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Compound Distress: Don't let Bride of Burnout sneak up on you

9/21/09

I went to a spiritual/holistic faire yesterday as a table vendor, and I listened to the dichotomy of messages I got from the attendees and vendors in reaction to my upcoming book (working title Healer in the Hotseat) and a workshop ("Burnout: If you can't take the heat, you gotta take this workshop").

Some practitioners greeted the idea of the book and the workshop with upbeat enthusiasm and acknowledgement of the need, open acceptance of their own vulnerability to the abrasions of distress, and gentle, obvious, self-deprecating sarcasm ("I know nothing about burnout!" **wink, wink**). I appreciate the open humor.

Others reacted almost as if it were a personal affront. Those are the ones who practically said "I know nothing about burnout!" and meant it. Some people openly admitted that they had already encountered burnout oh-so-many years ago and decided to eradicate this evil villain from their lives never to be seen again. Their messages are: "We're so in-tune with every aspect of our life, we keep everything in perfect balance. At all times. Every day. We're always perfect in replenishing our pool of energy. We don't need help managing our lives. We see everything going on in ourselves perfectly." They did not acknowledge that some people might need my book, they simply took it as a personal offense that I was writing the book, like maybe I was writing it about them. Is that defensiveness I detect? I didn't take this personally; I'm really scared for those people.

Welcome to Bride of Burnout. You conquered the villain, they're completely banished, never to be seen again. Until of course their next incarnation, or close relative, sneaks up on you and you're under the gun again. The very attitude of "Who me? Never!" screams danger sign to me. Healers and practitioners are human too. Our children change phases, we have new needs, our parents get older, the economy shifts, the land taxes change, the people in politics change, the laws change, etc. I'd love to have the ability to look into a crystal ball and finally say "That's it, this is the way my life will be from now on." However, in reality, I wouldn't want that to be true. We thrive on change. Boredom delivers us the signs of burnout as easily as chaos.

Balance in our lives requires constant updating and management. Stressors, whether pleasant (eustress) or unpleasant (distress), constantly shift and change in our lives. From the idyllic younger healers who know their calling right out of high school and plow right ahead into the field to the people who burned out of another field and switched to holistic practices, we all have different influencing factors at different times of our lives, and can be blindsided by external events. Those of us who have children are constantly balancing our needs with our clients needs with our child's sometimes unpredictable changing needs. Those of us who are not or no longer raising children can still be taking care of aging parents or siblings, spouses, friends or other relatives.

In addition to the changing needs, there's the compound distresses that we can be subject to. Let's say that one day we reach the nearly-invisible point of perfect balance, but now the car breaks down, the mortgage payment is due, your child has a flu so you're unable to go to work, by coincidence your cancellation ticks off your best customer who happens to have been cancelled several times recently, your spouse is notified that they're being laid off, and the nursing home contacted you because your mother isn't doing well.

Welcome to compound distress. If you're highly in tune with yourself, you may detect the sudden drain of your daily energy, but it's much harder to detect the drain on your core energy. Core energy builds slowly and depletes slowly. Some of your new stressors require immediate attention, some require longer-term but constant attention. Can you take care of a sick child while talking down your good client, running to the nursing home to see your mother, comforting your stressed-out partner, calculating the mortgage and car repair payments, and still squeeze in enough time to meditate, do some yoga, go for your daily jog, write in your journal, return work calls, have lunch with a friend, and spend quality time with family? No, of course not. So you're going to hit your daily energy, your Chi1, very hard, and you're going to withdraw from your core energy account, your Jing1, too. So either you take care of everything you can, or you let some of those things slide in spite of the consequences which creates its own distress.

Let's say that after several days or weeks, these particular stressors are taken care of. If you went into these circumstances with a high energy level, you still have a good pool of Jing and you will recover Jing if you add some additional self-care rituals to your usual regimen. Jing is slow to replenish [Editorial note: since this was written, I've discovered more information on how to replenish Jing energy, or to have very high energy levels without tapping into Jing at all.], and the depletion of Jing is difficult to detect until it gets to very low levels. Low levels of Jing show up as bitterness, sarcasm, insomnia, extreme exhaustion, short-temper, apathy, listlessness, chronic illness, etc. The same signs as what we call "burnout" in western society.

Please keep in mind that burnout comes in so many forms that we usually don't notice until it's quite advanced. Burnout is a bunch of widely varying but very helpful signals and the underlying problem is core energy drain, so burnout is a friend alerting us to a very deep and dangerous problem.

Which brings me right around to the people who claim that THEY will NEVER experience burnout again. I didn't say they needed my book. I'm not writing it for everybody. I just described what I was working on. I'll take their word for it: they will NEVER experience burnout again. They use Burnout Invulnerability Spray or something. But in the event of compound distress in their lives, I clearly see Bride of Burnout ambling down the street in their general direction. Since burnout is only a symptom of the underlying core energy drain issue, I'm grateful for experiencing burnout symptoms. I had no idea my Jing was getting so low! Thank goodness burnout told me!!

Off to write more of my book! See Publications for more information. Namaste!

1 - Chi and Jing are concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as in Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching, essentially "Way of Life", the foundational Taoist book attributed to Lao Tzu). Jing can be considered to be synonymous with "life", but it is also explicitly an energy that runs throughout your life. When you are fully depleted of Jing, you are no longer alive. In shamanic concepts, Jing would be your "soul" and loss of Jing would be "soul loss" about which I have written another article. Loss of Jing has some of the same symptoms as loss of soul in shamanic concepts: physical and mental illness, vulnerability, and eventually death.