Since November, I haven’t been very active on social media and haven’t written a blog post. I had been engaging pretty regularly before then and suddenly, I stopped. There were other things that slowed down in my life as well, such as working out, reading, journaling, meditating. I was getting busier with work, yes, and the holidays were happening, sure, but those weren't the reason for this abrupt change in behavior, energy, and mood. They weren’t the reason for my feeling utterly exhausted and completely spent.
Burnout is something we hear about frequently and I think something we take for granted. Not in the sense that we overuse it to describe situations in which we aren’t actually burnt out, but in that we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the weight of what it means.
It’s most often seen in helping professions, but can be experienced by anyone and everyone. The way I think about it is: if you help someone, you are at risk of burnout. And I’m guessing you have helped someone in some capacity recently, which means you are at risk of burnout if you are not already experiencing it.
This is not a cautionary tale about helping. Helping is what makes us human and brings us together. It’s how we survive and thrive. We help each other in our own ways and in our own times. We cannot live without it. So, please, keep helping.
This IS a cautionary tale about where the center of that helping lies. If the helping centers around the other person or people and you have lost sight of your own needs, then your arms will give out at the weight of holding someone else. To say it clearly: you cannot keep helping if you do not take care of yourself. Try as you might, but it will not be a matter of if you will burnout, but when.
And I burnt out. The flame that kept me going through 2020, the pandemic, the growth of my business, the change in life circumstances, and so much more, was dying out. Even being a therapist, I didn’t label it burnout until a few weeks ago. I experienced it as being extremely tired in every way - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. For others, it may feel more like irritability, anxiety, anger, restlessness, or a variety of other manifestations.
I would like to say I saw how tired I was and said, “Okay, Marissa, you need to rest more.” But it was more just that I didn’t have the energy and so I was forced to rest. I literally couldn’t workout as much as I had been..or read or write or any of the things.
Thankfully, I had my clients, which may sound ironic given what I’m saying about how helping puts one at risk of burnout. I am thankful though and I say that because they held me accountable, they gave me a reason to keep going. My priority in work was and remains the wellbeing of my clients, which requires my ability to be 100% present in sessions with folks. So for the last two months, I dedicated all of my work-related time and energy to them. They continued to be the beautiful, vulnerable, and inspiring humans they are and let me in to their stories and worlds. I try to express all of this in a video I posted on New Year’s Eve.
And with this sort of forced break from the rest of the work I was doing, I started to have a little more energy, a little more flame. I didn’t have enough to jump back into my old routine and get straight away to work, but I did have enough to think and reflect. I realized how much I had de-centered myself in this pursuit of helping others. I realized how I felt like I had to sacrifice my mental health, in a way, in order to support others’ mental health.
I asked myself this question. It felt weird to think about my needs when I help someone else. Following this questioning further, I saw that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
See, I identify as a queer woman of color and POC’s, women, and queer folks are taught that our needs come last, that we are here to serve the straight white man’s needs and so even if I actively choose not to work with straight white men as clients, the idea that my needs are not relevant let alone even part of the equation still exists in my sense of self. On top of and in relation to that, as much as it makes me cringe to admit, I am a product of capitalism. This means my "worth" is dependent on how much I produce, how much I give, even if the “product” is the service of therapy. Finally, I come from a family of givers and sacrificers. It’s how my mom’s family survived World War II and my dad’s the Bataan Death March.
Needless to say, the concept of centering myself in my life, which includes working as a professional helper, is and was foreign. However, the more I think about it, the more it not only seems necessary, but it actually makes the most sense.
We’ve all heard the phrase “put your life mask on before putting it on others” as a metaphor for taking care of ourselves first, but what does this actually look like? What does it actually feel like? Yes, this is what self-care is all about. And while I wholeheartedly believe self-care includes things like exercise, proper nutrition and sleep, healthy relationships, and the “typical” things you might hear, I also believe it includes centering yourself in everything and anything you do.
The temptation will be to call this selfish, but I challenge you to question the voice in your head that says this. There’s a difference between being self-centered and centering yourself along with other people. We are not people there to extend our arms and carry someone else, we are people to stand side by side and embrace each other as we help each other.
For me, what this looks like in my everyday life is not jumping back into my old routine because that was not sustainable. It’s identifying if and how I can truly keep myself lifted, centered, and sustained, which I’m still figuring out, but some of it includes adding other things in my life that I’m passionate about (not just yoga and therapy), getting outside more - even (and especially!) in the dead of winter, reaching out more to loved ones when I need to talk, amongst other things.
Here are some suggestions for preventing burnout that may or may not apply to yourself. Ultimately, only you can know if and where you are de-centering yourself in your life and one or some of these might help in centering yourself.
You may or may not have the ability to force stop in your life like I did and we all have different circumstances. I realize it is a privilege to make a decision to focus on client sessions one month and then focus on something else the next month (no matter how much it may or may not affect my financial health). I had to look at my overall health and see how it was being harmed and make a decision that it wasn’t worth it anymore. I encourage you to look at your life and even if you are working for someone else, unemployed, or have someone dependent on you helping them, give yourself the permission to even just think about how you might center yourself and how this will actually benefit all parties in the long run.
Need a little extra support in centering yourself and seeing what that means for your life? Schedule a complimentary consultation for compassion focused therapy + yoga here!