Embrace your Burnout and Release your Resilience

Do you think Burnout can be a transformational Experience?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Transformational Burnout - A Womans Story

Transformational Burnout -
A Woman’s Story
Founder Resilience4Enterprise

Eighty percent of the people who suffer with depression are women, but eighty percent of the people who take their own lives are men. Each gender handles their burnout differently. Where women work in a male dominated environment, signals are mixed and women in senior positions, can often become confused and unclear about how they should handle burnout.
In this article on transformational burnout, Paul Mooney, founder of Resilience4Enterprise speaks with Louise, a self made entrepreneur with a twenty five year background in the corporate sector. Coming close to suicide and then turning this into transformational learning, this is the story of Louise.

Louise was born to a working class family on the north side of Dublin in 1962. Although she had little encouragement from her hard working parents, she was a high achiever in school. She says the reason for this was that she actually enjoyed working hard and doing things well. However, she was “always seeking approval” and that is why she believes that she was working so hard, to get some kind of recognition from her mother and father.

She was driven, but did not really know why. She was always busy and hardworking. As the eldest in the family and with her mother working to make ends meet; from the age of 13, she looked after her three siblings after school, cooked the dinner, cleaned up afterwards and then went to her room where she studied for a further three hours. When she was leaving school, she achieved the best results in her school in the state examinations, but because there was no money for education in the family, she was unable to go to university to capitalise on her already significant intelligence. At that time, she did not qualify for state grants as both of her parents were working.

Even though she could not go to university , Louise continued to have a strong work ethic and spent a year doing an IT diploma. At the age of eighteen, she took a job in an insurance company as a programmer. Knowing that she could now look after her own education, she began a night time degree course in information technology and soon she was working a forty hour week, spending twenty hours in college and another fifteen hours studying and preparing for her work and college assignments. She did not sow any of the wild oats that most teenagers do and she recalls at that time, although she was not aware of it, that there was a distinct lack of fun in her life. She was intellectually strong but emotionally under-developed. Her awareness of herself and her self-knowledge was poor and she very often did not know how she felt about issues, waiting first for those more senior than her to provide a viewpoint to validate her own opinions.
Even though she still had a huge appetite for work, romance came along at the age of eighteen when she met a twenty six year old colleague and soon, they were engaged.

At the time, mildly abusive things were continuously happening in the relationship. However, the lack of attention she received while she was growing up and her state of emotional underdevelopment caused her to accept a lot of this negativity without reaction. Soon, she was suffering from major episodes of disrespect such as her boyfriend always being late for dates, not turning up to pre-arranged meetings and other demonstrations that she was not really respected by her fiancée in any significant way

Looking back, she did not trust her own judgement and she now realises that she was suffering from low self esteem. She viewed her boyfriend’s coldness as acceptable because it was what she had experienced from her father and other colleagues to whom she looked up. As a result of this behaviour, her pain threshold went up and soon she was able to exist without the attention she craved but did not receive. She calls this her “love recognition strategy”. She loved her father and knew that he loved her, but the way he showed his love was by with-holding the affection she so badly needed. His favourite phrase was “what do you know?”

She knows for certain that he, in turn, had been shown love in this way by his own mother. She found out later in life that he had also heard phrases like this spoken to him as a young boy. He was simply repeating his own experience of love. He, himself, was an under-achiever. So it was not surprising that he showed his love for Louise by behaving towards her and speaking to her in this same way. Nevertheless, it resulted in self doubt despite her own obvious intelligence. Because she mistook these incidents as models of fatherly love, her fiancée’s behaviour seemed to her to be the behaviour of someone who loved her. Was it not?

Louise charged on in her life and in her career. She was a marvellous trier and she persisted to the best of her ability. Her career moved along at a steady pace, being promoted from junior programmer to senior analyst. Over the following years, she had her first two children, first a boy and then a girl. By the time she was thirty years of age, she had worked with several poorly trained managers. With hindsight, she sees that these managers saw their staff as threats rather than assets. An intelligent, achieving woman like Louise was a particular threat.

The organisation in which she worked operated very much as an “old boys” network where relationships were built on the golf course rather than in the workplace. For seven years, other than product courses, she had no personal development training and no leadership development courses which would have worked on her attitudes. Even when she was put in charge of a large team, she received no people management training. This certainly became a contributing factor on her journey to burnout. Still, Louise believed she was doing pretty well – two children, keeping a nice house going, and having a full time job. She was a busy woman!

After a few years, the insurance company that she worked for was taken over by another company and she was delighted to find herself after nineteen years in information technology moving into a human resources role. What amazed her most in this new organisation was that she saw women of her own age and background with the same education that she had, doing very well in their own careers at higher levels in the organisation than she had achieved. What fascinated her even more was that these women had managed this with husbands and children.

