By: Marilyn L. Davis
” It was the small of her back and her face that got so tired. Their (her retail employer’s) motto was, ‘Keep on your toes and smile.’ Once she was out of the store, she had to frown a long time to get her face natural again. Even her ears were tired.” ~Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Burn Out, Quit Smiling, or Get Out?
Many writers experience burnout because they haven’t learned to pace themselves, or they make everything a priority that only they can fix. Or they wear the masks and resent having to please so many people. How can we learn to pace ourselves and still get things done?
I’m a writer and editor at FromAddict2Advocate and assistant editor at Two Drops of Ink. I’m a recovery coach and a Certified Addiction Recovery Empowerment Specialist conducting recovery support groups for HIV-positive people. I’m also program director at a men’s facility with 55 residents and conduct three types of groups for them. I’m also the family point of contact.
Notice how I wrote “I” and then gave you all my titles and responsibilities. Not to demonstrate how important I am, but to reinforce that we place many of the burdens that contribute to burnout on ourselves.
We may be feeling garden-variety stress, or we may be burned out. Writing in The New York Times, Alina Tugend said, “Although most of us tend to use those phrases interchangeably, researchers say stress is to burn out as feeling a little blue is to clinical depression — a much more serious and long-term problem that doesn’t get the attention it should but can affect all aspects of our lives and workplace.”
I opened and ran a successful award winning women’s recovery home in 1990 and made a decision to close it in 2011, partially due to burnout. Working with up to 17 women in various stages of recovery, their families and children, reporting to Accountability Courts, and conducting group sessions three times per week, I started feeling more burdened than buoyant from the daily grind.
My decision to close the house felt freeing, but then I got called out of retirement, and did my usual – full steam ahead. I have always been a hard-worker and view each challenge accordingly.
Don’t get me wrong, I love creating posts for both blogs. I value helping people turn their lives around. I genuinely like the creative aspects of finding ways to present recovery information that is new, exciting, and relevant for whichever population I am working with at the time.
But, 100% effort into all of these tasks takes a toll.
I’m running out of gas, even as I write this. Simple tasks seem too much some days. A part of my brain is screaming at me to:
- Get up from the keyboard and fix the shelf that fell in the laundry room.
- Read all 365 pages of the latest draft of my memoir.
- Place the ad to rent out my townhouse
- Find the pictures of the townhouse on some device
- If I can’t find the photos, go take more
- Make the grocery list – I’m not just out of cat food.
- Write a post for Two Drops of Ink and From Addict 2 Advocate
- Edit the submission about addiction
So, there’s my sad tale of woe. But it may not be yours. However, you might be experiencing burnout if:
Exhaustion isn’t just physical; it can be emotional and mental as well. Yes, you got some sleep last night, so you should be able to bounce out of bed and get on with your day, but you find that you can’t get enough coffee into your system to muster the energy to do, think, or feel anything but tired.
You view your computer with contempt and just want to go back to sleep to forget how much you think you have to do. Even when you want to pull up the covers and hide, you can’t bring yourself to do that, so you head for a chair, armed with your to-do lists.
Next, you just get overwhelmed by all of it and realize, you don’t have the energy to do it today. And that low-grade energy often translates into a lack of motivation, and then you can start beating yourself up.
You Have No Motivation
Having a to-do list does not engender a desire to complete the tasks. Even looking at that, I realize how harsh that reads, but that’s the reality.
When we don’t have the motivation to finish the tasks, that long list can generate resentment. And unfortunately, for a writer, that resentment often gets turned inward. After all, I know that I have to write the two posts, not someone else, and I’m tired and frustrated, and that usually doesn’t translate into motivation, inspiration or a post.
You’re Suffering from The Low-Grade Pissies
No, you’re not going to find that in the DSM under depression or learn to deal with it in an Anger Management Course. The Low-Grade Pissies are simply my way of describing how irritated, impatient, annoyed and aggravated we can get, and most of the time, with the Low-Grade Pissies, it’s hard to isolate all of the variables and find a solution so we can get back on track with our responsibilities.
It’s that pervasive blah. It’s referred to as restless, irritable, and discontent in recovery circles, and it happens to writers suffering from burnout, too.
There is so much focus on numbers, views, reach and retweets for every single post we write. And we don’t just write; we are compelled to share every post on more social media sites than most of us can keep up with, and then feel badly if we’re sharing on something that doesn’t produce viral posts.
We’re already tired and have limited energy, and we take what little we have and use up half of it agonizing over the views we’ll generate from all this sharing before we’ve even edited the post.
- We question why we’re writing.
- Does anyone care?
- Does anyone read these posts?
