Credit: Ashley Bean @UnSplash
It's a universal truth that almost every high-performing leader will experience feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion and burnout at some time or another. But why? Behavioural Coach Michelle Ensuque tells us about her experience and how to avoid this harmful cycle.
If only I had had a crystal ball all those years ago.
OK, so I might have come across as a little weird, but maybe I could have avoided a whole year or more of pain. I probably wouldn't have burnt myself out trying to be superwoman! But I did.
Around 10 years ago, I had a breakdown and worked hard to recover from it for just over a year. I put myself under immense pressure to work long hours, be the perfect mum, the perfect partner, have a perfect house and the perfect body. The trouble was, it never felt perfect enough, so I was always trying.
And I was always trying despite feeling tired.
Then I would get ill and get annoyed because I couldn't exercise and worry about those few pounds I might put on, so I'd go back to exercise too soon and be unable to exercise for even longer. I'd also go back to work too soon after suffering proper, horrible, life-sucking flu because I felt guilty and wondered if work colleagues thought I was at home with my feet up watching daytime TV. In truth, on one of those occasions, I barely moved from my bed for a week and switching on the TV was just too much noise. I went back to work, yet even holding a conversation was draining; I had palpitations that have stayed with me ever since.
If only I had cut myself some slack and been kinder to myself, but now it's only when I look back that I realise that 'I didn't know what I didn't know'.
I didn't know that my upbringing directly impacted my behaviour, how I worked, and how I saw the world; I didn't know that role models affected how I dealt with relationships and my drive for perfection. I'd like to say it is 'simple', but it isn't. We as humans are so complex that our rich, colourful backgrounds weave a tapestry of experiences influenced by so many things. But, in accepting that, let me try and identify those things that were going on for me around that time that might help you stop and reflect on how you might be feeling:
I worried about what people thought of me all the time. Sometimes it was because I didn't feel pretty enough or slim enough. Sometimes, I didn't think my work was good enough or that others were just way more intelligent than me. I worried about whether I had a good future, would be out of work, how my kids felt and whether I'd end up following the same fate of my mum, who committed suicide.
My role models had taught me that you have to work hard for what you achieve. Nothing in this life comes for free. I understand that, but no one said what 'working hard' actually meant. So, I made it up for myself. Some weeks I worked 60hr weeks, and I didn't tell people. I did it because I thought I needed to get the job done or do a good job. My mum had a few part-time jobs, but mainly she was at home putting our food on the table, washing and ironing without complaint. It's strange that even though I was working full time, I imagined that I also had to fit all those things in with no help and most of the time with no complaint.
I was taught discipline the hard way. I learned to obey orders, and a phrase I often heard was, "I say jump, and you say how high?" I was taught there were consequences for not doing your best, and I didn't want to be punished. I think I lived in fear of consequences.
Good old-fashioned fear of having no money and no house. Fear of not feeling safe or supported. Fear of dying and leaving two kids with no mum. Fear of being found out. Yes, imposter syndrome was alive and kicking, folks! Fear of being alone. Fear that if I let go of the reins, I would end up in the very place I least desired.
Running on Empty
I felt I couldn't keep going the pace I was, but I didn't know how to stop it. I had indigestion, felt tired, would burst into tears at having to make the kids' lunch boxes at 10pm when all I wanted to do was go to bed. Still, I kept exercising, working and ignoring. No, I didn't practice meditation, yoga (exercise ain't exercise unless you are sweating - No Pain No Gain!), read a book or take time out for me.
I was always the first to help others and to take responsibility. I fell in line with other people's plans because it seemed rude not to. In short, I didn't please myself.
Credit: Jake Ingle @UnSplash
And how did all of those things come together to bring me to my knees?
I can only describe it as a truck on a journey, trundling along with all its contents rattling about, some tied down, others loose. Along the journey, potholes dislodged some items, so now the inside of the truck resembled something alive, constantly jiggling and moving about. In an attempt to shave some time off the journey, the truck speeds up and moves onto a dual carriageway, and now we start to feel a momentary sense of freedom. The smoothness of the road, the whoosh of the air and BAM!
Out of nowhere, the brakes slam, and the contents come hurtling to the front of the truck, all piling onto each other as if trying to escape being crushed. An unexpected collision with another vehicle altered the course of this trucks' journey forever, and for a moment, time stood still.
Am I saying that EVERYTHING I have learned (and did) led me to this place? No.
Am I saying that it's the predictable outcome for every other leader? No.
In fact, I'm not saying I would change my past at all! Overall I've loved my life, but it's just that if I had known a bit more about how I operated, what drivers I had developed and what that might result in, I might have been better equipped to deal with everything that life threw at me, much better.
Here's How You Can Avoid Burnout
Take some time out to reflect on how busy your days are and if it feels sustainable in the future.
If you feel like you are on a treadmill and can't get off, take some time out to re-assess what changes you can make. Imagine watching a film of a day in your life. What is your overriding feeling while watching? Frustration? Happiness? Sadness? Achievement? Obviously, this will change depending on the day, but what is critical is noticing when the days are frustrating time after time. Notice your facial expression and the actions of people around you? Rewind the movie and rerun it, but change something in it and notice the differences.
What are your values?
Do they align with those you work with? Do you ever discuss them with the people you live or share your life with? Conversations around values and comparing priorities can be enlightening. For me, I was surprised that money was right up there with love. It felt like I was greedy, but then I realised it was linked to my need to provide security for my children and me.
What is your self-talk?
Is it overly negative? Self-talk is 'normal' in as much as it is our internal dialogue that is influenced by our subconscious mind. The subconscious mind has developed patterns and behaviours in response to our past experiences and beliefs. It can be positive, but when it is negative and we try to ignore it, generally it doesn't help, and situations can worsen. Think of the statement, "I'm not good enough", perhaps based on what we have previously been told. How could we rephrase that? Well, we could say, "if I was good enough, what would that look like, and what would I be doing instead?"
It is incredible what we can achieve with our own minds, but it can be difficult to do this type of work alone. Often, we need someone to challenge us. A coach is a good start; just be sure to work with one you have a rapport with and who can guide, as well as, challenge you.
Michelle Ensuque is a behavioural coach whose project management and consultant career has spanned 30 years across public and private sectors.
Read more about Michelle's work at www.meliusse.com.