Is It Burnout Or Am I Just Exhausted?
How to auto-diagnose burnout in the reality of denying its existence.
When I was experiencing symptoms of burnout, I didn’t ask myself if it was burnout at all, because I didn't know that what I was going through might have been something more/different than being very tired and/or lazy.
(if you want more systematic info on burnout symptoms, just skip “My Story” part and go straight to Self-Assessment for Activist Burnout part)
Burning Out Slowly and Unnoticeably or How Smart People Can’t Connect the Dots
How did it look like for me? First of all, it was a long-time experience, not a one-time discovery. It was a slow process of many small things I was not interconnecting.
So, of course, I was very tired! Isn't it a sign that I was doing a good job giving 120% of myself to the mission? Isn't it wrong _not to be_ tired and _not to be_ sleep deprived? I mean, there is almost a badge of pride for everybody who is always overworked and always late somewhere. That indicates they are useful and they matter. Well, that is what I thought or, to be more precise, that is what I had deeply internalized because it was a part of the activist culture. Being busy means you care. The more busy and tired you are, the more you care, it's a sign of how much you are ready to sacrifice for the cause. And it is a good sign!
But besides not being able to regenerate (I was going to bed, I was sleeping sort of OK, and waking up with exactly the same lack of energy from the evening), and not being able to take a vacation (it's so much effort to plan it! let's just stay in the "known evil" and keep on working), there were other signs that something was wrong. Those signs I was deeply ashamed of and I was denying their existence. I stopped caring about my work. On the outside, it was still good high-quality delivery, but deep inside I knew I lost my will and faith in it. There was not much sense in what I was doing any more, no matter if it was a basic project’s administration or doing a very interesting workshop (something that I always really loved). Everything was just meh.
I was not blaming anybody, because I was a good girl, and everything was always my fault, and I was not good enough. So I carried on. I was lucky to work in a place that really valued my work, but even despite constant messages of appreciation, I couldn't find my work in any way useful, nor my contribution to it important. "A trained monkey could do it" was my refrain of resignation. My normal self would say: hey, if it's true (it wasn't), let's change it somehow! Oh, the horror! A change would require energy and my only wish was to sleep and be left alone.
It enhanced my mental health troubles too. All my anxieties had a blast because fighting them was beyond my capacity. I was depressed and fed up with almost everything. And I was not not the nicest person to be around either. My empathy for others significantly decreased, and my angry moody side was quite visible. I basically went back to being a teenager and not really knowing how to manage emotions. From that state of mind, my sarcastic tone and great puns were proofs of the brightness of my intelligence, never of how deeply unhappy I was.
And because it was a long term process, and the norm was to be tired, and because everybody looked like they are not THAT unhappy, I kept it all to myself. I was not really trusting myself that this was really happening, and at the same time, I was feeling ashamed and isolated as a weak link in the community and at work.
If I knew that activist burnout was a thing, maybe it would not take me two years to get over it.
So if you are lucky enough to ask this question, let's go through the signs in a more systematic way.
Self-Assessment for Activist Burnout
While there are many models of assessing burnout, they are more or less aligned in looking at the syndrome as a combination of a lack of engagement, low energy and no sense of efficiency. And I want to look at them from an activist perspective - a perspective of a passion-driven person who is willing to change the world because he or she sees injustice or a better way to do things.
1. The Sense of Lack of Efficiency
Burnout is about feeling useless and not important. Our achievements seem silly and trivial and our work seems like a never ending story of the same actions without any new challenges. While, on the other side, taking any new project scares you and makes you tired before it even starts. Passion is long gone, joy and meaning are forgotten.
This part strongly depends on the culture of your organization. If you don't get support from your boss or peers, it will amplify the symptoms adding the sense of isolation, which aims at not showing how bad one can feel and creating a vicious circle when nobody can react to something nobody knows about.
For activists, the reality requires strong self-drive, and faith that the change is possible, so this bucket of symptoms is especially important to track. For leaders, it's important to design the organization's culture to make sure these symptoms will not happen. All humans want to feel important and useful, but activists find this in their actions, this is where our passion is.
2. Depersonalisation and Disconnection
Feeling like a machine at work? Feeling like there is nothing that you do has actual meaning and makes sense?
Add lack of understanding for your colleagues or clients’ needs or perspectives (zero empathy policy) and the overwhelming need to "just be left alone" and you can detect a person who is burning out.
In activism, this is especially dangerous, as this sector thrives on passion, compassion, empathy and strong will for change where injustice occurs. When we lose it all, we are losing our meaning in life.
3. Emotional and Psychophysical Symptoms
Feeling exhausted and drained of energy? Going to bed tired and waking up exactly in the same state? Hating the idea of anything absorbing your remaining energy? These might be burnout symptoms, but they can be also signs of illnesses, so be sure to consult your doctor.
The psychophysiological dimension of burnout needs to be cross-examined against symptoms of different medical conditions, so before self-diagnosing with burnout ask your doctor to run tests.
I you are still in doubt, there is a great self-assessment test for activist (or people who are passion-driven) created by Beth Kanter and Alize Sherman for their "Happy Healthy Nonprofit" book. You can download the pdf version here.
And What If it Is Burnout?
This is when you can self-reflect and self-educate (for instance by reading my blog), but also you can contact me and get my support! As a coach, I support individuals in finding their tailor-made ways of dealing with burnout. Contact me if you feel it's all too much and I'll help you in finding a more sustainable activist's life.