Photo Credit: Natalie Rhea Riggs, Unsplash.com

Written by Luke Iorio, President of One Idea Away and iPEC
May 30, 2019

What I’ve found to be one of the most crippling aspects of burnout is the groundlessness—it seemed like everything I’d stood on for so long was no longer there and I had nothing to hold me up.

When this groundlessness began, I tried to cling and hold on wherever possible. I was holding onto what was, convincing myself that I could put it back together again. At other times I was fiercely holding on to the vision of what was still to come–believing that achieving the next goal would get things back on track.

I fell into the belief trap that some change of circumstance (of scenery, people around me, or focus) would make things alright again—and that whatever pain or stress or loss being grappled with would fade away.

It was the constant struggling, resisting, grasping, holding on, and attempting to control that escalated the exhaustion and frustration.

The Root of Groundlessness

The root of this groundlessness (yes, bad pun intended!) was that my identity was entangled with my job title and career, my goals and accomplishments, and even the fact that many people knew me as having it all together and being calm, cool, and collected—and that was all slipping away with no place to hide.

All the resisting, clinging, controlling and hoping were nothing but an attempt to delay the inevitable that I believed I wasn’t ready to face and to try and hide away a little longer. However, none of that can ever stop the only constant in life: change.

And yet, such are the actions we take in the face and fear of uncertainty.

Interestingly, when burnout (or any major transition that uproots significant areas of our lives) arrives, these are actually the times that can present the greatest opportunities for growth. This isn’t a Pollyanna, look-at-the-silver-lining, self-help quip.

Embracing the change and uncovering the purpose and possibilities it holds is damn hard work. Fear and anxiety can climb as you turn towards your fear and anxiety, and the uncertainty that evokes them.

But as the great masters taught, from Marcus Aurelius to the Buddha: whatever stands in the way is the way.

And it’s from that perspective, experienced through my own personal experiences and private work with my clients, the following six perspectives are what I’ve found to best support navigating burnout (whether that’s career, life, or relationship burnout).

Six Perspectives to Navigate Burnout

  1. It’s Not Personal

This was one of the hardest things to understand about career burnout and big life transitions: nothing was happening to me—no one and nothing was conspiring (intentionally or unintentionally) to make things harder. Life was simply changing.

Life is 13.8 billion years in the making. There are a whole lot of things simply outside our control—including the planet we share with over seven billion people and counting.

Life’s full of probabilities as well as a cycle of ups and downs, events that are agreeable and disagreeable, circumstances that go our way and those that don’t. You can do a lot to stack the odds in your favor (relative to wherever you begin from), but you can only focus on you and the energy and actions you set in motion.

You can focus on being open and recognizing the changes as they come (which they will) and adapting your strategy, direction, or destination based on new data. But you can’t control all the infinite factors. Which also means when change comes, it’s just change. It’s just the cycle of life as it moves around.

It’s not personal.

Once you embrace this, you can gain more objectivity, which leads to seeing more clearly.

  1. Patience Through Being Present

Another struggle of burnout or transitioning to something new is staying with the discomfort. We like to distract and disconnect from whatever feels unsettling. At times, we’ll make rash decisions or take quick action–which may provide temporary relief but will only continue to keep us stuck where we are.

When we can stay with the discomfort, we can grow resilient and ensure that when we move, we’re moving consciously in the most healthy and effective ways we can at that time.

Staying breeds patience and patience brings discernment and understanding.

And these both—staying and patience—grow out of being present in this moment. When we focus our attention on our breath, on one of our senses, or on nature (as the most reliable examples), we bring ourselves to what we’re connecting to and physically feeling right now.

Anytime our minds try to wrestle back our attention (which they inevitably will), gently guide your attention back to what you were focusing on—breath, senses, or nature.

The more we practice getting present in this way, the more we’ll be able to be present, patient, and stay in more challenging moments as they arise—instead of letting our minds race off with stories and interpretations.

  1. Observe Your Energy . . . And Turn Within

Originally, based on training and experience, I turned towards watching my thoughts—to observe their patterns and try to catch what was unproductive. In time, I learned through mindfulness, meditation, iPEC’s coaching framework, and other practices to observe my energy.

