Regarding Burnout (and some ideas for avoiding it)

by Elizabeth Trotter on March 31, 2017

Last year I flirted with burnout. I was camping out along its edges, and I didn’t even know it. Only after some conversations with my husband and with a spiritual director, did I recognize what was going on and how I’d been complicit in my own spiritual sickness.

These are the things I’m doing to carve out rest and Sabbath in my life and to move farther and farther away from burnout. I’m no expert, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. They’re just things that seem to be working in my life. Some are deceptively small and simple; others are larger and more extreme and took more courage to do.

[Note: This post contains the whats, not the whys. For some of the whys, you can read my husband’s articles Please Stop Running and margin: the wasted space we desperately need.]

 

1. In the midst of the chaos, choose to breathe.

God formed us from the dust and breathed the breath of life into us. There is life and peace in our breath. Why then do we go about our days neglecting this very curative gift God gave us?

In fact I’ve described breathing as a “free drug” before:

Some drugs are free.
Like breathing.
I love breathing. It’s my favorite.
I recently announced this to my kids.
Some of them thought I was crazy, but one agreed.
It’s true though. I just love breathing.
Pause.
Inhale, exhale.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Release, receive.
When I stop to close my eyes and breathe deeply and slowly, I immediately calm down.
My body relaxes.
My thoughts stop swirling.
My emotions stop pressing.
So take a deep breath. Maybe take three.
And remember, some drugs are free.
If only we will use them.

 

2. Open my hands in surrender.

Even better than simply taking some deep breaths is to sit in a quiet place, place my hands in my lap, and open them up to God. As I do so, I release my hurts and concerns to God. I give Him my frustrations and trust Him to keep all of them, because I’m too weak and tired to hold onto them anymore. I’m not as consistent in this practice as I want to be, but when I participate in this small act of surrender, it makes a huge difference in my day.

 

3. Grab hold of awe and wonder in ordinary moments and days.

I’m inspired by the idea of Ordinary Time, which I first read about in Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s The Circle of Seasons: Finding God in the Church Year. Ordinary Time encourages me to ask, “Where is the glory of God hiding in my life right now?”

If I can cultivate a sense of wonder and joy in the everyday things of Creation, then I find miraculous little moments hidden in my ordinary days. When I purposefully take the time to notice these things,

I can explore space-time with my son and delight in a sunset with my daughter.

I can drink in the clouds and rooftops from a 4th floor downtown city window.

I can breathe in the blue sky on my way to a dinner meeting.

I can be captivated by a bright yellow full moon.

I can delight in a downpour so strong the palm trees are engulfed in white gauze.

I can inhale the heavenly fragrance of the frangipani flower.

I can marvel at our daily game with gravity, at the blue-scattered sky, at a photosynthesizing palm tree.

I used to think I needed long periods of time away in order to truly rest. In truth, little mini-Sabbaths are often available to me. But they only happen if I’m willing to stop rushing around and pay attention.

 

4. Fast regularly from technology.

I fought this practice for a long time. I believe I have what is called a “soft addiction” when it comes to the internet. I go to it for comfort — though comfort can’t be found there — and I have a hard time turning it off when I’m tired or overwhelmed.

Last year I began by fasting from the internet during family vacations and team retreats. I was sensing God’s invitation to fast from technology on Sundays, but I ignored it for several months. When I finally started obeying a couple of months ago, Sundays suddenly became much more restorative. Now I read, sleep, or spend time with my husband on Sunday afternoons. My relationships are better, I’m more rested, and I avoid the “computer haze” that starts to set in after too much time zoning out in front of a screen. This practice makes me much better prepared for Monday.

Additionally I try to keep technology out of the bedroom on weeknights, turn off the screens by 9 pm, and keep the computer closed until after I’ve talked to God in the morning. I often pray for strength to resist the pull of work before I even get out of bed.

 

5. Get creative with Sabbath.

When you’re in ministry, Sundays are often too intense to be considered restful. But Sabbath doesn’t have to happen on Sundays, and it doesn’t have to be a full 24 hours, either. Creativity in carving out Sabbath is especially important if you have young children, and you may have to alternate childcare between parents and only take half days at a time.

My husband, for example, takes Wednesday mornings off. First he takes a child out to breakfast, and then he takes a few hours for his own Sabbath. After lunch he comes home to do office work so that I can get out to a coffee shop to work on my own creative projects. My Wednesday afternoons are not, strictly speaking, Sabbath, but they provide the space to write and think and be separated from the never-ending needs of our home. Too often last year, I let these precious pockets of time slip through my fingers, and I felt the strain. Now I try to guard them much more carefully.

 

6. Get brave and quit something.

This took me a long time to do. I could not bring myself to quit any of the ministry activities I had committed myself to. I thought each and every one of them was essential and all-important, and I was afraid I would let people down if I quit. But in the end I realized I was so overloaded I had to do it — and it really was hard to do. I had to accept both that the ministry would go on without me and that my identity wasn’t tied up in those particular ministries.