- Does it help anyone in the long run?
- Is this even good enough to publish?
And just the minute I realize that I’m sounding like a crying baby or a bad trombone, I get even more frustrated at my burnout and just want relief.
Maybe you want some relief from burnout, so here’s some suggestions that I actually use and as soon as this is formatted and published, I’ll get to them.
1. Get Another Hat
I know that sounds crazy. It’s wearing all the hats and being responsible that’s generated a lot of the feelings. But bear with me; it’s a specific hat – the one you wear when you’re giving advice to someone else.
What would you tell a friend who described their burnout, Low-Grade Pissies, and inability to put their writing into focus?
You’d probably tell them to stop being so hard on themselves.
I can’t tell you that enough, and yet, I struggle with giving myself permission to have a day off, not answer the phone from one of the recovery houses, not write, not read about recovery, not post to social media, not read another submission, or not check my emails.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but if I don’t practice any self-care, I can’t overcome the irritation.
So, for me:
- I’ll call my son in law and let him figure out why the anchors in the wall didn’t work.
- I’ll finish this and make the grocery list.
- I can drive by the townhouse on the way to the store, and that only takes one trip.
- I’ll put the draft on hold until I return from the store and put up the groceries.
- I’ll get a new tea and make it seem like a treat while I edit out the extraneous passages.
What can you do to practice some self-care?
2. Look for Any Accomplishments
Writers live and work in solitude. We spend way too much time in our heads. And for many of us, our thoughts end up being critical. It’s the negativity that also contributes to burnout.
We magnify our lack of productivity or progress in one area of our lives and globally label ourselves as lazy, worthless, or unimportant. We minimize any accomplishments. Remember that fallen shelf? Well, I got up to get coffee while writing this, thought I’d just call my son-in-law and leave a message, and he answered. He’s on his way over now. Whew. I could literally feel some of the tension leave my shoulders and neck, but if I only tell myself, well one-down-and-four-to-go, I won’t think I’ve accomplished anything when I have.
How often do you negate the improvements because you still focus on all that’s left to do?
3. Get Away and Get Involved: You Might Get Inspired
I don’t know too many writers that have the luxury or availability to write at Walden’s Pond. But quoting Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau was not buried deep in a wilderness, skinning varmints to survive, either. His cabin was about a mile from town, and he had frequent visitors. But what he did was reflect on, and about, nature. He wrote about the seasons and the changes during each.
Today, we have portable writing devices, and sitting in the backyard, on a porch or balcony, front stoop, or going to a nearby park, will get you away from the desk, and the imaginary ball and chain that binds you to it.
Even if you don’t have a laptop, there’s always the trusty pen and paper approach, and who knows, you may experience a Thoreau moment that you can record for posterity.
For many people, fresh air, birds, sunshine and nature noises, can provide relief, renewed passion for the experiences of life, or a calmness that helps them focus on what is important in their life.
3. Reach Out and Bitch
While writing this, one of the men from the recovery house called. I recognized the number calling and could have let it go to voicemail. However, I also knew that no one should be calling me from that number during the day. All of the men have jobs, so I knew I’d be wondering what was wrong if I didn’t answer that call, so I answered the phone on my day off.
That resident knew it was my day off and prefaced his conversation with, “I know it’s your day off, Ms. Marilyn, but I just need to bitch.” He’d been sent home from work for a poor attitude and telling his boss, “I hate my job.”
Sometimes the Universe gives us a lesson when we least expect it. We talked for a few minutes, and I gave him an assignment: to take the five major feelings – mad, sad, glad, bad (envious, jealous, guilty) and scared, and then list everything that he had that feeling about on paper.
We talked about the fact that he was mad that he was in a low-paying job, mad that he couldn’t complete his step work on Wednesday night because of a mandatory house meeting, and mad that he is away from his family. He’ll finish up the rest, and we’ll process tomorrow.
When you can, call and ask a friend if you can bitch. Tell them you need a shoulder to cry on, or a sounding board and advice on your life’s stresses. Or you can try the Five Feeling exercises and here’s a novel approach for writers – don’t edit. Don’t decide that something is silly, so you don’t put it down. Put it down anyway. The point of this exercise is to get the feelings out of you and onto paper.
Moving those negative feelings from inside of you onto paper works.
And when you get to glad, well, you may just discover your gratitude and joys, and that might translate into wanting to write again.
4. Let Me Know What Works for You
I value comments that help me grow as a writer and a person, so if you have favorite ways of overcoming stress and burnout, let me know.
I’ll add your suggestions to my arsenal, and next time, when the phone rings or a shelf falls; I’ll be prepared.
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