There was no doubt that she was burned out in the IT field. She had come to hate her job. She woke up far too early every day, worrying about the job, dreading the bus journey to work each morning. She realised that her great passion was people, but she was getting very little chance to exercise her natural leadership qualities in the IT department of the “old boy’s” insurance company.
Needless to say, she loved the challenge in HR and she was soon re-engaged with the new organisation. She got lots of training and development, and had many leadership challenges as part of her new role. Not only did she become aware of her own potential but also that of the organisation, if only they could really engage people in their work

At home, however, the marriage which had limped along for years was now becoming worse. Her husband was now more passionate about his sports club than ever. Louise and her children grew more disconnected from him, as he continued to provide little or no support to her in her rapidly progressing career. She was soon the highest earner in the family, while her husband was content to devote all his energies and passion to his sports club. Looking back now, Louise says his priority was anyone outside of her. She calculates with a sad smile that she and their relationship were about sixth on his list.

Her children were now teenagers, and as teenagers can, they made life less than easy. Louise wore one mask at work and another at home but neither were actually who she really was. At work, she had a positive and encouraging environment, but home was a negative space which wore down her energy. She kept it to herself but her performance soon began to suffer. She began to suffer from chest infections and her sick leave increased. Her response to this turn of events was to choose a part time option from the company and at the age of 39, she was astounded but delighted to discover that she was pregnant with her third child.

Working part time, she soon realised that she was leaving the office at 2pm every day, having done the same amount of work that she had done under a full time regime. She was determined to show her manager and colleagues that her commitment had not diminished just because she was working part-time so she remained focused. Even though she was working less hours, her income per hour had actually increased. In her full-time job, the culture was one where you had to be seen to stay late regardless of how early in the morning you came in. Now she could happily leave at 2pm with a full day’s work done.

The additional personal development opened her eyes to new options in work and in life. Most importantly, it opened her eyes to how bad things were in her marriage. Her husband’s behaviour was now worsening and both she and her children were regularly being subjected to long moods of sullen silence and being emotionally abused in general. She was functioning, not living. However, from the outside, it all looked like the perfect marriage. She had three lovely children; there were two cars in the driveway; she worked part time while her husband had a full time permanent and pensionable job in a blue chip organisation. But when the front door was closed they all knew that it could not continue. She was tired. As she walked to the bus stop each morning, she passed a bench on a green field near her house, she used to see an old woman feeding the birds and she asked herself each morning “do I have to keep doing this till I am 65”? She did not want to.

Between 2003 and 2004, she returned to work full time for a special project, but when the opportunity arose to take a voluntary redundancy, she jumped at the chance. While she saw this as a chance to begin again, she had still not faced the reality that the core of her life, her relationship with her husband, was actually making her ill.

She had always been interested in health and so started an alternative medicine degree programme which brought her into contact with people she would never have met before. Although they all spoke English, she soon realised, that they were in fact speaking a different language from her. For over twenty years, she had suppressed her emotions and spent her entire life thinking and talking in a non-emotional way. Looking back she says she “was never too happy, but also never too sad either”. She even went as far to say that “I never felt depressed, but I also know that I never felt any joy”.

However, this group of people were talking about how they felt, how they treated themselves, how they took care of themselves; they even spoke about their spirituality and about God. Most of all, they spoke about the relationship they had with themselves and their relationships with others. She had never heard this language before having spent her childhood, her work-life and her home life in an environment of robotic functioning devoid of real or lasting pleasure.

As her awareness grew, she knew that the marriage would have to come to an end. Thinking back, when her eldest son was five years of age, she remembers planning to leave her husband, but here she was sixteen years later, still stuck in a relationship which did not fulfil her and which also shut her down from her true self. Frustratingly, she did not know how to end it. It was an unhappy survival. She realised that her life was unbearable and that she was not in touch with the real Louise. In spite of her achievements in her family and in her job, her self esteem was very low indeed. She had subjugated her real emotions. Her family and children were the most important things in her life, but the truth was that her home-life was awful. Her father’s advice had always been “to keep your head down and to keep ploughing on and be thankful for what you have” and that was just what she was doing. The fact that it was killing her slowly did not seem to be important.

She turned to her catholic religion and asked God to make her husband appreciate her and to love her. She wished for God to make her husband see her. But he did not. Another wish not granted. Her belief in her God dissolved as had her hopes and dreams for a wonderful family life. It was now clear to her that she was burned out, and one of the consequences was that she lost her faith. She was burned out emotionally and she was rapidly approaching physical burnout lacking the energy to keep going. Philosophically she burned out the things that supported and perpetrated the myth of her happy life, which was the opposite of what she was leading but that meant little at the time.

