I burned out. I burned out bad. I burned out in a way that caused me to lay on the floor and will myself into the carpet, but even the thought of becoming a carpet fiber sounded hard. I simultaneously wanted to run away from my responsibilities and not get up off the floor. This was part of that super fun growing pain phase I was telling you about.
Not that I need to justify how I got there, but a mix of spending my day job working with traumatized people, or reading reports about traumatized kids, mixed with a recent family situation of my own had my head and heart in a knot. Our family hardship (which I may choose to write about in another blog when I feel up to it) put me in a position to actually feel the work I was doing. A job that was previously managed by separating myself from the hardships of the families who so often sit across the table from me, all of a sudden had all of these blurred lines and paralleled circumstances and overlapping similarities, and in feeling my own family’s hardship, I was forced to experience the feelings shared by the people with which I work. So I laid on the floor, wondering why God had left me with nothing but a stress headache to sort out the bag of mixed feelings I felt I was carrying by myself.
Now to be honest, I’m a person with the propensity for burnout. I’m a high octane woman with a lot of competing interests and the belief that I can achieve them all, even when logic defies it. This burnout was different though. The funny thing about this burnout was that I couldn’t seem to remember why I was doing my job, or anything, in the first place…aside from my drive to get out debt. It was one of those grand, questioning the universe, sort of burnouts.
I came to learn later that this particular kind of burnout is called ‘Compassion Fatigue.’ It’s the type of burnout that happens when your head and heart have felt so much that they become imbalanced. It’s a burnout informally known as ‘the helpers curse.’ Compassion fatigue is common in people in helping professions – advocacy, social workers, medical professionals, first responders, certain legal specialties, and psychologists.
As I laid on the floor I continued to wonder why God had given me a heart at all, when I seemed so determined to run into situations that risk breaking it over and over again, as is the plight of any helper. It’s a heartbreaking thing, I thought to myself, to look at all the need in the world and be compelled by it, only to be swallowed whole by the impossibility of it all, collateral damage of the will to do good against losing odds.
The funny thing about it all, was several months early I had asked God to make me better at my job. I asked God to break my heart for what breaks God’s. I asked God to grow me, and he brought the rain. What a funny thing it was to lay on the floor with a heart broken for the work I do because I had to feel it differently, and not yet recognize it as empowerment. I’d come to find much later, that the pain I had felt while my heart broke and I wished for carpet metamorphosis to hasten itself, that all of those hard feelings made me better at my job…but it didn’t make the experience any less shitty. What it did for me, was contextualize the pain of others, helping me to understand further just why this work is so important. A funny thing that a broken heart could make the heart stronger if only I choose to learn from it.
What I came to find, after I eventually picked myself up off the ground (literally), was that I was fighting a dual faceted war, but it was not the war against drugs or abuse or neglect that I thought I was soldiering.
The first battle I was up against was the uphill battle of trusting God. When I started my job, a job that I prayed for, I was eager to do God’s work; the kind of work that makes the world a better place (or is supposed to at least). But somewhere along the way the numbers of children in need just kept coming, and I stopped looking for God in the work I was doing. At some point I started charging forward on my own because it just seemed more efficient that way. What a funny thing it is to turn wine back into water, all because I was so eager and hard-headed.
The second battle I was up against was my war with the word ‘enough,’ and feeling like I’m not. Like I’m not strong enough to toil the hardships. Like I’m not smart enough to do the work that is on my heart. Like I am not brave enough for the adventures I desire. Like I am not financially savvy enough to get out of debt. Like I am not capable enough to create change in my community. Like I am not sacrificing enough to merit the same recognition as my husband in serving our country, though in very different capacities.
Mind you, I had a good support system growing up who gave me all of the encouraging words I needed, but I grew up in a culture that raised it’s girls to be perfect, and it’s boys to be brave, and I’ve never liked to come up short.
Like many of you, I’m eager to work hard and do my best and make others happy and make their lives better, and on and on and on. Somewhere along the way in all of those motivations, in addition to my high-octane nature, I began to believe the lie that I needed to not only be perfect, but I needed to be better, in order to be enough, especially in my job where we are up against the impossible.
Our society encourages us to constantly challenge and compete and do more and be more and fix more and care more, as if our society, and all of its struggles, is a product of us not doing anything enough.
The truth of the matter is that I am not enough to fix all the hardships of the world. Recognizing that is a freeing thing. Though I am freed by the recognition of my limitations, I am not not freed from my duty to continue to work hard each day to make the world a better place. I had to learn in the process of healing from burnout that we can’t give extra when it feels like other people aren’t giving enough and sustain that pace. I had to learn it was okay to give my best and that is enough.
On more than one occasion in life I have asked God why I couldn’t be made simple, easily stimulated by undemanding conversations, and content with less emotionally charged work. What I came to find in a burnout that had me dreaming of all the other lives I could lead, was that there is beauty in being wired for hard work. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t learn better balance, but this burnout taught me to appreciate all of my own complexities in a way that didn’t put me at war with myself. For those of us who are wired this way, it’s important to recognize this, and learn to admire the strength within ourselves, but make self care a priority.
What I learned from this burnout, a growing phenomena and experience shared by many, is that it is okay to be imperfect. Work worth doing will always come with the risk of hard times and burnout because it is never easy when your heart breaks and grows simultaneously. This does not free you from your obligation to do good. May this however, empower you to take care of yourself, as you take care of others. Practice self care. Take a nap. Read a book. Go for a walk. Learn something new. I learned how to wood burn as a way to clear my head – as seen above. Ask for help when you need it. Drink water (you are basically a plant with more complicated emotions). And for those of us that do good works because we choose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, it’s of the utmost importance that we keep God at the forefront of the work that we do. For those of you who don’t, that’s okay too, but you must keep purpose as your focal point.
So dear reader, what I hope you take away from this entry, is that you are enough just as you are, even if you are not enough to solve all of the worlds problems. The world needs doers, more than ever, and those doers need one another…more than ever. We forget that we belong to one another. Take care of yourself as you take care of those around you. If you two are burnt out, keep planting seeds, even if it feels you are planting them in concrete – there is a fuller life for you on the other side if only you choose to learn what this burnout is telling you. When times get tough, learn from them, then get up, drink your water, straighten your crown, and remember to whom you belong.