How I recovered from burnout: 12 keys to finding your new normal
I had never been through anything quite as deep, or frankly, personally frightening as my burnout in 2006.
Burnout moves fatigue and the darkness from a place where it was in your control to place where you can simply no longer control either.
I regularly hear from leaders who have let me know that they’re in the midst burnout right now.
It’s like burnout, fatigue and overwhelm have become epidemics in life and leadership.
If you’re struggling with it, all I can say is I understand, and I’m pulling for you and praying for you.
To diagnose burnout is one thing. But how you recover from it?
Let me share my journey. While everyone’s recovery will be different, there were 12 keys that, in retrospect, were essential to my recovery.
Not an instant cure
And as far as time goes, for me there was no instant cure. It took about:
6 months for me to move from ‘crisis’ (20% of normal) to operational (maybe 60%)
Another year to get from 60% to 80% of ‘normal’.
Another three or four years to finally feel 100% again – like myself. Even a new self.
In the process, I completely restructured my patterns and rhythms so I could develop a new normal. Why? Because to recover from burnout and overwhelm, you need better patterns, not just a better attitude.
12 keys to getting back from burnout
Along the way, these 12 things helped me immensely. And while your story might be different, I offer them in the hope they might help you even in some small way:
1. Tell someone
This was hard. I think it is for most leaders, especially guys.
My guess is you will resist because of pride. But pride is probably what made you burn out. Don’t miss this: humility will get you out of what pride got you into.
Swallow your pride and tell someone safe that you have a problem. It’s tough, but it’s the first step toward wellness. When you admit it to others, you also finally end up admitting to yourself.
2. Get help
You can’t do this alone. Really, you can’t. I went to a trained counselor and had a circle of friends who walked the walk with me.
You need to talk to your doctor and to a trained Christian counselor. And you need others. I had people pray over me.
My wife, Toni, was an incredible and exceptional rock.
I’m not sure I would have made it without them. I’m a guy, and I prefer to work through my own problems.
This one was so much bigger than me. But not bigger than God or the community of love and support he provides. So get help.
Solitude is a gift from God, but isolation is a tool of the enemy. Don’t stay isolated.
3. Lean into your friends
Yes, this could have been included in Point 2 but the guys would have missed it. Friends. You need them.
Guys – word here. We tend not to have a lot of friends and we tend not to open up. Mistake. Lean into your friendships.
Friends came to my house and prayed for me. They called me.
One day a friend called and simply said “I know you can’t feel it today, but the sun will rise again. It will.” I can’t tell you how much those words meant to me that day. Your friends care about you. Lean into them.
4. Keep leaning into God
Just because he seems silent doesn’t mean he’s absent. I did not feel God for months. Not when I prayed or read the Bible or worshipped.
But I didn’t give myself permission to quit. In these pivotal moments you will either lean away from God or into him. Lean in, hard. Even if you feel nothing.
I did, and eventually, the feelings of intimacy return. Just because you can’t feel God’s love doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. Your emotions will eventually catch up to your obedience.
I was so physically and emotionally tired when I burnt out. I slept for about 10 hours a day for a month straight, adding naps to my daily diet on top of that.
Sleep is like money; deficits become debt. And debt needs to be paid off.
I paid off my sleep debt that month and I always try now to make sure I am not running a deficit.
If I do for a week or two, I pay it off with more sleep. You were designed to rest, and to rest in God. While I personally didn’t take a sabbatical or medical leave (our board offered me one), some may need to. I was too scared I’d never come back. So I took three weeks vacation and came back slowly.
6. Find something else to take attention away from your pain
The problem with pain (or at least my pain) is when you do nothing you only have your pain to focus on.
Pain is selfish. It will demand all of your attention, unless you decide not to give it.
Distraction is a powerful tool to get your mind thinking about other things. Watch a movie. Go out for dinner. Go for a hike. Head out to a party. Take in a concert. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
At my worst, I would go to social settings and not want to talk to anyone, sometimes even ‘hiding’ from people behind my wife who is a foot shorter than me and 100 lbs lighter. But at least I went.
One night we hosted a dinner party and I left the table early and ended up crying in my bedroom for the rest of the night. But at least we threw the party. It got my mind off the constant cycle of depression.
7. Do what you can
Again, you may need a long sabbatical. But I took three weeks off and went back to work. On my first week back in the office, it took me longer to write a three line email than it took me to write this entire blog post, but I focused on doing what I could.
The first weekend I preached, those who knew the shape I was in all told me, “We would have had no idea you were feeling so bad. You were amazing.” I knew how I felt inside, but it was good to know I could still be helpful to others in some way.
I think for me it was important to discover what I could still do.
When you’re burning out, focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.
8. Don’t do anything drastic or stupid
Underline this. Because my illness involved my mind, I was tempted to do all kinds of things that could have ruined my life.
I felt like abandoning my calling, running away from everyone I knew and everything I knew, even my wife and kids.
In my worst moments, thoughts of ending it all crossed my mind. I am so thankful I didn’t succumb to any of those impulses.
Some days I just said to myself “don’t do anything stupid today.” And if I didn’t, that was progress. I’m so thankful I didn’t do anything rash or irresponsible.
When you’re not at your best, avoiding stupid is a win.
9. Trust again
One of the contributing factors to my crash was a few relationships (not my family) in which trust was broken. As hurt as I felt and as cynical as I was at points, I made a conscious decision to trust again.
And the wonderful thing is: so many people are trustworthy. And God always is. Trusting again after your trust has been breached keeps your heart fresh and alive and – ultimately – hopeful again.
10. Closely monitor balance
I used to pride myself in being able to go at whatever I was doing longer and harder than anyone else. Pride’s not a good thing.
I now closely monitor how I’m feeling, my rest and my balance between time with people and time alone. I’m hyper focused on it. Because I can’t afford not to be.
I build margin into my schedule because without it, the edge of the next cliff is right around the corner.
Margin is a leader’s best friend. The more you have, the more you thrive.
11. Watch for the warning signs
I watch these 11 signs of burnout diligently. From time to time, I’ll see a few of the warning signs creep back in. I told the people around me immediately when I sense I might be heading for the cliff. And I pray about it and take a corrective course of action.
Sometimes you get false alarms. One time, I was two days into what I thought was a ‘mini burnout’, but I sounded the alarm bells. In the end, it turned out to be my frustration over a leadership issue that was producing the symptoms. As soon as I cracked the leadership issue, the symptoms disappeared almost overnight.
But that kind of monitoring is for me central to staying healthy.
12. Take full responsibility for the health of your soul
Nobody else is responsible for your health. You are. Pray, read your Bible, seek life-giving friendships, replenish your energy, eat right, work out, love deeply.
These things nourish your soul. If you don’t do them, nobody will.
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