Some of you may have noticed that I had not been blogging regularly in the past two months. The reason is that I was undergoing a difficult period in July and in the early part of August. I struggle to label it: was it burnout? Depression? Spiritual desolation? Or just an extended period of heightened stress and anxiety?
Whatever it was, the effects were clear. I spiraled downward into negativity, frustration, lethargy, anger outbursts, and despair. Even a panic attack. The symptoms of bipolar disorder seemed to come back in full force.
It was by the sheer grace of God, and the prayers and support of brothers and sisters, that I am in a better place now. Now that this episode is over, I think it is good to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned.
Could this be another burnout?
I remembered telling my colleagues, “I think I’m having a burnout.” And I did wrote a series of blog posts about burnout last year, so I thought I knew what I was talking about.
But as I delved into the more scholarly burnout literature, I found that the answer is not so simplistic. Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, titled one of his chapters aptly, “Everyone Is Burned Out, But No One Knows What That Means.”
Basically, what do you think of when I told you, “I think I’m burned out.” Physical exhaustion? Overextended workload? About to quit the job? Emotional detachment? Or just spoiling for a spa massage or a vacation?
All of the above? Or none of the above?
The thing is, how we define burnout, and what we believe about burnout, will determine what solution we propose to address burnout.
And because everyone has their own definition of burnout, it is really not a very meaningful statement to make.
So, what is burnout?
According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is one of the authorities in burnout assessment,
“Burnout is a syndrome of exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminishing accomplishment. Three MBI subscales capture these nuances, reflected by High Exhaustion, High Depersonalization/Cynicism, and Low Efficacy. Burnout is a state of being chronically tired, cynical, and discouraged”.
Based on this definition, I will attempt to analyse my experience and see whether I was actually experiencing burnout, and what type.
How it all started
For now, let’s assume that this is a classic example of burnout. But I thought I was doing quite well in June. What got me derailed?
Firstly, there is the accumulative workload that slowly overwhelmed me.
Now, the heavy workload was never something new to a teacher! But what struck me this time was how I responded to the incoming workload in a reactive rather than a proactive manner. I let things pile up. Instead of assigning priority to important work, I succumbed to the tyranny of the urgent. Important but not urgent work soon became important AND urgent. That was when the stress level went out of proportion.
Case in point: I knew I have a lesson observation in July WAY BACK in May. And I also knew I was supervising the oral examination in early August, and preparation work has to be done in July. These 2 tasks are important, but they did not look urgent in May. Nor in June. So I procrastinated and did other things first, things that were less important but more urgent.
You could imagine the train wreck coming…
Secondly, I let up on my habits and spiritual disciplines.
Prayer, journalling, and thanksgiving were replaced by Netflix, gaming, mindless surfing, and binge-eating. I tried to excuse myself by complaining about how this was a really busy period, how I ‘needed’ to de-stress myself, and how my knees were hurting, thus preventing me from jogging.
But the truth was that I was escaping. I was in denial of my need to discipline my body and my mind in order to handle the additional stress. By giving in to escapism, it became harder for me to manage my time and energy. Habits that could have oiled the engine fell into neglect. Prayer that could have been my lifeline during such times was put aside. Worse – the unhealthy habits I formed led to poorer decision-making and lower energy that ultimately wore me down.
These 2 factors – workload and lack of self-discipline – contributed to a high Emotional Exhaustion. But I also observed a third factor, which likely results from the first two:
Thirdly, I began to experience – and believe – negative thoughts about myself and life in general.
The voices in my head go something like these:
“I am so burned out, I have nothing left to give.”
This is the most recurring phrase in my mind. I felt so sapped and depleted that I could not imagine myself going through another day.
This also affected my blogging. Blogging was supposed to be a cathartic activity for me. But I also believe that, whatever I publish, it should be edifying and authentic. And, if I were to be honest, I don’t have anything edifying to say when I feel so burned out!
Because I was so averse to feeling like a fake, I avoided writing and speaking engagements during this period. My diary entries sounded like laments after laments of self-pity and self-doubt. I could not see any way out of this, at least not during that time.
“Everything is falling apart!”
Can anyone relate to this? I have this need to ‘hold reality together in my head’. For example, when I am in charge of something, I want to make sure I have every detail in place. Logistics, manpower, communication, program… Have I covered all my bases?
But this feeling that ‘everything is falling apart’ scares me to death. They may not be actually falling apart, but I could not get rid of this nagging feeling that I forgot some contingencies somewhere. When things tripped up – and they DO – I felt like a failure.
“I am such a failure.”
