Well actually I won’t be 60 soon, however I do appreciate it’ll be soon enough.
As life is all too short and busy, I’ve been trying to be kind to myself, generally hang in there, and not, for want of a more elegant phrase, do my own head in trying to be all things to all people. It’s only been recently that I’ve realised that stepping away from my creative outlets is not the way to achieve this and in the few weeks I’ve been away from work, I’ve felt some fairly unusual sensations wafting over me.
I realised that it was contentment. That was a weird one and no mistake.
As if by magic, (or more to the point, his Mrs. shared it on Facebook), I re-read this blog by Brian Lumsden, Life and Leadership Coach, twentyoneleadership.com, that hit home on a number of levels. Especially around self-care and the time spent with loved ones.
Rather tellingly, I actually meant to post this last year, but work/stress ate my life again and I never got around to it. It’s really worth a read.
The link to the post is here – Soon I’ll be Sixty years old
As you are no doubt aware, I’m someone who’s expended a lot of effort trying to help people who experience stress and burnout at work stay sane when they are stuck in the same job. That drove them around the bend in the first place. Ironically I have finally done the thing that I was trying not to do – i.e. leave.
However, here we are, and I will be leaving my job at the end of the month.
I’ll be honest, since making the decision, I have not felt a moments’ regret or doubt and soldiering on towards the end to finish work off and hand it over is giving me a good insight into how toxic this is for me, and how I’ve been doing a pretty crappy job of making this situation work. In the sphere of my professional confidence, I currently no longer have any.
I know it’ll return when I’m doing something I genuinely want to do, but at the moment, my primary focus is getting through to the end without swearing at anyone. (And you know I love a good swear!).
Wish me luck!
Let’s face it, work sometimes sucks. If you find you’re surrendering to creeping panic, here’s a few things I’ve found useful to stifle the screaming ab-dabs.
I’ve tried to encompass things that have helped when I’ve been in jobs where I’ve had little control over my time as well as the jobs where I have so treat this as pick ‘n mix according to your circumstances.
- Do everything slowly for a while, describing everything that you do silently in your head. It helps ground you in the present moment and you can do it while you’re moving around. Concentrate on what you are doing with your body, rather than “I’m going to shove this bread roll up the nose of the bloke on table 4”.
- Divide your tasks down to very small chunks – the advantage here is you’ll still probably achieve what you need to, without being overwhelmed by the vastness of the whole process of the thing that you’re trying to achieve.
- Tell an understanding someone that you are struggling. Even a text.
- Set boundaries and plan if that’s an option for you.
- (if you can) do the thing that will bring you the most joy at that given moment. (Within reason – getting someone to cover you so you can go to your child’s sports day, rather than slipping laxatives into your co-workers’ tea.)
- Lock yourself in the staff toilet and watch a Kitten/Panda/Puppy video so you can regroup.
- Go for a walk and look at trees.
- Pop over to Pinterest and find a quote that resonates and that you can use as a mantra that you can read silently to yourself until you feel calmer. This has the added advantage of you can be doing this while doing something else – even while being customer facing.
- Remember everyone is winging it.
- Remember that unfortunately some people are assholes and this is not your problem.
- Remember that other people can’t see what’s going on in your head so they probably aren’t judging you, and if they are see point 9.
Generally my dreams are a load of tripe: for example, the one about trying to catch pigs in a flooded field whilst carrying a washing machine. Whilst being chased by anthromorphic articulated lorries*. This was a particular stand out in my catalogue of anxiety-ridden sleep time brain vomitings.
Last night I had an epiphany. Does anyone else have dreams that come in a series? Hopefully not just me – but if it is just me, please send me the number of a good therapist.
However, I digress. Occasionally I get to have a season finale, and so it was last night. I have been dreaming about binning off lectures, skiving off tutorials and failing to hand work in for years. Hilariously, once I actually graduated, I dreamt that I had started a new degree and I was repeating the pattern. BA (Hons) Media Communications to be exact.
