I never saw my burnout coming. Well, let’s say this: in hindsight it’s easy to see how it was inevitably heading my direction, but in the years and seasons leading up to it I didn’t really have a clue that I was carefully and quite meticulously making my way to a place of complete exhaustion and lack of capacity for absolutely everything I had going on in my life. Until what I will describe as a series of fires came, did their thing, and left me with ashes.
I know what God’s Word says about ashes and how He brings beauty from them. I believe it whole-heartedly. But I have to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about beauty when I found myself experiencing the symptoms of burnout. The feeling of constantly being overwhelmed in my mind, my body, my heart and my spirit was just too much. There was actually little to no ability within myself to shift my thoughts from “everything is all out-of-whack” to “everything will be okay in His timing.” Maybe you have found yourself in a similar place and have yet to hear anyone in your circle of Christian sisters talk about it. This is the reason I write. This is the reason I share my story with you now, and why I will continually share more and more of my story publicly here on my blog and also on my brand-new website, which will launch in the near future. There are some really exciting things begin to unfold in my life that have been birthed out of my burnout, among other really hard things, as I will eventually share. These good things that come from the hard—I can and will call it the beauty that is coming from my ashes. God has done it, is doing it, and will continue to do it.
But first, I want to explore more about what it is like to walk the road of burnout with the hope of encouraging you if you’re in it and/or informing you if you’re not there but know someone who might be. Did you catch the symptoms that I’ve mentioned so far? I had a hard time believing how anything could or would change when I was in the thick of this journey. That’s because being at a place of burnout can cause you to have a difficult time seeing a way out of the negative patterns of thought and behavior that you may find yourself in. There is a sense, on varying levels I might say, of hopelessness. For some, this can lead to a state of depression and anxiety. Which is another topic for another day of my story, so—reminder– don’t miss what is to come.
For me, one of the biggest burnout struggles I have had is that sense of being overwhelmed. What actually does it feel like to be overwhelmed? Let me tell you if you don’t already know. Let me tell you, if you do know what it feels like but have a difficult time putting words to it. When you are completely overwhelmed, it’s like you are buried under a huge mass of dirt or drowning in sea of water where you keep sinking deeper. Think about it. In either place, there’s no air. No breathing room. It’s more than just feeling like there’s not enough time to do what you need to do. It’s feeling stuck, paralyzed because the air is not there, and the weight is so heavy.
Which brings me to an official definition of the word burnout. Psychologists describe it as, “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.”[i] Wow. That’s really tough to think about. Someone in burnout is in the middle of a mirage of symptoms that might include fatigue, stress, brain fog, feelings of defeat, a change in appetite and sleep patterns and so many more, all of which can be debilitating and can limit the person’s ability to function in daily life. This whole experience of being burned out sounds like something most Christians would shy away from talking about, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, it kind of is a topic that many shy away from. If you’re fortunate to have an inner circle—that is, one or two or three wonderful friends in the faith who journey along life’s ups and downs with you—then you do have a place and a space for conversations about your burnout. If you don’t, however, or your friendships haven’t really delved deep under the surface just quite yet, that shying away from these important conversations about you finding yourself in the middle of burnout might just put you in a cycle of shame. More on that shame-cycle (and many other cycles) in my upcoming story-sharing as well.
There’s an unhelpful dialogue that a Christian, or the Christian community, might engage in in reaction to that official definition of burnout that I just shared. I know because I found myself responding to my own self in unhelpful ways at first. For example, I unsuccessfully tried to rebut my reality with some legalistic “shoulds” and “should nots” that ultimately tried to bypass the process of dealing with it head on. The counseling profession calls that white knuckling it and I have to tell you, my friends, that approach was exhausting in and of itself. Trying to dismiss what was really going on in the depths of me with a few rules of the Christian life was not cutting it.
Let me further expand on the unhelpful conversation. If we break down the definition of burnout, we find that “physical, mental or emotional exhaustion” might be countered by the fact that Christians are supposed to walk in God’s power and strength. Beyond that, in many spiritual circles, there’s an underlying belief that physical exhaustion is the only justifiable type of exhaustion. So if you struggle with mental capacity or emotional health then you are weak and lacking God’s strength and really—if those two issues are a part of your story–then where is your faith in the first place? ( Please know, I say that in jest to prove the point.)
The second part of the definition is “decreased motivation and lowered performance” and these two combined are real, debilitating factors when you are in burnout. There’s little to no momentum within yourself to take the next step in the day, or of that project, or with that person whom God’s placed before you. Though I struggled in all areas of my life (parenting, marriage, work, etc.), probably the most affected was this lack of motivation and action in the area of ministry. Many of you who know me well, know that I love participating in the work of the Lord in His people. It brings me so much joy. Not, my friends, in burnout. I couldn’t do it. I stopped all things cold turkey and the worst, most scary part? I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I wasn’t going to teach that 8-week Bible study that the Lord had led me to begin writing. That I quit on a project—multiple projects!—half-way through. I had nothing to give to any of it.
In hindsight and with some really helpful counseling, I now understand that I was in survival mode—in my heart, mind and body I was merely surviving this burnout season. (And there were physical, mental and emotional factors that played into me being in this survival mode in the first place, which I will absolutely share and share with complete willingness and passion in the next thing that’s unfolding in my life—to be continued so stay tuned to my media outlets.) I found that for me, one of the biggest blessings that came out of my survival mode living was the learning. From Scripture, from my counselor, and from absolutely anything and everything that God would put in front of me. My learning will be a big part of my continued sharing.