This is the coup de grâce of all my negative self-talk. Recently, I had been reading a book about Imposter Syndrome, as I kind of suspect myself of having it. Basically, it is the sense that I am not as good as others think me to be. In short, I see myself as a fraud or an ‘imposter’ (hence, imposter syndrome).
When I mentally beat myself up and think that I am a failure, I am not thinking objectively. I am equating the mistakes I made with who I am. Sometimes the errors were not even made, but I assumed that things will turn out for the worst.
For example, when I was planning my lesson observation, I felt that as an ex-HOD and now a Senior Teacher, I ought to do better than this. I ought to deliver a more creative/effective/impactful lesson than the lesson plan on my screen. Yet given all my other commitments during this period, this is the best I could do. My refusal to accept my imperfections and limitations thus becomes a major source of stress for me.
With all these negative voices swirling in my head, coupled with my history of bipolar disorder, is it any wonder that I had a nervous breakdown one Tuesday morning (a day before my supposed lesson observation)?
So, looking at all the internal self-talk I had at that time, I seemed to be experiencing High Exhaustion and Low Efficacy at the same time. I was dead tired and feeling terribly ineffective as a teacher, writer and a person in general. So I guess I was really having a burnout episode during that time.
The Road to Burnout Recovery
The thoughts I penned down were quite raw. But by God’s grace, I could look back and see that healing has taken place. What dispelled the darkness?
Music is very powerful. Especially worship music. When I struggle to pray or even think rightly, the right song at the right time helps me set my emotions right.
There was one song that spoke to me very powerfully during a friend’s wedding (I happened to be the interpreter for the speaker). I had not heard the song before, but the lyrics directed my heart to Christ.
The stanza that spoke most deeply to me was this:
Why does this speak so powerfully to me? Because, at the core of all my struggles, is my struggle with insecurity.
I am deeply insecure, and I desperately need to hear the Lord’s assurance that: I am not forsaken. That Jesus Christ is with me and He will defend me. He is my Shepherd who leads me through the darkest valley.
I remembered, that after the wedding, I could still hear the song playing in my head.
And sensed that the darkness has lifted from my soul.
Since the let-up in the disciplines is the beginning of my downfall, then the return to the disciplines is the beginning of my restoration.
The spiritual discipline of Sabbath is definitely essential, and that is the topic of another post. However, on a daily basis, it was my attitude toward the Word that needs to be challenged.
It is not that I gave up on Bible reading altogether. But I contented myself with Bible listening, and not Bible meditation. There is a world of difference between listening to 3 chapters of Scripture every morning on my way to school, versus reading meditatively and writing notes, praying over Scripture and reflecting on its application and assurance.
So I tried to find time to go slow on a passage, or even a couple of verses, and sink deep into it.
One of them is Isaiah 40:28-31, my all-time favorite:
28 Do you not know?Isaiah 40:28-31
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Because the LORD is the everlasting God and Creator, and because He will not grow tired or weary, He is able to give strength to us who are weary and weak.
To ‘hope in the LORD’ is to wait upon the LORD to act, to trust in His power and willingness to help us and not in any other source of help. Not self-will, self-help books, not my own strength, but the LORD alone.
Lord, I have stumbled and fallen. I am no longer a youth nor a young man. And it’s not only physical. Mentally and psychologically I feel the burden of middle age. If this is a mid-life crisis, I suspect I am experiencing its vicissitudes several times.
But it is in You that I can renew my strength. I can soar, I can run, but most importantly, I can walk with You. For You renew me like the eagles’ wings. You alone understand my weariness and dryness. You alone can satisfy my thirst and restore my soul.
At the time of this writing, I had completed my lesson observation and also several other projects that had earlier added much stress to me.
The results of the observation? Better than I’d expected. The lesson went well although there were some learning points. As every lesson should be. Tasks and duties were discharged appropriately. No major hiccups. Almost all my fears were either unfounded or overblown.
So I’ve in fact worried for nothing! No wonder the Lord had said,
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.Matthew 6:34
This burnout episode was painful, but also mercifully short. Yet this episode had taught me once more the lesson of trust. Without the struggles with anxiety and insecurity, I would not be learning the life-giving practice of prayer:
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.Philippians 4:6-7
7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
There were, of course, other ways that the Lord has used to bring healing and restoration, especially through the support of family and friends. This post only highlights worship and disciplines. But I trust that these two points can be of help to you. While we may not have the same access to a support network, we have the same access to our Lord God and His faithful Word.
The next time you see a burnout coming your way, turn to the Lord in worship, and let His Word speak to you.
To read more about my reflections on burnout and how it challenges us in fulfilling our calling, check out this series.