I Almost Lost Everything to Burnout

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Licensed psychologist and wellness consultant

I almost lost everything to burnout … two unlikely words changed everything 

“There will come a time when you think everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” — Louis L’Amour

“It’s time to go vertical.” These unlikely words from my dad marked the start of my journey to recover from burnout.  

Grief and Burnout: Two Journeys

Grief is often discussed in terms of stages, but it doesn’t follow a linear path. There’s no single or “right” or right way to grieve. Similarly, burnout doesn’t conform to a one-size-fits-all model.

During my time in graduate school, when I was grappling with burnout, I experienced a profound sense of loss. I felt like I had lost touch with the values I held close for most of my life and the identity I had painstakingly shaped. Burnout forced me to deconstruct everything I knew about myself and shift my focus inward, away from external distractions. It was as though a candle had been extinguished, and I found myself fumbling to reignite it, even though the wick seemed to have disappeared. I felt utterly lost.

The Comfort of the Known vs. the Fear of the Unknown

For months, as I found myself deep in the throes of burnout (though I wasn’t aware of it yet), I clung to anything that felt familiar — like working non-stop in pursuit of external praise. The comfort of the known was more appealing than the fear of the unknown.

But then, everything changed.

The Turning Point

There came a moment when a profound shift occurred — a moment when I was compelled to confront my deepest fears.

It happened right after I had completed my final exams. I had spent a week tirelessly working around the clock, getting hardly any sleep, isolating myself completely, and relentlessly berating myself. Naturally, I crashed immediately afterward. I crawled into bed, closed the blinds, and refused to leave. After three days of this behavior, my parents flew from Florida to Boston. My then-fiancé (now my husband) and my parents were deeply concerned. As I tried to hide my face due to shame and sheer exhaustion, my dad was straightforward. He told me it was time to “go vertical.”

I can’t quite recall how many times he repeated this statement, but there was immense power in his recognition of my struggle and the clear directions he provided. I mustered the strength to get up and take a shower. We went out for dinner together, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I ate a full meal.

Choosing Myself Over Fear

It was at that moment that I had a profound realization, even if it sounds cliché. I understood that ultimately, I held the key to my own healing. Yes, I needed support, and I leaned on it, but the pivotal choice I had to make was to prioritize myself over everything else, especially fear’s hold on me.

This decision came at a cost, and it wasn’t without its challenges. I faced the daunting task of rebuilding my inner flame from the ground up, and there was no pre-existing roadmap to guide me. Nevertheless, I committed wholeheartedly to the journey. I collaborated with coaches and a psychologist to gain a deeper understanding of myself as an individual, exploring my emotions, and charting a path towards a sustainable life where my inner flame would no longer burn out.

My 5 Core Tenets of Burnout Recovery

As I reflect on the steps I took to recover and continue to use with myself and clients, I’ve identified five core tenets:

1. Discover Your Values:

  • This step is non-negotiable; it serves as your compass in the dark.
  • Begin by completing a values quiz (a free values exercise) and outlining actions that support these values.
  • Keep these values visible in your daily life; for instance, I use post-it notes and pictures as constant reminders to stay aligned with what’s most important.

2. Build Your Support System:

  • Formulate your support committee by identifying individuals you want to surround yourself with; imagine a big table. Who is sitting at the table with you?
  • Don’t hesitate to include a therapist in your support network.
  • Regularly tend to your support system, ensuring it remains a solid resource for you.
  • If you feel that support is lacking, actively seek it by joining local community groups or deepening relationships with acquaintances.
  • Be open about your needs when seeking support; practice asking for help in small ways to build comfort with this important task.

3. Recognize What Drains and Fuels You:

  • Prioritize activities that fuel you, even if it’s just dedicating 2 minutes each day. These activities become anchors during difficult times.
  • Pay attention to activities that leave you feeling drained or uninspired, as well as those that bring contentment and fulfillment.
  • If you’re struggling to identify fueling activities, it’s okay to start with neutral ones.

4. Connect with Yourself Daily:

  • Regularly check in with yourself both emotionally and physically; this is akin to taking your emotional temperature.
  • If you initially find it challenging to connect with yourself, it’s alright not to have all the answers immediately.
  • Over time, the information and connection will naturally strengthen, providing valuable insights into your well-being.

5. Practice Self-Compassion:

  • Pay attention to your inner dialogue, especially during difficult moments.
  • Shift your self-talk to be more compassionate, as if you were speaking to a close friend or loved one.
  • Imagine the scenario happening to someone you care about, and vocalize the supportive words you would offer them.
  • Allow yourself to hear these words; they are the same kind words you need to hear.
  • Remember that practicing self-compassion is an ongoing process; you’ll likely catch yourself being self-critical, but use that awareness to change your inner dialogue at any time. You have the control to intercept negative thoughts and change the message.

Summing It Up

To prevent and recover from burnout, regardless of its severity, here are the key steps I’ve distilled from my personal and professional experience:

  1. Identify your core values. Understand what truly matters to you and ensure your daily actions align with these values.
  2. Create a support committee and practice asking for help, even in small ways, to build comfort with this often difficult task.
  3. Recognize activities that drain and fuel you. Make sure that you’re including at least one fueling activity into your day.
  4. Connect with yourself daily — emotionally and physically. Use your body as an early indicator of stress.
  5. Practice self-compassion during difficult moments. Intercept your critical self-talk with a kinder voice.

Begin Your Journey Today

Begin to buffer yourself today. Identify three specific actions you can take this week to begin building your burnout armor.

Caught in anxious patterns like people pleasing or perfectionism?