I’m a big boundary person, but I wasn’t always this way. Like most people who say yes too often, I had an earnest desire to help people, I just wasn’t always aware of my limits. But there was more to it than that. I also had an unhealthy attachment to my work and the opinions of others. I incorrectly believed that my work role + how much I accomplished + how much I was praised + how many hours I put in = my value. Now if you were to ask me that outright, of course I would have denied it. But that is how I lived, and when I didn’t have those things, I felt lost and empty.
A lack of boundaries, a skewed sense of self-worth and a neglect of self-care ultimately led to a terrible season of burnout for me - one that ultimately forced me to take a month of leave from a previous job. It was a dark time - difficult to even describe how tired I felt and how much I had to pull back in every area of my life to find necessary healing.
To say I learned many things coming out of that season of intense exhaustion and depression is an understatement. It changed the way I live. And I never want to return to a destructive lifestyle for the sake of more (money, influence, approval, accolades… you fill in the blank).
If you find yourself currently battling burnout, or are concerned you might be heading there, I want to share some of the things I learned and hopefully help you avoid it.
Everyone has different limits. Know yours.
Coming face to face with this reality was incredibly difficult for me. My coworkers, like me, worked a crazy number of hours and seemed unbothered by it. And while I didn’t see what was happening below the surface of their lives, and what they might be hiding, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I constantly felt like I was failing to live up to an impossible standard (one I’d probably created in my mind since I was only seeing part of the picture.) But in spite of what was or wasn’t reality, I had to come to terms with the fact that everyone is wired differently. Introversion/extroversion, temperaments, physical build and a host of other things mean each of us has different capacities for different things. Working alone might make some people go nuts and might be the perfect environment for someone else. I needed to embrace who I was created to be, recognizing both my giftings and my limits, without feeling like I was failing for being human.
Regular rest is normal and necessary.
Once I was able to admit my limitations, I had to have the humility and courage to ask for help. That meant stepping away from my job for 4 weeks without any contact. At this point I honestly didn’t even know if I’d come back. All I knew is I needed to rest. Rest is normal and necessary. And it’s also something that needs to happen regularly. Our bodies were made to require rest daily (sleeping) to keep our physical, mental and emotional capacities functioning properly. But beyond that, I believe we should rest weekly (sabbath) as well as for longer stretches at least annually (vacation). Now even if you don’t hold the same worldview I do regarding the idea of sabbath, I would argue that we all need a day for ourselves for weekly renewal. That doesn’t mean you have to lay around all day (though you can if you want to), it means you should make time to do something that will help refuel you - something you will enjoy. It’s important to give that gift to yourself, especially if you are working hard the rest of the week. And resting annually on a vacation is also key. This summer my family took a vacation without going away anywhere, so it doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to be a break from the normal routine. Bonus if you can get away somewhere because being out of your normal space helps with getting out of that routine-rut.
Prioritize your life. What do you value?
It wasn’t until I’d spent some time just resting that I even had the mental capacity to think about this question. But since that initial season of burnout, I’ve thought about this question A LOT, and continue to refine my answers. The fact is, we live our lives according to what we value. And sometimes seasons of exhaustion or burnout poke at the fact that our values aren’t what we thought they were. What would you say are the top 3 most important things in your life? As you look at your life, is the value for the thing at the top of your list reflected in the way you live? For most of us—myself included!—if we really want to live according to what we say is most important to us, it means some internal restructuring and sacrifices need to happen.
Set boundaries and restructure.
Coming out of my burnout season, and every new season of life, has led me to create new boundaries and restructure according to what I value. When I was single, my priorities looked different than when I got married, but either way I had to learn to be strong about fighting for what was important to me. Our boundaries will always be pushed and tested and we have to learn to stand firm and fight for what we value most. After I got married, my relationship with my husband obviously became of great importance. So much so that it led to me leaving a job I enjoyed, but was so far away from our house that I would be starting to nod off from exhaustion on the long drive home. I was often too tired in the evenings to do anything but eat a quick dinner and collapse into bed only to do it all again the next day. It was a big sacrifice to set that boundary and leave my job. Our budget had to be restructured and big purchases were delayed. But in the end, the gifts and blessings from holding to that boundary have far outweighed anything I’ve let go of.
Practice ongoing self-care.
We hear a lot about self-care nowadays, but I wonder how many of us actually implement healthy changes. It requires a lot of intentionality - I know when I was already exhausted and at my limit I didn’t have the energy to make a healthy meal or exercise, and my sleep was being sacrificed for other things. But if we’re going to go through the trouble of setting boundaries and be ready to make big changes in our lives, self-care is the next step to maintaining our health. Regular and intentional self-care is so worth it if it will help you to feel better and be happier about the person you are and life you’re living. It can look different for everyone, but we should be careful not to neglect any aspect of our physical, mental, spiritual, emotional or relational well-being.
We tend to wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor. We complain about how hurried and busy we are but we’re proud of it too. We like people to know how much we're juggling, and we're tempted to judge those who seem to carry less. I know because I’ve been there, but a martyr’s life is no fun. All of us have the power to make choices in our lives—what we do and don’t do, what to spend our money on and what not to, what is valuable to us and what isn’t—and it’s these choices that often determine the circumstances which we find ourselves in. So let’s own the role we are playing in our own happiness and make changes to the things we can control.