Last night I graduated from the fictional degree, and got a Third – and then had the realisation that a) I had a degree already so it didn’t matter all that much and b) had a much better grade. And oddly enough, woke up feeling pretty good about myself.
Brain, I could have done with this a few years ago, you twat.
*Though any inference you might hazard to make about the fact that I was married to my first husband at the time is purely coincidental.
Howdy Duffer Lovers, time to stick my head over the parapet once more.
I know things have been quiet but things have been changing (mostly for the better) here at Duffer Towers, and it’s safe to say that I’ve/We’ve been hella busy.
- Moved house (Finally!!! It has a garden!!! And space!!)
- Changed contracts at work to one that works a lot better for me. Where I don’t feel like telling the customer to “go forth and be fruitful”.
- Went to see Belly in London.
- Got a diagnosis for the lad so we can support him at school and he’s starting Reception next week.
- Lots of back pain. But also discovered the highly functional, and highly uncomfortable delights of sports massage and things are a lot better.
- Rented out the old place.
- Refurbishing bits and bats to furnish the place as it’s amazing how much stuff you need when you’ve been living in a mortgaged cupboard for 10 years. Like a TV stand.
- And I was out of action for 3-ish weeks with chicken pox. No fun if you’re north of 40.
The thing is, when you’ve burnt out before, you have to be aware that there are aspects of your life that you may need to set to one side for a while, so that you can attend to the business of living as your energy is a finite resource.
Back with the programme now though. Yeeehaaaa! x
After taking some time out with work related stress, you’d be forgiven for hoping that you might be able to pick up from a better place. As oppose to just going back to the place where you fell off.
Ultimately, the burned out person has a variety of possible options (in theory) but, as real life has a nasty habit requiring one to do things like pay for accommodation, heat, food and transport, a lot of people go back to where they were before, in a distinctly different shape to the one where they started, i.e. bright-eyed, keen and motivated.
So easing yourself back in (and it’s do-able if you plan…)
- If you’ve got Occupational health involvement, if possible, go back on a phased return, as is your right when returning from illness. It’ll mean that you can rest, test your boundaries, and possibly feedback that what is and isn’t working for you.
- Taking a more “back office” role for a little while.
- Remember that you are free to set boundaries. One of the reasons that people do burnout in a work context is by trying to be everything to all people.
- Self care, self care, self care. If you feel stressed, have 5 minutes, breath, drink tea, go outside and look at a tree.
- If it’s someone who’s bugging you, imagine them in dressed as the hind quarters of a pantomime horse, or something else, with a bread roll up their hooter, depending on how vindictive you’re feeling. Just make sure it’s ludicrous.
- Take your annual leave/vacation entitlement when you feel the need. If it’s beginning to get gnarly, take a day off – your mental health is more important.
- If it’s still craptacular, find a friend to look your CV over, and start looking for something else.
- Don’t laminate anyone’s tie – especially when they are still wearing it.
Part 3 – Getting Better
So there I am, sitting in front of the counsellor, feeling slightly ridiculous and, let’s face it, coughing like several members of the Bronte family at once. It was one of those coughs where people would markedly walk around me in supermarkets, and would surreptitiously get the antiseptic hand gel out when they thought i wasn’t looking. However, on the upside, people did tend to give me a lot of personal space.
(I’d have added an image here but everything was far too disturbing).
So why did I feel ridiculous? In my messed up world view, I’d somehow failed. Firstly because I’d been in therapy before and I had been unable to stop a crisis occurring again, secondly because I still had the feeling that I was letting everyone down and thirdly, because frankly, the antidepressants still had me quite baked so the infection, the drugs and the general messed-up-ness led to everything feeling slightly surreal.
As you do, I talked and he listened. I explained that In that one of things that had kept me going so long was the fact that I didn’t feel all that depressed (apart from one very intense day-long dose of the blues in the summer) and it was the physical stuff that I was more concerned about. I explained about the workload, and how I’d mistaken obsessiveness for tenacity, and buried lots of myself in the process. It was then that he asked me a very simple, but very pointed question.