Before we move on, though, a quick question: Was this lack of motivation and lowered performance in my burnout an indicator that I had strayed from my purpose, or even worse, from the Person who gives me purpose? I don’t know. . . some Christians might have said so. But the reality is that we live in a broken world. I am broken. You are broken. We all need healing in various areas of our lives, even after we receive Jesus for salvation, because He doesn’t stop there. He continues to bring our brokenness, like the burnout I was experiencing, to the surface in order that He may grant greater healing. Whether it be burnout, anxiety, depression, or mental or emotional exhaustion or something physical, I believe that this conversation needs to be taking place so that the healing might begin for the many of us who need it.
Finally, the third part of the definition of burnout, “negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” The reality of this one surfaces easily when you consider how sinful we really are (and I’m not being facetious) and how that sin plays out in our everyday relationships. Many of us tend towards negativity because sin is sin and because this broken world is hard. But, listen closely when I say that burnout is a next-level experience. Occasionally experiencing negative attitudes and acting on them is, though not good, normal. In burnout the negative attitudes, which turn into negative behaviors, become a cycle that one can’t seem to get out of, and if not addressed, can lead that someone to a place where the light is dim. Or even worse, a place of near darkness or complete darkness.
It brings no shame, my friends, to say out loud and write in black and white, that I got there. To that place of the darkness. How did I get there? I mentioned earlier that there was a series of fires that came, leaving me, figuratively speaking, in a pile of ashes. You and I know that Scripture talks about the “fiery trials” that we Christians will face, but oftentimes we don’t take the time to acknowledge them as such. Or deal with them on a deeper level, instead, we might choose to stay at surface level with the difficulties. This is not my first choice anymore. The fiery flames I have experienced over the past, really, eight years came from (but are not limited to) a mysterious illness that left me without a diagnosis and proper treatment for years, other physical chronic conditions affecting my everyday functioning, a difficult transition out of a church and the family we had found there, a complete change in occupation, a mental and emotional trip back in time to my childhood and teen years, and last, but not least, all the many trials that come with being a busy wife and mother of five. My friends, the fires were not few and far between. There were many in number and consistent in nature and I’ll continue to share more details as my story unfolds over the next few months.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about fiery trials, and the trauma that comes with them, is that they all have something in common: loss. In a house fire, much if not everything is lost. How devastating! Even in a simple campfire, the wood itself is lost—no longer useful for anything after the heat has been used. In both examples, a change has come. What was is no longer, there is something different. Loss in life is the same way. We lose something or someone, and a change is before us. Whether we asked for it or not, God, in His sovereign and loving nature, has allowed the fiery trial in our lives, and the change that comes with it, in order to refine us. To prompt us to dig deeper in our souls, minds and hearts that we may lean more intensely and consistently into Him along the difficult journey. When we go there, even as far as to that dark place, Jesus is there, granting us a little more healing and giving us what we need to make it through.
And herein lies the beginning of beauty. The leaning into Him when we have nothing left to hold us up. In those moments we are learning more of who He is but not for the sake of knowledge, for the sake of intimacy. For the sake of sanctification. For the sake of that deeper healing. He takes us to the core of who we think we are in the depths of our souls and then tells us who we really are because of Him. That’s beauty that can’t be bought with a ticket that promises you get to bypass burnout (or any other difficult circumstance that comes along). We need to not settle for the ticket out, we need to walk through the fire.
“When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” – Isaiah 43:2b-3a
Because we can be sure of this: He breathes life into our burnout. He will bestow the beauty. My friends, the ashes do turn. In fact, He transforms them into a crown.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to grant those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.” -Isaiah 61: 1a & 3a
We get gladness instead of mourning. We get to praise instead of despair. I couldn’t ask for much more than that as I look back from my burnout season, now from a place of greater healing and wholeness. Wait! I will let you know that I am asking for one more thing—for the Lord’s splendor to be displayed. That is, His glory, as it says in the last part of Isaiah 61:3, “that he may be glorified” through it all. His goodness, His grace, His presence through the pain, all of the Lord’s magnificent qualities might be exalted for others to see.
For now, I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts:
- Burnout is real and it is debilitating. So are the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical struggles that we face in this broken world. It takes courage to come to a place of acknowledgement and to take steps of help and healing, to take steps toward Jesus in the middle of your pain.
- It’s really not okay for us, as a Christian community, to not be talking about these things. We need to be having purposeful conversations, pointing hurting people to Jesus and providing practical, biblical resources for God’s people.
- You are not alone. Connection is really only a phone call or text or email away. Contact a trusted friend or find a Christian counselor or mentor or email me today. There is hope. Seek your Helper (God Himself) and seek others out, too.
My friends, I know where I’ve been and I know that many of you have been there, too. My bits and pieces are coming together to make something new that will support you, encourage you, and help you make much of the Lord’s splendor in your story! My story is His story and so is yours. My story is for His glory and so is yours. I hope that you will stay tuned to this blog, stay connected with me on Facebook, and reach out to me via email as it all unfolds. Until next time, I give you again, a promise from Him: ashes will turn to beauty. Because He binds up the brokenhearted, He gives liberty to the captives and it is declared that, “This is the year of the LORD’s favor.”~ Isaiah 61:2
[i] (What is Burnout?, 2022)