But getting brave and quitting things isn’t just about ministry. It’s about social gatherings too. Where I live, there are so many invitations. So many good things to do. And so much fear of missing out — on community, on friendship, on educational and recreational opportunities. It’s still hard to say no and miss out on wonderful opportunities, whether they’re for myself or my children. But I simply can’t do everything, and I’m getting more comfortable with the fact.

 

7. Participate in regular confession, repentance, and worship.

Tears cleanse the soul and make space for God. I don’t know why this is true — and I almost wish it weren’t — but it is, and it’s the way God has designed us. We are created to humble ourselves before Him and others and admit we are wrong.

When I’m running too fast and seeking solace in false comforts, my heart hardens, my tears dry up, and I become deaf to the voice of God. But I find rest for my soul in confession, repentance, and tears. My most recent experience of this was at an Ash Wednesday service, but I’ve told similar stories in Angry, Mean, and Redeemed and When Your Husband Calls You a Shell of a Woman.

 

8. Be faithful in caring for body and soul.

Last year I knew I was distant from God and that I wasn’t taking care of my body. Why is it that when I’m too busy, the first things to go are exercise and time with God? Those are the things I need the most. But in times of stress, it’s all too easy to sleep in and skip talking to God altogether, or to get up and start working during that sacred morning hour instead. And when I’m tired, it’s all too easy to eat junk food, watch Netflix, and skip exercising. But after I started cutting stuff out of my life, it became easier to stress-eat less, to exercise more, and to approach God more honestly and more consistently.

I like to call these things “soul care” and “body care,” because even after all the “self-care” propaganda we have, that term still sounds selfish to me (and a lot of other women I talk to). But soul care and body care? That’s worship. That’s stewardship. It’s taking the soul God gave me, and reconnecting it to its Creator. It’s taking the body God gave me, and moving it and nourishing it so it can feel better and give more. So don’t forget to take care of your soul and your body.

 

9. Seek counseling or other outside help.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned my meetings with a spiritual director. I knew 2016 had been brutal; I just didn’t know why. My counseling sessions helped to pinpoint the motivations behind some of my poor choices and prompted me to begin to making better choices. We missionaries can be really “driven,” unhealthy people sometimes, and counseling can help us figure out both why we are so driven and how to move forward in health.

 

10. And finally, take a longer break.

Sometimes you need a longer time away from regular life. After taking pretty much no breaks during our first term, our family now takes a two-week Sabbatical in the middle of each two-year term. This extended time is for getting into nature, getting away from work and technology, nurturing our family relationships, and getting debriefing or counseling.

I know it’s not always feasible to get away for longer periods of time, but if you can, it’s great preventive medicine. And if you find yourself drained so low that you can’t continue living life the way it is, taking a longer break may be more of an emergency measure. Just don’t be afraid to take that step.

 

What about you? How do you find rest for your soul?

Further reading:

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About a (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung

Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion by Wayne Cordeiro

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Amy Medina

    This is really great, Elizabeth!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Amy!

  • Marilyn Gardner

    So good – at the same time hard. I’ve had to fight envy of friends and family members who have the freedom to create their own schedules when they sense burnout coming. In many cases, the job dictates the schedule and so one tends to just throw up hands in despair instead of looking at what you can control. Thanks for this.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      It’s so true — some situations don’t allow for quitting or pulling back. Some things are in our control, and some things aren’t, and I was very fortunate to be able to quit some things.

  • This is a really wonderful post Elizabeth.
    I loved all your points- especially the idea of opening our hands in surrender and your technology fast- that challenges me- And the idea that we have to get at the root issues driving us through counseling. That’s exactly what I’ve seen in my own life. So personal and so practical. Well done. As you know, this is something I’m deeply passionate about and write a lot about. Glad to see it being addressed from the prevention side. 🙂 For further reading people might enjoy: http://www.saritahartz.com/how-to-recover-from-burnout/

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Yes, the technology bit has been really helpful to me.

  • Patty Stallings

    A lot of wisdom here, Elizabeth!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Patty! I appreciated yours at VA too!

  • Stephanie

    Great article, Elizabeth! Thank you for this!
    “Soul care” and “body care” – very good! “Me time”, even if it’s the same thing, just sounds wrong to my ears, but this definitely works!
    Also really appreciated the idea of setting aside technology at planned times to clear my mind.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks, Stephanie. I’m so glad the vocabulary change is helpful for you 🙂 And may your technology breaks soothe and settle your soul in palpable ways.

  • Alicia

    Thank you! I’m fighting any sort of exercise right now as it seems like such a waste of time, but I know deep down that it would help me cast my cares to the Lord more easily and bravely. I need to pray about my relationship with technology too…and saying no… Great points! Glad that I read this!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      So glad this was helpful for you 🙂 Yes I have to remind myself to exercise when I don’t feel like it. Not legalistically, but because I know I will actually feel better afterwards (of course that is not true when I am actually ill!).

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