Years ago, I was driving down Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, Arizona, when I starting nodding off. It was as if I had just driven from LA nonstop, rather than from my clinic a few blocks away. I could barely keep my eyes open. It was then that I realized I was exhausted and burned out. After years of long hours and stress, I was one the seven out of ten Americans experiencing the effects of stress and subsequent burnout.
I realized that my burnout represented me not getting the return I wanted on my investment. My long hours were not bringing joy to me. They were exhausting me. My body and mind was tired. My passion and drive was nonexistent. My work was beginning to suffer, and I didn’t care.
Are You Burnt?
If you aren’t sure, check out this Forbes article. If you are or someone you know is on the road to burnout, learn from others, so you don’t suffer needlessly.
Without changing direction, you risk not only less productivity and joy, you may injure yourself. While working at my clinic, one of the top trial attorneys in Phoenix was a client. After a few sessions, I fired him. I told him that, as much as I enjoyed him, I couldn’t help him. Unless he slowed down, allowed his body to relax, and fed it better, he was heading for a serious problem. Ten years later, I got a call. He explained who he was by telling me what I told him. He told me that, unfortunately, I was correct: he’d ended up having a massive heart attack.
When he came back to me for treatment, he could finally relax. He kept saying he should have listened to his wife and me. Being a guy and successful, he thought he could keep pushing it, so he did – until his heart gave out.
As he relaxed, he continued to tell me how much richer his life was. When he was pushing, his pleasure came from pushing through obstacles. Now it came from a quiet dinner with his wife or a hike in the desert. He still enjoyed standing in front of a jury, but it wasn’t his only pleasure.
There is a time in a man’s life when he needs to push. He needs to carve out his life. These are the times he’s away from his family. Many men come back home after this time to realize their family has left, maybe literally – maybe his wife has left him and they kids are grown and gone, uninterested in trying to connect with him. Or he realizes he wasn’t home for the years as his kids were growing. The pain of missed opportunities is deep.
In his honest reflection, he admits not all that he did needed to be done, nor was it all enjoyable. He became a hamster on his own wheel. It’s easy to get stuck on that wheel when we are stuck in the survival response of stress. Prolong stress becomes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a milder version of what a returning soldier brings back from the battlefield. Just like the warrior who yearns to return to battle to support his brothers, many men want to return to their stress because that’s all they know.
You don’t need to burnout your family or yourself. Overwork today will exhaust your body, sabotaging your future. Your body is not designed to be under stress 24/7. Our ancestors weren’t chased by tiger 24/7.
Just because we can do it for a while does not mean we can do it for decades. Your adrenals burn out from constantly producing hormones to survive stress. As your vitality diminishes, you are vulnerable to becoming depressed, or, as many men experience, angry. You only want to do what you have to do. Stress become the motivator, the cattle prod that gets up. Even spending “quality time” with your partner or kids becomes another obligation that drains you.
The BS We Are Told
“Man up!” When others stop telling us that, we begin telling ourselves.
The problem is not wanting to be more of a man. The problem is whose man do you want to be?
While I had my clinic, I had a client who was a young man, a neurological pediatrician running a department for one of the hospitals in Phoenix. He had his dream job.
One day he came in to see me with a strange look on his face. I asked him what was up. He told me he had quit his job.
A few days earlier, he told me, he had looked in the mirror, and he saw a face he didn’t recognize. He saw the face of the person his parents wanted him to be, not what he wanted.
He then told me that he had never wanted to be a doc. After all the years of schooling and long hours of practice, he was burnt out. There was no joy in his life. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew it wasn’t being a doc. After completing his commitment to his hospital, he took an interim job as a pharmaceutical salesman until he discovered what gave him joy.
For many men cognitive dissonance convinces them that what they are doing is the right thing. That job or relationship shouldn’t be questioned. Man up—just get it done. The more we do that, the more dead inside we become. But if we acknowledged the dissonance, we might have to do something different. That would be scary.
When we start to drop this ball, we are told to pick it back up. These days we often reach for drugs to help us. Anti-depressants for the emotional exhaustion and caffeine or some stimulant to keep us going. When the pain gets too great, there are pain pills.
After years of crappy carbs and caffeine for energy, not enough exercise, poor sleep, and numbing with alcohol, your body, – hell, your very life – starts to fall apart. The stress you weren’t dealing deposits itself in your soft tissue. That athletic body you had when you were young is gone. You may start to believe what you are told: that you’re getting old, and you should learn to live with it.
You are living off your principle. You are depleting your vitality, the health you once had. You are set up to die young. Plus, with your burnout, you aren’t happy. You are trapped.
Solutions Few Use
Men come to us because in some way life, their lives are not working like they want them to work. Maybe their relationship hit the wall. Or maybe they are doing well, but they know there is more. There is often a level of burnout. We get stuck and tired.
