In 2009 I stopped short of a burnout. For years I had been soldiering on, studying, working, managing projects, taking on ever more responsibilities, day in, day out – until my body stopped me in my tracks. I had successfully ignored a skin condition that reliably showed up whenever I was hyper-stressed. The stiff joints, I thought, came with compliments from family genes. Severe back pain made me see a chiropractic three times a week. But it didn’t make me think. A toe joint inflammation did.
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit but, yes, my toe did what my brain had been unable to do. It delivered a glimpse of sanity. It came out of nowhere. No cut, no bruising, nothing. My doctor didn’t have a clue as to what had caused my toe to swell to five times its usual size. All she knew was that if it wasn’t treated very fast with very strong antibiotics, the infection could spread and lead to me loosing my foot, or sort of.
Well, that was a wake-up call. I could do without breaks, without rest, without weekends. But I could not do without my foot. Or at least, I didn’t want to. Clearly.
I was bound to my bed for two weeks. And while I was laying there, separated from my job, my office desk, my emails, my to-do list, the ever-present busyness of my life for the first time in years, I suddenly noticed how dead tired I was. Indescribably exhausted. Drained. Worn out.
I was just shy of thirty years old but my energy level was as low as that of a single spent AA battery, hovering just over empty.
That’s when I started reading about burnout. It was extremely sobering. I quickly decided I was NOT going to end up as a limp wreck in a burnout rehab center. Nothing wrong with burnout rehab centers if that’s what is needed, and sometimes that’s just what is needed. But I didn’t want to need it. I wanted to turn things round before it came this far.
So I took up life coaching sessions. To sort out my work life.
Well, if you ever thought that burnout life coaching is about work, you’re in for a surprise. It’s about everything but work. And yes, eventually, you will also talk about your mother and your father. And about ‘issues’ you thought only others had.
To cut a long story short, I’ve learnt a lot about myself. About how I ‘work’, how I approach the world, how I create a stressful mini universe in my head, and – the hardest part – how to retrain myself and stop the old vicious circle spinning at full speed again.
Most importantly, I have become kinder towards myself, more gentle, more aware of how I am. What started off as a medical necessity to put on the brakes has quietly morphed into a transformation touching on all aspects of my life, my physical health, my mental wellbeing, my social relationships, my dealings with money, my work life, mostly my inner life, though. My idea of how I want to be. And how not to be.
It all came down to doing less of what drained my energy and more of what replenished it. Shockingly simple, shockingly difficult. At first I had to think really hard to remember what those things actually were that brought me joy and a sense of peace and contentment. I hadn’t done them in years and forgotten all about them. I also took care of some of my emotional baggage. This stuff can become very, very heavy to carry around all day long, you know. I hadn’t noticed before. So many things I hadn’t noticed before…
I noticed then, and stopped the autopilot that was my life. Going back to good old manual steering.
It’s a process that’s far from finished. Probably never will be. But at least I have embarked on the journey. And yes, I still need constant reminding of what I have learnt. Occasionally I also happen to step back on this old slippery slope of unawareness. But now at least I eventually realize when it’s happening.
It’s still usually my body to notice it first and to tell. Fortunately, I no longer need a foot threatening to fall off. An uneasy sensation in my stomach or a tight chest will do. I have learnt to listen to the subtle signals. My body no longer has to pull out the big guns.
Speaking of which, my skin condition disappeared three years ago, my back pain two years ago. My stiff joints have gotten better but still bother me, or rather are trying to tell me something that I haven’t deciphered yet.
I do have a slight suspicion though. Smart little thing that body of ours…