Friday, October 28, 2011

Burnout is an Over-Used Word: Let's Call It Emotional Exhaustion Instead

     When we first encounter a new word or term, we learn its meaning through context. For example, the first time you heard the word burnout, you might have related it to the wipe out experienced by executives who routinely work 70-hour weeks and then crash. Or emergency room doctors who rush from treating one traumatic injury to the next with no break. Or law students juggling jobs and home life with the intensity of their studies. Crash. Burnout.
     The problem with this is that if we don't identify our own symptoms as legitimately falling into one of the approved categories for burnout, such as those I mentioned above, we run the risk of not being able to identify its symptoms when it strikes. I propose we exchange the buzzword burnout for another term: let's substitute emotional exhaustion instead. Now the category expands. Perhaps now you can see room in it for yourself and the discomfort you are experiencing.
     You don't have to be paralyzed to inactivity by burnout. Like so many things, it occurs on a spectrum. You can be in the early stages of emotional exhaustion, or you can be advanced to later stages. Here are some of the things to think about if you feel you might be affected:
     Physical Symptoms: First of all, the obvious: are you tired all the time? Does sleep fail to refresh you? Do you lack the energy required to do simple, everyday tasks? Do you have more headaches, overall aches, appetite changes?
     Emotional Symptoms: Are you feeling trapped or defeated, increasingly pessimistic about your life? Has your sense of purpose slipped into a haze? Are you feeling less motivated and less satisfied by things that formerly brought you great joy?
     Behavioral Symptoms: Are you isolating yourself from friends and family? Are you letting responsibilities slip? Has your attitude toward your job changed, so that you routinely go in late or leave early? And what about alcohol or drugs? Are you taking things out on others due to frustration with yourself?
     You don't have to reach crisis point before making changes. Even if you recognize yourself in only one or two of these symptoms, you might be wise to take stock and make some changes in advance of greater stress.
     So what can you do?
     Becoming aware of the danger zones in your life is a first step: maybe you really do need to change jobs; maybe your stressful relationship really has run its course; maybe you need to find a way to pay for additional child care support at home. Also, of course, meditation and other spiritual practices can go a long way toward creating space for relaxing the hold that emotional exhaustion may have on you.
     All sorts of creative endeavors -- from painting and drawing to gardening or playing an instrument -- take us out of ourselves and offer our bodies and minds a break. Make an effort to incorporate into your daily life activities and experiences that feed your soul, and require nothing from you but your time and attention. Relax your efforts. Receive.
     Maybe you've rounded the corner into full exhaustion. My first thought for you is this: slow down. Let go. Protect yourself. When you are most exhausted you are most likely to withdraw from the company and support of others. Actually, this is the time when you need your friends and family most. You also need sleep. Rest. Take time out. Learn (rather, rediscover) how to do nothing.
     Perhaps it sounds impossible to follow this prescription. You're too busy. Too many people are counting on you. You gave your word that you would accept responsibilities, and you're holding yourself to it. These are noble thoughts. The problem, though, is fundamental: how can you expect yourself to follow through on all these things if you fall sick? Because I assure you of this: if you do not stop and take notice, put self-care into your daily program, and alter your course, your body will do it for you. It will force the issue. Please don't let things get to that point.
     Care for yourself. Then care for others. You can only offer them sustenance from a full cup. If yours is empty, you are only going through the motions. No one benefits from your exhaustion. And you, dear soul, will suffer until you grant yourself the time you need in order to renew yourself.
     Yes is the answer to the question: do I have time for a vacation?
     It is the only answer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Gift of Old Friendships

     I had lunch recently with two old friends. We met when we were juniors in college studying for a year abroad at the University of Vienna. We see each other every now and then. Though the years continue to slip by, and our children are now older than we were when we first met, we continue to offer each other something that we cannot get any other way. The gift of old friendships is the mirror they provide into ourselves as younger persons, before great successes or great pains have etched themselves into our souls, before the time when we learned that things didn't always work out the way we philosophized that they would.
     I have come to see that all the cartoons you see of older people acting like children are metaphors. We don't necessarily become more juvenalized as we get older, as some of these cartoons suggest. But if we are fortunate enough to be in the company of others who knew us as youngsters, who remember our youthful energy and star-filled plans, then we are able to become ourselves in full spectrum: I am the young woman who loved Goethe, Beethoven, the opera, The Beatles, miniskirts, learning new languages; I have long, honey-colored hair. At the same time, I am also the mother of two adult daughters. I am the woman whose divorce shattered her dreams; the woman who returned late to graduate school; the woman who now writes with confidence that she knows what she's talking about because she has lived it.
     No, those cartoons are not literal, just as Hindu deities do not really have a thousand arms. Rather, such cartoons capture an aspect of who we become as we age. Like the god whose many arms demonstrate many talents and gifts and capabilities, our experiences as we age become a rich array of aspects of self, all of which remain available to us at any time, but which are not always brought to the fore.
     Is it in the presence of old friends that we are free to manifest all of ourselves. We are most transparent, most fully realized, when we are with those who have known us the longest.
     That lightness of being is the gift of old friendships. Treasure your friends, for later they will delight you in ways you cannot now even imagine.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Amanda Knox: The Horror and Pain of Injustice

     Amanda Knox was acquitted today. The court admitted errors. Amanda paid for them with four years of her life.
    But that's not all. The amount of stress Amanda lived with during this time is incalculable. Every system of her body has also paid this price, with hormonal floods that have kept her in a state of hyper-alertness. She has been in the hell of disempowerment that accompanies not being able to influence events in her own life.
     Today she was freed from the constraints of the Italian legal system. Her task now is to learn to put it behind her, and to move into her own future. This challenge is enormous.
     Have you ever experienced the anguish of being unjustly accused? Perhaps your experience was not in the papers, like Amanda's. Perhaps the scale was smaller: an ex-spouse passive-aggressively sets your children against you; a co-worker plants untrue stories about you with a superior; your siblings go to your parents behind your back.
     Maybe you've even been in court in a situation that forces you to learn that what is just and true and right must be cast aside; you must instead abide by the fact that you are caught in a machine, and that the machine is amoral, and that the lawyers will create a new cloth, and from it fashion you a new garment. It will not matter whether this garment fits or flatters; it is yours, and you must wear it, or remain imprisoned and naked.
     There is little a therapist can do in the face of injustice. I can listen. And I can suggest that you meditate, that creating some space for allowing yourself to consider your response is in your best interest, in the manner of Viktor Frankl. But there is still the physical toll your accusers have extracted on you as your body, heart, and mind process the stress you are under.
     Amanda can now say, "This is finished." The legal terrors she faced in Italy are over. That fact draws a line between the past and the future, and gives her a toe-hold for creating herself anew. She was no doubt unable to do so until today; that's the problem with being caught in an unjust cycle. Before today, all her energy had to go toward getting out of bed in the morning, defending herself from the psychic tornado that commandeered her every waking moment.
     It will take time for her to realize that tornado no longer holds her in its grip. She will have nightmares. She will have what appear to be irrational fears, displaced anger, disordered moods. She will have this stress carved into her soul for the remainder of her life.
     But the trial is over now. God bless her as she begins to move forward.
     And God bless anyone who remains caught in the tornado, for whom the sun has not yet reappeared.
     There is no sentiment I can offer that will feel as soothing as trying to touch the divine in such a crisis. That is where your hope lies. And hope is your bridge to the other side.
     In her darkest hours of deepest pain, Amanda had hope. Today she is resurrected.
     Hallelujah and amen.