The term "burnout" is sometimes misused, so I'm going to be careful when using it.
Nevertheless, I want to share with you my experience of burnout because it was an important period in my life that taught me a lot about myself and led me to my new career as a coach.
Here is the story of my burnout, as best as I can remember.
I hope it will be useful to you.
It started like this: “I am feeling so cold! ”
Of course, there had been some signs that I wasn’t at my best; I was pretty tired, a bit emotional as well and I was having second thoughts about my work.
Nevertheless I kept going.
On my birthday, after a small celebration at work, I went back home and then I felt really cold.
My hands and my feet were super cold, it felt like there was no blood flowing there anymore. It was pretty strange.
So I took a warm bath, I put my pyjamas and a robe, I went to bed with the robe, under one blanket, two blankets,…
It didn’t help, I was so cold that my entire body was shaking.
It was not the first time my body was telling me to slow down. I was suffering from angina the summer before and I knew then that I had to take care of myself.
But this time I felt something different, new, odd, definitely abnormal. I had to acknowledge what I was fighting against for weeks; something was wrong.
“I am not really ill…”
I called off sick for one week. The doctor said I was exhausted and I needed to rest.
Panic at the office since two persons working on the same project were already diagnosed with burnout.
I spent one week at home, going back to the basics; sleeping, eating, taking a walk, enjoying my little one (my son of 1,5 years at the time definitely helped me in this journey to take perspective on what really mattered !), and thinking about the nonsense of what was happening at work.
But during that week, I kept thinking; “I am not sure why I am at home, I am not ill, I am functioning normally”.
So I went back to work.
“I want a coach!”
Luckily, I had the presence of mind to ask for some support. I was a bit vindictive. As the work had put me in this difficult situation, I wanted reparation and I requested to have a coach.
Of course it was absolutely necessary for me to get support as I was trying to keep it together but I was emotionally distressed (crying almost every day at work…) and my self-confidence had plunged. In a way, I had to reconstruct a part of me that was broken.
I thank myself today to have asked for a coach as it helped me beyond expectations…
Why did I burnout?
Looking back, I think there was a mix of contextual and personal elements that lead me to exhaustion;
- the superwoman syndrome
- a misalignment with my own values
- no distinction between myself, my role and the context
Let me clarify…
1. Superwoman syndrome
Just back from maternity leave, I wanted to prove myself that I could manage it all; having a baby and resuming my career where I left it. I had defined pretty clearly the rules of the game before jumping on this new project; I had to pick-up my son at the daycare everyday so my workday would be from 8am to 5pm and this was accepted. So, I thought it was going pretty well (even if I was running, running and running,…) and after 8 months back, I got promoted!
But being promoted meant more pressure; I had to be a role-model for the company and the project. And it is probably when it went sideways… I wanted to prove I had deserved the promotion (a slight imposter syndrome as well…) by being an example for the team and I started to execute what was asked from me even though I wasn’t completely in agreement with what was going on with the project…
2. Misalignment with my values
So, I knew or at least I felt something was wrong but I thought I just needed to try harder.
During the coaching sessions, I realised I didn’t know myself and my values…
So of course it was difficult for me to name and point out clearly what felt wrong to me. Discovering my personality type and the values that were important to me helped me to understand why certain things were not acceptable to me on the project.
I realised that I had worked all this time against myself and there was no wonder it led me to self-doubt and exhaustion.
3. Me, my role and my context
I also realised during the sessions that I had made a big mixture of me (as a person), my role on the project and my work environment.
I was constantly self-reflecting on myself and my abilities to be a project manager as those two were only one thing. And I never thought of taking some perspective on the environment I was in.
I had to learn to dissociate myself from my role and from the context I was in.
“I am leaving”
When it became clear to me that I couldn’t continue working on the project as it had became a toxic environment for myself, I took my courage and asked to leave.
Of course, it wasn’t easy, I was an important resource and I was promised things would change and I would have another role. Furthermore, I knew leaving the project was probably not a smart move career wise…
Despite this and because I couldn’t picture myself there anymore without feeling anxious, without seeing the future only in black colours, I completed my work and left quietly the project…
Clearly, the team felt I was abandoning the ship but my decision was taken as it was a question of survival.
“I was right”
I jumped on another project where I could rebuild my confidence, take it more slowly, value myself and my expertise and be surrounded by a more positive environment.
A few months later, my previous project ended abruptly. The full team went back to the office, so disappointed of being let go after so much effort and so much energy. There was so much disappointment, anger and sadness.
I felt sorry for all of them and at the same time so relieved. After all, I had been right to follow my intuition and leave the project, It was not just my imagination, the project was a toxic place and it didn’t end well.
A strangely wrapped gift…
This was a difficult experience. A tiring one. A period with a lot of self-doubts.
But I am truly grateful for it as it shaped me as a person and as a coach.
This experience of burnout led me to discover myself, to seek for self-development growth and to become a coach myself.
I would like to conclude with 3 pieces of advice;
1. If one day you feel something is wrong and you start doubting yourself more than usual, if you are becoming tired, emotional, having different behaviors than usual, it is probably that your mind and your body are trying to tell you something. Listen to yourself.
2. It is good to question oneself as a mean to improve but it is also important to reflect on the environment you are in; maybe you are not the issue, maybe it is the context.
3. In doubt, seek opportunities to talk about your situation outside the system. It is only outside the system that you will be able to get perspective.