Doing It Alone
As men, we are trained to do it alone. We don’t ask for directions or support. We are quick to give advice or fix another’s problem. So when a man comes to one of our courses or comes to see me, it’s an act of courage. Maybe for the first time, he’s stepped out of his box of comfort and doing life in the way he was not trained. Often with just that act of courage, things will begin to move in his life.
The next act is often setting boundaries with others and self. We are encouraged to meld with everyone. With social media, texting, and the demands of life today, there seems to be no escape.
We learn from our warriors that PTSD doesn’t always come from being in battle; it can come from the possibility of the battle happening at any moment. Always being ON, always being on alert, ready to respond – neither the human body nor the mind is built for that. Our ancestors weren’t always in danger.
When do you have time to renew? Vegging out binge-viewing a full season of Game of Thrones may be a start. It won’t rejuvenate you, but your mind will rest. Setting boundaries where you take the time to get out and do something that moves your body or mind will revive you.
With each activity, start asking yourself, “In the long run, will this take or give me energy?”. Will staying up to watch Late Night give me energy? Will saying no to a request to go out for the third night in a row give me more energy? I’m not saying every action needs to be beneficial. At the end of your week, were you taking more out or putting more into your life? If it’s a taking, are you avoiding something? What is easier to cover up with activities that don’t serve you than to look at and consider changing?
Structure of Support
What is your structure of support? Who has your back? Who do you call at 2 AM when all hell breaks loose? What do you do to nourish your body? I’m talking about more than feeding it. I’m talking about giving it foods and nutrients that renew it, that make you feel like you have the energy you need to live life.
As men, we rarely take care of ourselves – until we have to. Sometimes, by the time we realize it, it’s too late. You need that hip replaced. Your wife just leaves. Or you die and your kids don’t have a father.
There is research about how having a community of friends strengthens your immune system. More than vitamin C. And that might get you thinking, maybe you do need to be connected to others. We do. Just as we are hardwired to turn on the stress response to survive, we are hardwired to seek out connection.
How connected are you to your partner? Sure, you have sex. Sure, she’s your emotional go-to person. But are you really connected? Few men are. And because they aren’t, they gradually lose the benefits of connection and her love.
We work with women and couples as well as with men who discover that the problem in the relationship was not the other person or the relationship. It was how we defaulted to being disconnected. Learn how to connect. Sue Johnson, PhD. created a simple, yet powerful system to reset your connection. Short course: choose to feel and express over being right and reacting.
One way to learn to ask and receive support is to give it. Volunteer. Put yourself in a situation where you are called upon to be there for another person. Give to get. The men who take our trainings and go on to start a free group are blown away with what they get in return. They learn how to connect as a man and lead emotionally as a man. They also learn how to let the group give to them.
Move Your Emotions
We learn to sit on it, to hold our emotions in. When they do come out, they come out sideways with our passive aggressive comments. Or we seem pissed off all the time. Or we project our emotions on another, such as asserting ourselves with our partner when we needed to tell our friend no.
There is no better way to turn around burnout than to get emotional. Listen, you don’t need to be a crazy person – you need to release. I’ve had clients watch emotional movies to prime the pump to move stuck emotions. Men in our groups will go do one of our Anger Ceremonies in the woods. I’ve done several over the years where I let my rage out. The trees and rocks don’t care. Not only is it a release, it opens up channels in you; then when you need to express, you can.
Stuffed emotions and desires are the biggest cause of burnout. Creating ways to keep your emotions flowing will be the best prevention to burnout. Our free groups for men are that. Each week a man has an opportunity to express and be accepted.
One good way to move emotional energy is to speak the unspeakable. How can you expect to have all your passion and creative juices flowing when you are stuffing your emotions? What needs to be said that you aren’t saying?
You might to need to tell a person no – to set a new boundary with them. Maybe it’s telling your partner how much you love her. Sometimes the positive conversations can be the most difficult.
Don’t keep thinking about what you want to say – say it. Feel your body and emotions as you speak, then shut up. Let your words land. Let the person feel them. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable.
I know I can get too serious, too focused on work where fun drops out of my life. Create new ways to enjoy others, new ways to connect. Also discover that a walk in nature will change your brain. Connecting to nature is as powerful as connecting to your body as through bodywork. When we connect to these primordial parts of us, connecting to others become easier. With connection we begin having fun. With fun that connects to your body and emotions, burnout dissolves away.
Become mindful of your level of burnout. Get honest. If it’s there, take new action.
It’s easy to be in denial or unaware because we live in a world that expects more and more from us. We buy into the believe that more things will make us happy. Sure we can own some beautiful and fun things. But…
Do you wake up with excitement?
You deserve joy. And those close to you deserve it also. If it’s not there, what are you going to do to bring it back?