now. I know how to pull out quickly, how to communicate what I need, and how to do it soon enough that the price tag is low. Life is sometimes still hard, and stressful and overwhelming, but I’ve learned how to handle it, and how to look after myself. So wherever you are on this issue today – in the middle of burnout, spiralling downhill, just starting to feel overwhelmed, or slowly recovering from your last crash – I’m here to say, there is hope.
There is always hope.
And if none of this resonates with you? Be kind to your friends with whom it does!
Image by Pixabay user PDPics