Christmas Burnout

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring.  They were all out fighting with other shoppers trying to get that last-minute deal.  They’re off wrapping presents.  They’re loaded up and on the road to the in-laws.  And somewhere in all this mess, we’re wondering why we’re doing it.

Christmas Expectations

For those families who celebrate, Christmas is the defining holiday of the year.  Nothing gets more attention or finances.  Christmas is supposed to be the time when you’re grateful for your family, when you gather around a table and have a good conversation with a good meal.  The nostalgic pictures produced by Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola make us long for a time when things were simpler – and better.

We remember our own Christmas experience as a child and wonder where the magic went.  If our children are grown, our chance to relive that magic is now behind us.  We’re left with the reality of the event.  It’s buying presents, planning meals, and, invariably, avoiding fights.

We Are All the Christmas Grinch

Grumpy is the feeling of the season when we’re exhausted with the extra effort to put together such a special day.  We feel obligated to interact with parts of our extended families whom we truly don’t want to speak with.  We find Uncle Bill annoying, and we can’t stand Aunt Suzi’s gossip.  Our cousin Jim is glassy-eyed and stoned.  His way of dealing with the emotional stress is escape.  That’s okay, because Jane’s on her third glass of eggnog, and Clarence is so involved in his television show that he doesn’t notice the dog dumping the tray of snacks.

In stark contrast to the nostalgic pictures we have in our heads, we find that our families are a collection of dysfunctions, hurt feelings, and broken relationships that haven’t ever been mended.  Where there is supposed to be joy, there’s only struggle, which can lead to burnout.

Burnout at Christmas

Burnout is frequently defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Most people find themselves overwhelmed with exhaustion and cynicism at the holidays with the burning sense that they can’t make the family get along better.  Most people find they don’t feel like they can help their family communicate better either.  And that’s the problem.

We expect that we should have a picture-perfect family, but families aren’t – and never were – like that.  Rather than accepting the challenges in the family, we feel like failures, because our family is such a mess.  Even if they’re not addicted or so embroiled in their conflicts that you’ve got 911 on speed dial, there are aspects of the family that don’t fit the ideal.  Every personal friction between two people seems to be a major issue right now.  Everyone is on their best behavior – until they can’t take it anymore, and they blow up.

Fire Suppression

Now is not the time to take responsibility for the way the family interacts or the hurt feelings that have never been addressed.  Right now, you can just accept that this is the way things are – and it’s okay.  No family is perfect.  No family is without their issues.  To get through this season, we focus on acceptance of their differences and their flaws – as long as they’re not truly harming us.

If we want to prevent these feelings of inefficacy next year, we can spend the next year trying to heal our parts of the relationships and conversations.  We learn more acceptance of our extended family, and we try to improve communication where we can.

We may not be able to bring back the magic we felt as children – after all, we’ve seen behind the curtain and know what it’s all about.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take back some of the wonder of Christmas instead of wondering if we can make it.

Avoiding Burnout Through Self-Care in the Moment

“Put your own mask on before assisting others.”  It’s a familiar part of any airline’s safety briefing.  “In the unexpected loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop from a panel above your head.”  We all know these phrases, but rarely do we heed the advice outside of the airplane cabin.  Instead, we believe that caring for others is more important, and we can survive with the leftovers.  We believe that once everyone else has been taken care of, we can take care of ourselves.  But this doesn’t always work.

Airplane Masks

The wisdom in putting your own mask on first is that, once your mask is on, you won’t pass out due to lack of oxygen.  Being conscious is an important prerequisite to helping others.  If you put on your mask and then help others after they’ve lost consciousness, all is well.  If it happens the other way around, you may or may not get the oxygen you need.

Buried in this is the awareness that you can’t help others if you’re not able to help yourself.  If you’re unable to stay conscious and to help others, then you won’t be of help to anyone.

Trust and Acceptance

Much of the challenge for not caring for oneself in the moment comes from a lack of trust that others will be able to survive without you.  The belief is they’re not able to function without you personally.  You don’t trust your coworkers to do the same level of job that you would do – whether that level of care is required or not.

We fail to accept that others can do a good job even if that good job isn’t exactly the way we would do it.  Acceptance that it can be okay even if it’s different than our way holds us back from ensuring we’re providing care for ourselves.

Rarely do we frame our lack of self-care as our lack of trust and acceptance of others, but that’s what it is.  If we’re unwilling to develop our trust and acceptance of others, we may never feel comfortable doing the self-care we need.

Increasing Trust

When Albert Bandura started working with people who had severe phobias, he worked on desensitizing the individual by making the smallest possible step towards their fear and making it okay.  If they had a fear of snakes, then the first step might be showing them a picture of a snake.  After they became comfortable with a picture, he might show them a snake in another room or in a cage away from them.  This progressive approach works in the positive direction as well.

A great way to increase trust is to make a small bid for trust from someone.  It might be a simple and small request that anyone would do for anyone else, like turning off the lights in the next room.  After this, a series of progressively larger set of bids for trust are made until, ultimately, you feel comfortable that the person will meet their commitments to you.  That is, after all, what trust is.  It’s the confidence that you can predict the behavior of another person, and the behavior will be what you’ve asked for or need.

Letting Go

Trust only gets us so far.  It’s one thing to trust, but it’s another to accept the other person’s approach and let go of the specific details of the way we think things “must” be done.  Just because someone folds their towels differently than you doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s just different.

You start by letting go of your control.  You learn to trust.  You learn to not worry about others.  Then you can decide to do the self-care you need in the moment.  Take a break or simply sit and reflect for a few minutes before getting back to helping the team succeed.

