What burnout can teach us about personal energy
In my former life as a researcher we used a technique called deprivation. If you really wanted to know what something truly meant to people, simply take it away from them (with permission of course!). The absence would always be surprisingly revealing about the value those things brought to people's lives.
Applying those same principles here, I wanted to write a piece about energy using my experience of burnout as my form of deprivation. Since this happened a couple of years ago, I’ve become obsessed with energy. I don’t know how much you know about burnout, but one of its effects is that it completely drains your battery. I mean like zilch power. Your phone on 1%. Not even enough juice to light the screen. When you’ve spent your whole life being a high energy, fully engaged go getter, I can tell you with no hesitation that these are dark days.
Post recovery, I've read a lot about burnout. Thankfully there is now a body of work that recognises this is more than an individual problem. But the absence of conversation about energy and the nuances of it has been striking. It seems that exhaustion is thought of as a singular thing when it is in fact multi-faceted with many different kinds of energy that can result in us feeling zapped. And the impact of depletion varies depending on the energy source that is being spent.
I started to feel that having more knowledge about our own personal energy and the things that deplete it could be a really useful life tool. By paying more attention, we could observe, nurture and optimise our levels to help us live fully engaged, better able to deal with its challenges and I think, with greater contentment. I now live managing energy over time and it's made a big difference to my overall wellbeing.
THE WORST KIND OF TIRED
As city living, white collar workers, with all the trappings of cosmopolitan lives, tiredness rarely comes from pure physical exhaustion. In fact, that feeling of being physically tired is great. It feels honest, raw, wholesome even. You’ve earned it. There's a clear cause and effect which gives that energy meaning and purpose.
But most of us are dealing with managing the effects of depleted energy from less 'worthy' or obvious places. The kind that doesn't make you feel great when it's gone. Having no headspace, low motivation, switching off, little get up and go, struggling to find more capacity, hard to concentrate, minimal patience, easily irritable.Whilst low energy levels of burnout are more extreme, we can all recognise these symptoms in our lives.
THE SPIRITUAL SAT NAV ISN'T WORKING
Looking back, my feeling of being drained came most from depleted spiritual energy. As someone who’s identity has been largely created by ‘me at work’ persona, it was hard to see your high engagement and confidence transform into complete disengagement and a sense of loss. I’d find feeling like I’d lost my why. But instead of Simon Sinek's beautiful golden circles I had a tangled up pile of wires that I hadn’t the first clue of how unravel. It was like being lost, but pretending you still knew the way. Denial played a heavy hand here and it wasn’t until I felt fully recovered that I was able to tackle this puzzle. We don’t often think about nurturing our spiritual energy but it’s something I’ve come to see as fundamental to our health. Going through the motions, feeling neither happy or nor sad, working on auto-pilot, avoiding the reality are all indicators that our spiritual energy needs some love.
CREDIBILITY, LEAVING THE ROOM
Efficiency used to be my middle name. I could turn on laser like focus aka Sarah Lund and power through any challenge, meet any deadline and deal with any crisis. Not anymore. Mental energy was low. The ability to think clearly and logically, to plan and organise, to make decisions with certainty felt like it was slipping through my fingers. I’d find myself setting alarms for 4am to get up to work on to-do lists that I still couldn’t tick off. Everything felt more involved, needed more time, seemed more difficult. On reflection, my loss of mental energy was the aspect of burnout that felt most visible to others and therefore was one of my major stressors. Beating yourself up about mistakes, poor time keeping, loss of confidence in your own decision-making. I’ve learned that the feeling of ineffectiveness that comes with burnout is a lot about losing your potency and edge. A killer of a symptom for high achievers I can tell you.
QUICK FIX ESCAPISM
Emotional energy was actually the only energy source I really invested in. It felt like the one part of my ‘get up and go’ I could actually control. And the most compelling rewards - numbing, escaping, forgetting. On reflection, that 'investment' was more like feeding a fix than nurturing care. The fake feeling of happiness, the fleeting moment of contentment, chasing the temporary highs. Everything from obsessive seeking the euphoria of hardcore working out, to heavy nights out and all the pleasure that they give you in that moment.
Of course, this kind of emotional energy has no lasting value, but it made me feel something, which I really needed. What I have learned is that emotional energy needs to be nurtured with love and affection vs. throwing scraps to it in a needy scrappy way. It's made me question my motives for pleasure seeking these days, leaving me with a preference for positive good living and a need to be in environments and around people that feed, not drain, this energy source.
ADJUSTING YOUR LEVELS
I now work as a transformation coach and change consultant, and these learnings about energies and how they work for and against us are a significant part of my approach. I strongly believe there's great power in understanding how energy works for you as an individual. In a world where our energy is challenged on a daily basis, knowing how to nurture it is an important life skill for contemporary lives.