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Preventing burnout: Signs & symptoms of stress & burnout recovery

All too often, burnout makes you less able to do the very things you'd need to do to overcome burnout:


You feel overworked, and you respond to it by feeling that you need to work more.

You postpone taking care of your needs (or even thinking about them) until after you've dealt with your "obligations". As a result, you get even more depleted, and less able to handle the stress.

This is a time when you need to look at the big picture. You're aware of the pull toward "staying the course" even though it doesn't work, but you also understand that this pull toward "staying the course" is a normal side-effect of burnout. You understand it will feel hard and counter-intuitive to make the changes you need to make. So you make the effort to be proactive, and you focus on what you need to do in order to get where you want to be.

A sense of failure

Burnout is often accompanied by a sense of shame. You feel that you have failed, and somehow you experience this as being a failure.

Sometimes, this sense of failure is just a subjective feeling that is not warranted by the facts. However, it is sometimes objectively true that the burnout is a failure. For instance, plenty of professions include a grueling stress test as part of their rites of passage (e.g. doctors, lawyers in big firms...); if you burn out, you're out, and you have failed.

What's important to remember is that, even when you fail at something because you're not able to handle the stress, this doesn't make you a failure.

This is a subtle but powerful distinction. You fail at something, there's a loss involved, and it is painful; but there's more to you than that. You can go on to something else, and experience success and fulfillment in this other endeavor.

Reset the circuits

I'm going to share with you an image: A different way to think of dealing with stress. Once you "get it", you can experiment with it.

I am drawing an analogy with what happens with electronic appliances -- let's say, computers -- when their circuits are overloaded. Most of us have had the experience of a computer that starts behaving erratically. Often, a simple solution is all it takes to address the problem: you turn off the computer, wait a minute or so, and turn it back on.

I'm not sure about the physics of it, but what seems to happen is that the circuits are "purged" from whatever static electricity was trapped inside, and the computer is "reset" to function normally.

So my suggestion is that you keep this image in mind when you go through a moment when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Think of it as your circuits being temporarily overloaded with some sort of static energy. While you are in the middle of it, your capacity to deal with the situation is impaired -- the same way as a computer in a state of overload is not able to compute properly.

What this analogy suggests is that:
- You cannot solve the stress/overwhelm problem within the stressed/overwhelmed mind;
- You first need to "reset" it.

Find the calm in the eye of the storm

When you're stressed out, chances are you feel a tremendous sense of urgency about making changes. Urgency is good, but a sense of frenzy is not. The paradox is that, while pressure seems to motivate you to start doing something, it also makes it hard to do it.

To achieve meaningful, lasting change, you need to find the place of calm in the eye of the storm. This last sentence may sound more mystical than practical. It may seem at odds with the kind of proactive attitude that is geared to getting tangible results in real life.

This may not feel so weird if you take a moment to think about one of the greatest basketball coaches: Phil Jackson. His approach was very influenced by Zen.

One does not normally associate Zen’s quietness with the fast-paced world of professional sports. And, certainly, team owners haven't hired Phil Jackson to turn very brash, very competitive athletes into self-effacing Zen monks. Far from that.

Team owners hired him, not because of his interest in Zen, but because of his track record in bringing teams to victory.

The point is that, in order to achieve the goal of winning basketball games, Phil Jackson believds it was useful to find the innner place of calm where peak performance is possible. You cannot shoot straight if you're frantic. You cannot plan if you're running for dear life.

Reversing the silencing of the self for "selfless achievers"

If there is an ongoing pattern of stress and burnout in your life, you're probably a "selfless achiever". If so, you probably don't think of yourself as selfless. You probably associate the word "selfless" with Mother Theresa and other caregivers. Actually, as an achiever, you are probably accustomed to people thinking of you as a bit self-centered or selfish.

But the point is that you end up feeling drained of a sense of self because your focus on achievement doesn't leave much room for other things to balance it.

How come? All too often, high achievement involves in a silencing of the self. You have been feeling so compelled to perform that you ended up losing touch with your inner self, your deep needs and wants, your fears and your dreams (at least, those dreams that were not related to achievement). You need to reclaim these blurred parts of yourself, in order to be whole.

A cautionary tale

Rajat Gupta, a former CEO of McKinsey who retired with a fortune of $100 million and a sterling reputation in the business world, potentially lost both as he got indicted in the largest insider trading case in US history (with Raj Rajaratnam's hedge fund, the Galleon Group).

How did that happen? Anita Raghavan, author of “The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund” describes how Rajat Gupta lost his bearings: While Gupta departed McKinsey with a fortune, he was now mingling with a crowd that included Bill Gates, Henry Kravis and Henry M. Paulson Jr., then Goldman’s chief executive, with whom he traveled to Indonesia to see the Komodo dragons. For many of these men, $100 million was not rich; it was simply the price to play. If Gupta wanted to compete on the same level as Stephen A. Schwarzman, who would go on to give $100 million to the New York Public Library, or Sandy Weill, whom he knew from the Weill Cornell Medical College board, he had to be a billionaire.

In Rajat Gupta's own words, before the scandal, as he was addressing students at Columbia University: “I am probably more materialistic today than I was before, and I think money is very seductive… You have to watch out for it, because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”

One could see such a man as a villain: He wanted more money than he could figure out how to make honestly, so he ended up cutting corners. The tragedy is that, unlike a desperado, this man had a lot going for him. But he couldn't see it, because he kept comparing himself to the relatively few people who had much more.

The tragic fate of the selfless achievers is that they lose themselves, as they keep trying to perform up to ever-increasing expectations.

This does not mean that ambition itself is a bad thing. What is dangerous is to lose yourself in a single-minded focus on what you don't have. Ambition is more sustainable when it is grounded in the knowing and enjoying of what you have, and who you are.

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