When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
– From “For One Who is Exhausted,” by John O’Donohue
The way in which our world rewards success can mean splitting off what we’re feeling on the inside, putting on a public face, and powering through. What we present as polished and professional covers our stress, fears, griefs, exhaustion, and longings. Ultimately, we ignore our body and its signals in order to keep doing and keep on going. What we push aside on our insides in order to be productive, efficient worker bees on the hamster wheel, eventually catches up with us in the form of poor mental health states and burnout. Someone wins in this game, but it’s not always us. Yet we get to weigh in on whether the cost incurred for the success we stand to gain is worth the drain and depletion.
You know how a desk can pile up with things to do that aren’t yet complete? That lack of completion takes up cycles in our valuable bandwidth of energy for what we need to focus on. A similar thing happens with stress and our nervous system. As stressors pile up in our experience without completion, our body bears the burden. Well, our nervous system does.
Think about a typical day and all of the emotions, feelings, and sensations you have. How many of those do you give time and attention to so that they can resolve, or move, or do what they need to do? Odds are good we just keep on blowing past them. Yet, all of these signals from stressors and from meeting life itself build up in our experience until we give ourselves (and our nervous system) time to process them, whether it’s from this morning or from when you were five.
How does this show up in our life? We may be more detached, more dissociated, or more reactive–and don’t know exactly why. Ever arrived home after a long intense day only to snap at your partner or children? You’re probably carrying a lot of not completely processed emotional weight into that moment. “Suffering is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our feelings,” author Parker Palmer reminds us. That suffering happens to ourselves as well as those who are around when our stuff comes out sideways. The unprocessed stress compounds, at an interest rate one should shy away from, until we break down.
“It comes down to this: burnout is caused by too much stress and by your survival instincts being trapped in your body,” writes somatic experiencing practitioner Irene Lyon.
When we’ve covered a lot of ground, over a short amount of time, or gone too fast for too long, and haven’t paused to process all that we’ve blurred by our soul comes to take us back (as John O’Donohue writes in his Blessing for One Who is Exhausted).
If you find yourself here, who have you become? What was behind the hard drive towards success? Who’s version of success was it? What was lost in the process? What were the gains? What has been pushed aside? What do you know to be true, now?
For founders, leaders, and employees in any sector this can sound like: Being in a big transitional phase as an owner and finding it challenging to navigate a co-founder transitioning out of ownership, a major expansion on the horizon, and generally feeling burned out and lost in your role. Or, after ‘doing the grind’ in a traditional role for 12 years and chasing all the external validation factors–money, approval, success–only to end up in cardiac arrest. Or, dealing with toxic work environments, leaders who blame and shame, enduring the lack of psychological safety and appreciation in a culture that never stops working.
In any one of those scenarios, all the feelings come crashing in with each slight and stressor. So, how does a human get to process it all? This is where pausing comes in handy to give ourselves the space we need to sit with what’s happening for us: What are we feeling? What is happening in our body? Where is our breath? What does this remind me of? What thoughts am I telling myself about what happened today? How do those thoughts make me feel? What do I need right now? How can I be with this information? How does this inform my choices and actions?
In today’s conversation, Dr. Simon Maltais talks about his journey towards and through burnout and what he sees in his colleagues day after day in a system that leaves many feeling a lack of resilience. As a heart surgeon, he realized that he was poorly prepared for the aspects of the job that required a strong EQ to help build his own resilience and self-awareness.
Learning to build awareness of our very own nervous system also allows us to learn its wisdom and lean into it when the going gets tough, and the emotional currents are rough. Here, we learn to return to our very self so that we can ask: Where am I, now? Who am I now? What do I need to return to? What will I not be going back to? How is my breath, here? How is my heart?
It’s here that we can arrive at this moment, having returned to ourselves, as O’Donohue writes: “Having learned a new respect for your heart | And the joy that dwells far within slow time.”