Energy awareness helped me pay more attention to the rise and fall, the expansion and contraction that I was feeling and sensing within me and do so without the stories and judgments (which would hook me into the old, ongoing patterns).

The old narrative and judgments would have me look outside of myself and get further bought into the story of what might be happening. Whereas focusing on observing my energy without the story, allowed me to stay present with myself, to honor the experience I was having, and to notice how the energy would rise, crest, fall, and release.

The energy would stay stuck when I focused on the thoughts and stories, but it would pass by more fluidly if I just simply observed the energy. That’s not to say it didn’t come up many, many times. It did. But each time, I stayed present and observed the energy, I was much less likely to get hooked by old patterns and ways of thinking.

  1. Choose What You Look For

What you seek, you find. There’s a reason this axiom has been around for so long and it’s proven out in how the brain functions. What this means for us is that we need to be deliberate in what we pay attention to and focus on.

As I used a variety of mindful methods to support my patience, observations, and overall energy, I also began deliberating looking at life and journaling on questions like these:

  • What connects me to peace?
  • What am I curious about learning?
  • What have I put off trying that may be worth exploring now?
  • What am I grateful for? (Be specific.)
  • What did today reveal to me about my strengths? About what connects me to joy? Or about what makes me come alive?
  • What possibilities are being created right now from this experience?
  • What does my heart need to express?
  • In what ways can I have more trust for where this journey will lead?

These were just several of the questions that helped me focus on things that’d either support me in moving forward a step at a time or, perhaps, more importantly, keep me curious and open to the possibilities of what the next leg of the journey could hold.

  1. Check Your Alignment

When I was able to have more patience and remain open, I started to recognize that I was out of alignment—meaning, how I was living and working weren’t aligned to what mattered most in my life.

Not aligned to use enough of my gifts (i.e. those strengths that when used, really make you feel alive and passionate), and not aligned with how I wanted to show up in my work.

I spent time really digging into my values as they’d shifted and deepened over the course of my life. Things that were important to me when I was younger and less experienced weren’t chief motivators to me now.

Accomplishments, material successes, getting ahead, recognition and even security (financial and relational) were giving way to service, compassion, close relationships, self-realization, creativity, and self-expression.

This shift is more common than some might think and is highlighted in Jonathan Rauch’s book, the Happiness Curve. While it tends to happen most often in so-called Middle Age (typically between 40-55 in Western Cultures), you can see these shifts in values across generations and age groups.

Spend the time to investigate your values and strengths. See how they’ve shifted or how you might define and express them differently today. And then explore different activities, relationships, and ways of working that more closely align to these.

Two quick notes . . . first, I say ways of working and not lines of work because it’s not always about changing your job or circumstances. It can just be changing the way you approach work or relationships in a manner that’s more authentically aligned and expressive of your values.

Second, “closely align” is what you’re looking for and not perfect alignment. “Perfect” alignment can imply that there’s only one right way or answer and we often seek that perfection as a means of not taking action. Instead, look for increasing levels of alignment.

  1. Step into the Void (small steps and big leaps all welcome)

Finally, bringing you back to the beginning: burnout brings you face-to-face with uncertainty.

At some point, you’ll need to embrace the uncertainty and step into the void. Most of us believe that uncertainty is something to be feared, but you can either view it as a pitch black nothing or as clean white space that allows new creation.

We can never be completely prepared for whatever is next. We can never know all we need to know until we take some form of action to create a new experience or put something in motion.

We can begin by starting small—trying things on for size and seeing what feels like it fits us; and as we gain confidence and clarity, we can take bigger leaps.

But no matter what, the first step will be into the void of uncertainty.

As I navigated through the phase (yes it’s just a period of time, not permanent) of burnout, I kept these perspectives in mind. I got to be OK with the unknown.

I focused on doing the inner work and building my inner capacity. I practiced remaining open and having compassion for myself and where I was on the journey. And I ultimately began to trust that life would illuminate various ways forward—it’s not just one way, it’s about which way out of many best aligns and supports who you truly are.

That trust fell more and more into place when I began to listen once more to my heart.

Photo Credit: Natalie Rhea Riggs, Unsplash.com