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Burnout as a wave- Daily Drip #3

daily drip May 12, 2023

You will have to forgive me if this type of conversation is a little… fuzzy. I know there are behavior analytic analyses of burnout involving EOs, toleration, ect. But honestly, after reading most of that research on it… I just never really felt like that was my version of burnout. And then came the CEUs, the trainings, the videos, everyone in ABA seems to be talking about their version of tackling burnout (including me…) and none of it really connected with me. 

This really hit me when I started to get cooking with the Bookclub business and working as a full-time analyst. It was an out of body experience, watching myself grind out hours and hours of ABA, week after week and for some reason… I was chilling. I was shocked, because I was so sure that I was going to feel burnt out after a week or two of working so hard. That was the first clue that helped me realize that burnout was a lot more complex than “Work > 40 hours and you are screwed.”  

So then I figured, well it must be the fact that I am really loving what I am doing, so I guess I am just never going to get burnt out if I love what I am doing? Wrong again… I got burnt out HARD after putting on Applied 2022, and that is probably the single thing in my career that I am most proud of. 

Why was it that sometimes I was burnt out, and sometimes I was cruising?? It was not workload, it wasn’t passion… If the goal was to avoid burnout, why wasn’t I able to figure out where it was?

And that was when it occurred to me… What if the goal WASN’T to avoid burnout… What if it was something to accept and ride as an inevitable part of a work life.

(Along the same time I was coming to this conclusion, I found a content creator on Tik Tok that really helped to shape this belief. You can check out Timm’s page here, he talks a lot about the corporate grind and how to understand burn out as an ally rather than an enemy. timm chiusano (@timmchiusano) | TikTok)

During this same time, I was working with a client and was collaborating with a mental health therapist. This opportunity ended up teaching me a lot more than that therapist could have imagined. It cemented what I had been learning in ACT… that emotions of any kind were not things to run from, but to notice. 

There is a metaphor in ACT that I really like. Its nothing fancy, and I am sure there are better ways to phrase it, but for me, it has been instrumental in my emotional maturity.

Close your eyes. Breath deep, in and out, three times. With your eyes still closed, I want you to take a walk. You are walking along a fairly busy road, cars zipping by. It’s not traffic time, so cars rarely slow down to below 40 mph. You see an overpass up ahead, the kind that has a small pedestrian area designed to prevent people from needing to run across four lanes of traffic. Stroll up that overpass, then take a seat on the railing. Legs swinging in the breeze, gaze down at the cars below. You notice something funny. On the hood of each car, you can make out a word. That word describes an emotion you are feeling. 

Zoom… there goes a car with “happy” written on the hood. 

Zoom… there goes a car with “content” written on the hood.

Zoom… “hangry”

Zoom… “frustrated”

As each one passes by, you read each word, and notice that some slow down, maybe even crawl to nearly a stop, but eventually every one continues its journey and ends up out of sight, kissing the horizon and waving good-bye, only to be replaced with a just as eager thought and emotion behind it.

I am not sure what the formal name of that exercise is, I learned it as the bridge-car metaphor. It is designed to help you understand that emotions, thoughts, feelings, are separate from your behavior. Not less important, but separate. For me, this exercise helped me realize that trying to avoid burnout was like running away from anger… It was a fruitless sprint away from something that is alongside me the whole time. It is like when your middle school friend says “Whatever you do, don’t think about an elephant!” 

That was my relationship with burnout… The more I tried to avoid it, the more helpless I became. I would get excited about something, work really hard, notice I was starting to feel a little burnt out, then pull back, then feel guilty for pulling back on a project I was excited about, then dive headfirst and repeat this cycle of work-> pull back -> guilt -> work. It was inevitable that I ended up in the same place that I was at the beginning… focused more on the guilt of NOT working on a project than the joy of tackling a challenge. 

So for me, burnout has ceased to be something to avoid, but something more akin to an old friend. Actually, I call him Bob. Bob pops up every now and then, usually uninvited and lets me know, “Hey, seems like you just signed up for a pretty long ride. Want to ride this rollercoaster, or reset and try again later?” Typically I respond with “Let’s fucking do it live mate.” Bob and I grind hard, working to complete something that I am passionate about, whether it be a new webinar or a complex behavior plan. At the end, he high fives me, tells me sternly to “Take a break and chill, your wife misses you!” and we part ways. If I am smart, I take his advice, relax for a bit and let myself recover, before eventually getting back to work, waiting to see when he is going to pop up again. 

I know we just went through like 3-5 metaphors at once, but honestly, that is exactly what goes on in my head when I realize that I am approaching burnout. There is a decision point, where I decide to continue on at this point and then break later, or break now. It depends on the project, the workload, other variables in my life. Sometimes I tap out because my toddler is going through sleep regression, sometimes I keep going because I posted on FB that my new course was going to be out on Monday. 

The moral of the story? Be flexible, notice that you are experiencing burnout, and be kind to yourself and take a break when you need it!

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