Shining Your Light without Burning Out

“Raise your hands in the air as high as you can,” says the motivational speaker on the stage. Then, looking over the crowd reaching skyward, he says, “Now, reach higher,” and they comply. The lesson? You can always do more, even when you think you’ve done as much as you can.

“I’ll give it 110%,” we say.

“Leave it all on the court,” they tell us.

But pushing ourselves beyond our limits can lead to burnout. When that happens, we can’t function anymore, and that’s not a good thing. And yet, for a cross-cultural worker, being burned out can feel like a respectable reason for leaving the field. I have nothing left to give. I’m spent. I worked too hard.

When my wife and I moved back to the States, I sometimes said it was because we were burned out, and that may very well have been true. But there were other times when I felt I didn’t deserve the label. It seemed that it should be reserved for the ones who’d worked a lot harder than I had.

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” we sing.

According to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, Revision 11, “burn-out” is an “occupational phenomenon” (rather than a medical condition). It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” showing itself in

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy

Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at UC Berkely and co-developer of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, says that while overwork is one of the factors that can lead to burnout, it’s not the only one. In fact, she identifies six mismatches between the work environment and worker that can cause job burnout. In a presentation at a DevOps Enterprise Summit three years ago, she described these as

  • demand overload,
  • lack of control,
  • insufficient reward,
  • breakdown of community,
  • absence of fairness, and
  • value conflicts

When I heard this list, I couldn’t help but think of the topics discussed in Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss’s Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. And even though Maslach is addressing a group of tech leaders, the content of her talk applies to people in other areas, including those working cross-culturally. Across all occupations, burnout, says Maslach, is like the canary in the coal mine. When the canary can’t breath, the solution isn’t to toughen up the bird but instead to find out and fix what’s wrong with the air. To put it another way, she says, prevention is a better strategy than coping.

I would encourage you to watch Maslach’s presentation, whatever your role in cross-cultural work, as leaders or followers. Some of you have a leadership position in your organization or on your team and can influence the situations of those under your authority. Some of you are your own boss. All of you have jobs that include responding to the expectations of others (agencies, sending churches, supporters, team leaders, supervisors, coworkers, and the like). Maslach’s insights are useful to us all.

Of course, serving and living overseas adds extra layers to what we call our “workplace,” and there will be some factors of cross-cultural life that are out of anyone’s control. But when we see the effects of a toxic environment, what of the six problems above can we or others solve or mitigate, working towards turning mismatches into good fits?

What can we do, though, if we’re feeling overwhelmed while waiting for (asking for, hoping for, praying for) circumstances to change? How do we foster personal health in an unhealthy environment? Several years ago, I wrote a post titled “Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?” in which I presented another option for those who are able to survive overseas but for whom thriving seems out of reach. To suggest that we “strive,” though, might sound to some as if I’m saying we need to “try harder,” and that isn’t my intention. If I were to write that post again, I’d insert some advice from Aundi Kolber. It’s to “try softer,” which is the name of a book she’s written. For my purposes, I’d rephrase it as “strive softer.”

Kolber, a licensed professional counselor, writes that it’s not necessary for us to “white-knuckle our way through life.” Instead, we should practice “paying compassionate attention” to ourselves. She describes this as “in a sense, learning to steward for ourselves what God already believes about us—that we’re valuable and loved.”

When we are not paying attention to our inner worlds, we are susceptible to emotional burnout, exhaustion, emotional dysregulation, and chronic pain. Because our brains are shaped around what we notice, it’s important that we become better and more effective at listening—and responding—to what our minds and bodies are telling us. This is the journey of trying softer.

In Try Softer (the book’s subtitle is A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy), Kolber covers a lot of ground, diving deep into such subjects as trauma response, neuroscience, attachment theory, windows of tolerance, and boundaries, helping us learn how to understand ourselves and how we came to be who we are. Then she follows that up with “new practices and rhythms,” practical suggestions to help us try softer. It’s well worth a read. Or if you’d rather just get a short overview of what Kolber has to say, you can follow this link to a 45-minute video interview she had with author and podcaster Nicole Unice.

Striving softer isn’t just for staying on the field. It’s what we should do to continue walking with and serving God, wherever we are. It’s a good way to live life.

Giving anything more than 100% can’t be done.

Leaving it all on the court means your playing days are over.

Burning out isn’t an honor you earn from maximum effort.

And as for “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” I can think of a whole lot of other songs that are more worth singing.

(“Burn-Out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases,” World Health Organization, May 28, 2019; Christina Maslach, Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at DOES19 London, July 1, 2019; Aundi Kolber, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy, Tyndale, 2020)

[photo: “Lights Out,” by Pulpolux !!!, used under a Creative Commons license]