So how wedded to the hamster wheel are you?
This stopped me dead in my tracks.
After a certain amount of coaxing, I realised my marriage to the hamster wheel was total and all-consuming. I had taken it all on and not let anything back out. I had put myself last, and got caught up in the cult of busy, endlessly thinking and planning about things to change at work, things to change at home, worrying about neglecting everyone but never having the energy to do anything about it until it gained a momentum all of its own.
In her recent book “Sane New World” Ruby Wax uses a description of being on autopilot when she hosted a dinner party, didn’t drink but still couldn’t remember anything about it because the clatter of her own thought processes had driven her through it without her being able to retain any of it. I had been like that for months, possibly years.
Which is where mindfulness came into the conversation.
Mindfulness, for the uninitiated, does not have to wear tie-die and smell of patchouli, the universe does not need to hold you in its loving embrace and doesn’t even involve getting your kit off in a field, though if you feel the urge, I’ll encourage you to do whatever feels right for you as long as it makes you happy. (And in some instances, as long as I don’t have to watch whatever it is that makes you happy – i.e. I find drum solos catastrophically dull – I’m a happy bunny too).
My counsellor said, if you think you’re too busy for a ten minute mindfulness meditation, you should probably try at least half an hour and we went through a short meditation. It wasn’t like I was a complete stranger to meditation as I’d had a rather excellent yoga teacher back in the day, and I had used it to get to sleep when Smalls was small and I was anxious. And because I was off work, and spending an inordinate amount of time in bed, I started to build a practice into my life.
I think with burnout, you have to realise that this is a true life changer, and so it’s proved. I still do a lot of sleeping, and to be honest, I’m still not 100% percent, but I hope I am now a more optimistic, more creative and more honest version of the person I was before. And that’s down to Mindfulness. It’s a tool. It doesn’t suit everyone. But it works for me. And it’s one of those habit changes that I’ve managed to stick with for the long haul.
Here’s a little more detail around the 10 things that Burnout has taught me...
When Smalls was very small, I thought I had gleaned a whole new perspective on sleep deprivation. I’d always been so robust, a proper night owl and could cope with it.
You sort of expect to have days when you’re so knackered that you feel sick with a new-born, especially when those who became parents before you tell you about it with a type of rueful glee, or in some cases, actual undisguised Schadenfreude.
I burned out last year after 7 months of doing daft hours and trying to keep my head above water on the project I was doing. All in all (perversely) when I managed to get my sorry arse back up off the ground, it’s been a *VERY LARGE LEARNING EXPERIENCE* and it’s actually improved my life. It’s certainly given me plenty to think about.
Here’s what I’ve found…
1. You need all of the sleep. And the naps. For months after you’ve crashed. This isn’t sloth, it’s healing.
2. You will still have days where your brain refuses to work properly. This is the nature of your recovery, rearrange things if necessary to accommodate for this, you probably have more agency than you give yourself credit for. Be aware that if you have 1 good day, the next day you might have a day where it’s like you’ve eaten a great big slice of stupid pie, and that’s ok.
3. You start saying “no” – a lot.
4. Your thoughts of “omg, it’s all going to go wrong and argh etc” can be beaten into submission as you now recognise they are just thoughts. Your brain is throwing things at you in response to all the cortisol that’s bombing through it and often nothing based on reality.
5. You realise that anti-depressants are not the worst thing in the world.
6. You practise Mindfulness meditation which can be really helpful in quelling the incessant head noise. It’s actually not a pile of old hippy bollocks.
7. The step off the hamster wheel is something brilliant and caring that you are doing for yourself. You are not weak but you are tired.
8. Your loved ones like you happy.
9. You stop putting too much pressure on yourself. “Your kids would rather have frozen lasagne from a happy mom, than a perfect home cooked meal from a witch”.
10. You can only concentrate on a limited number of things at a time. However you resist the urge to beat yourself up about this and go have a nice cuppa.