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Overcoming Burnout

10 steps to reignite your flame and shine brightly once more

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Because of the nature of our work, psychologists observe a lot of sad moments in human life, but some of the saddest moments I have witnessed in my career have been watching bright lights grow dimmer and dimmer until they eventually burn out. I'm referring to high octane women who once sparkled, loved their lives, pursued their passions, and in doing so changed lives only to fall victim to the stress and fatigue that all too often come along with giving so much of oneself.

Burnout is a cunning thief that robs the world of its best and its brightest by feeding on their energy, enthusiasm, and passion, transforming these positive qualities into exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment. But the good news is that burnout is not a terminal condition. Although it certainly requires a change in lifestyle, once burnout is recognized and attended to, it can become a positive force in your life, a chance to rediscover yourself and shine brightly once again.

If you've become a victim of burnout, here are a few steps you can take to reignite your flame and shine brightly once more.

  • Take an inventory. Make a list of all the situations that cause you to feel stressed, anxious, worried, frustrated, and helpless. Don't rush through it. It's not a race; it's a process. In fact, you should consider it a work in progress, adding to it as things enter your mind.
  • Next to each item on the inventory, write down at least one way to modify that situation to reduce its stress, and then begin implementing them in your routine. Don't get frustrated if you don't see immediate changes. Burnout doesn't happen overnight, so it's unrealistic to expect it to go away overnight. Consistent implementation of positive changes in your routine is the best way to see improvement.
  • Just say "no." While you're "recovering," avoid taking on any new commitments or responsibilities. I know you have to live in the real world and there will be some things that you just can't get out of doing. But high octane women have a bad habit of saying "yes" when they can say "no." Resist that urge.
  • Delegate as many things as possible, even if the person you're delegating to may not do them as quickly or as well as you would.
  • Take breaks between big projects. Burnout puts your mind and body in a weakened state, so avoid jumping from one stressful, time-consuming project to the next in order to give your mind and body a chance to recover.
  • Control your devices. Gadgets, such as iPads, computers, and smartphones, can consume large amounts of your time and energy. Turn them off as much as possible. (See Connection Overload and 12 Steps to Recovery for more information on how technology can hijack your life.)
  • Socialize outside your professional group. This can provide fresh perspectives, stimulate new ideas, and help you discover previously undiscovered resources.
  • Resist the urge to take work home. Yes, I realize you have a job to do and at some point the work has to get done. But if you're like most high octane women, you like to be a superstar, racing around, showing how fast you can get to the finish line. As I say in High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, "when you're recovering from burnout, you can't be on the Danica Patrick racetrack. You have to slow down a notch until you can safely get back up to that speed."
  • Reinforce effort, not outcome. Not even the best players hit home runs every time they get up to bat. Remember to reinforce yourself for trying rather than only for the end result.
  • Consider a support group. Although a support group may be a therapeutic group, it doesn't have to be. It can be a professional organization that provides support or mentoring, or a group of casual friends getting together to vent and share ideas. Whichever you choose, a support group serves two purposes: 1) sharing feelings often reduces stress, and 2) getting together with others reduces isolation, a common consequence of burnout.

Finally, a word of general advice—rediscover your passion. Every high-achieving woman I have ever known had one thing in common—a passion. If you're like most victims of burnout, that passion has probably lost its meaning, leaving you feeling physically exhausted and emotionally depleted. But rediscovering it (or finding a new one) with a new self-awareness that it doesn't have to be all-consuming can be the spark you need to reignite your flame. This may mean you have to redefine your roles at work, home, or both. It may mean that you have to find a way to redistribute the load you're carrying. Or it may mean that you have to find a new passion, one that will offer more balance so you can enjoy life the way you once did.

These are all answers you must discover for yourself, but there is one thing I am sure of—if you tackle burnout as you've tackled all the other challenges in your life, you'll succeed. It's not in your nature to do anything else.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved


The suggestions contained in this post were taken from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

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