Burning Out the Always Connected

Incandescent light bulbs are the legacy that Edison left.  More than any other of his inventions, people remember Edison for the light bulb.  It was a marvel of his time, and it set the standard for lighting for over a century.  We expect that light bulbs will burn brightly for a time and then eventually burn out.  They will succumb to the forces that tear them apart every moment they’re in use.

Always On

Our world today is much different than Edison’s world.  He and his family could escape to Fort Meyers, Florida, and enjoy the company of the Fords.  He had the ability to escape the daily grind of work – though he chose to bring some degree of his work with him.  Today, we find that we live in a global, 24/7 world, where being disconnected is not OK.

Our smart phones sit by our bedside each night, lighting up, vibrating, and making noise to alert us to the latest whim or need from our friends and colleagues.  We can’t take vacations, because we fear that the world will need us, and we’ll miss something important.  We’ve transitioned from a world where it was normal to be out of touch most of the time to one where we expect ourselves and others to be always available.

Sleep and Rest

Sleep is the most present and consistent reminder that our bodies were never designed to be always on.  Everyone needs sleep to survive.  There are some who will argue they need little sleep – but none who can claim that no sleep is an option.  Even for those who try to cram sleep into a tiny, hidden portion of their lives eventually realize the health problems this creates aren’t worth it.

Sleep disturbances, including sustained high levels of stress and anxiety, less melatonin due to the increases in blue light, introduction of caffeine late in the day, and other factors have made it more difficult for people to sleep, and the caustic effects are greater health challenges.

Our bodies are designed to need sleep and, more generally, a chance to rest.  Our ability to strengthen ourselves relies on the simple calculus of rest.  We overuse our muscles, tearing them down, and they rebuild themselves stronger when we allow them the rest necessary to do their important work.

No Connection Zones

Flipping the switch to the off position for our always-connected world today can be hard – but it’s necessary.  Enabling do not disturb settings on the phone to block all but the most important calls during quiet hours is one tool we can use to partially disconnect.

A more powerful but sometimes necessary approach is to literally turn the devices off and be out of touch for a while.  Many may cringe at this thought, believing other people need them or they’re too valuable to be disconnected.  The reality is that we’re all – every single one of us – replaceable.  It may hurt the organization if we’re gone tomorrow.  Our children, friends, and family may mourn our absence, but we are not indispensable to life on the planet.

Parents push back that their children might need them, all the while forgetting that there are backup numbers and people in place should they not be available.  Business leaders push back that only they can close the deal.  That may be true, but, in most cases, the deal doesn’t have to be closed right now.

Creating no-connection zones in our lives is an important part of our health, whether that’s for the night, for a vacation, or for a time.  If we’re unwilling to disconnect, cool down, and recharge, we may find ourselves burned out – and no good to anyone any longer.

Burnout in Toxic Environments

Burnout is neither the fault of the person nor their environment, but there are times when both can make burnout more prevalent.  People who struggle with their worthiness for self-care have a harder time avoiding burnout.  Environments where there is high stress and low recognition of results make it easier to fall into burnout.  Some environments are simply not a good match for people and therefore are toxic to them – and cause them to burn out at a much higher rate.

What is Toxic?

Toxic is poisonous.  Toxic environments make it harder for an organism – or in this case, a person – to live.  The challenge with such a sweeping term as “toxic” is that a set of conditions can be toxic for one organism and life-giving for another.  For instance, if you water a cactus like you water a tropical plant, you’ll kill it.  The conditions that are good for one are not good for the other.

For people with food allergies, the presence of that food is toxic.  From peanut allergies to gluten allergies, what is life-giving for some can be toxic to others.  Toxicity isn’t a universal thing that applies to every person.

Certainly, there are some environments where there are few organisms that can survive.  These environments deserve the moniker of “toxic” even though some organisms thrive.  Just because it’s a toxic environment does not mean that there will not be some people that thrive in it.  We’ve all seen people who thrive in high-stress, high-confrontation environments in which most people don’t survive.

Burnout Conditions

Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Certainly, toxic environments can test your endurance and encourage feelings of exhaustion.  More challenging is the feeling of inefficacy that allow burnout to flourish.  Toxic environments may be as simple as depriving people of their results so they can’t see their efficacy – or they may interfere with getting results.

Burnout is simply a lack of feeling like you have any personal agency left – inefficacy.  You can fill that sense of personal agency by getting and seeing your results, with the support you receive and are willing to accept from others, and from the self-care that you do.  Some toxic environments work by blocking the avenues to self-care as well.

Sometimes it’s not that we’re not filling our personal agency, it’s that the demands of the environment are too great, and we don’t know how to adjust the valve on our demands to protect our personal agency reserves.  It’s certainly possible for environments to place demands on us, but, more frequently, our presence in a toxic environment causes us to place unreasonable demands on ourselves.

Surviving a Toxic Environment

What we learn from organisms that thrive in toxic environments is that the secret is to find a way to protect yourself from the aspects of the environment that are toxic.  Learning how to protect yourself from overwhelming demands or how to see and accept the results you’re getting – or even learning how to get support from others in difficult environments – can convert a toxic environment to one in which you can thrive.

Consider for a moment H. pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers in the presence of stress.  It lives its life in the toxic environment of the stomach that’s literally designed to break down food for digestion.  Because of the protection it has against the stomach acids, it can survive and thrive in an environment that is toxic to most other organisms.

Learning to develop our protections against toxic environments can neutralize them, just like our body protects our stomach lining so that it can do its job.