She felt alone. Her work and her gym were her escape. Even though she loved her children, they were hard work. She was not the mother that she wanted to be. She realised to her dismay that she was becoming like her own mother had been – worn out from work with little left for her children. A moment of realisation.

Louise was continuously suppressing her real feelings, she was tired, overwhelmed and the responsibility was weighing her down. She began to fight back against her husband’s behaviour as her teenage children began to point out to her that she should not have to put up with his moods. She knew that she must have been a terrible role model, especially for her daughter. When they went on a family holiday in 2005, her husband was missing so much of the time that she was mistaken for a single parent by more than one person staying at the resort.

One night, shortly after they returned from the holiday from hell, she was having another argument with her husband. She describes what happened next as an “out of body experience”; as she stood and watched this vivacious, attractive and capable woman accepting the abuse that she was seeing happening in front of her eyes. “You stupid woman”, she said to herself. “You are wonderful, gorgeous and fabulous, what are you putting up with this treatment for?” In that moment, her lungs filled with air and she felt her power returning. She told him to get out of her life. In an amazing turnaround, once she emotionally released herself from the marriage, the abuse from her husband reduced. It had no hold on her and she did not respond to it. She asked for a divorce.

They lived together for another two years, and the household workload continued to spiral ,she still had no real help and no significant support. She qualified as a life and business coach and she began a new coaching and training business. While she got support with words, she got very little practical help from anyone in her family. Starting the new business was hard work with long hours and unrelenting effort, so the relationship deteriorated further. The business results disappointed her and not surprisingly it seemed that her choice of business partners was not the most inspiring. During 2007, Louise became depressed although she did not realise it. Her first year in business produced a loss and the little support she had at home continued to wane. Even though she met with positive people during her business development phase, when she came home, she was met with conflict, criticism and negativity. She soon became suicidal. She viewed herself as a failure. Her marriage was a failure. Her business was a failure. She felt a failure as a mother. She felt a failure as a daughter. She knew she was loved but she did not feel it. Her burnout was not yet complete. But behind the clouds, the sun was still shining; she just had to wait until the clouds broke for the sunlight to peek through.

She was at a coaching training course in July 2007 and she met with another male coach who was the complete opposite of her husband. He was physically striking, emotionally aware, spiritually open and mentally challenging. The words she uses to describe him were that he was like a “warming summer breeze” eager to seduce her and to be the partner that she had always wanted. Paul was comfortable in expressing his emotions and he encouraged Louise to share hers not only with him, but with herself. Even though he was open and encouraging, his positive view of life was challenging to her.

Even with this wonderful new energy in her life, the suicidal ideation did not go away. The love and positivity she felt when she was with this man was marred by the darkness and loneliness she felt when she went back to her house and family. She knew that she was unbalanced but she was in so much pain that she could not do anything to stop it. She had become almost completely disconnected from all those in her life whom she had previously loved with all her heart, and her new ties with Paul were not yet strong enough to make her want to fight the pain. She had soon gathered enough potent medication that could end her life.

Paul spotted the tablets in her handbag, and having been trained in suicide prevention; he removed them from her bag and intervened not only with her but with her parents and siblings. Louise was not happy to have her family know that she was not the perfect woman that she was trying to be. She did not think they would be able to deal with it and did not want to worry them. However, it showed her that her family truly cared about her. She could see how twisted her thinking had become. She did not want to worry them but, on the other hand, she was quite ok with them finding her dead by her own hand in her lovely home. She faced the facts about how bad things were, but she still struggled as she began her transformational burnout coaching with a new coach.

She was encouraged and supported to visit her medical doctor and she visited her legal counsel to arrange the divorce that she so badly needed. Her father provided her the deposit for an apartment for herself and her youngest son and soon she was in counselling and coaching to help her through. She says that she is still going through the process. She does not know what the future will bring and is still only getting to know herself and what it means to be in touch with her true self. She is still only beginning to feel comfortable in letting other people see and hear her true self.

She feels that her burnout has transformed her. She now accepts herself and her humanity. Prior to her burnout, she did not feel any of her emotions. She doubted herself continuously. Nobody in her family of origin was comfortable with crying and she had adopted this behaviour herself. In listening to her emotions, she finally found her voice. She found strength in herself. She began to live for herself.
With her new partner, she is now growing all the time. It is still not easy. There is still a lot of pain but now Louise accepts this as a sign that she is alive, redeveloping and re-birthing. Relationships remain difficult even with the daughter who told her to leave the family home. Her youngest son is reacting badly to the separation and is not sure of where he sits in the new two home situation. He has become violent and disruptive and Louise has had to call in an educational psychologist to help her manage the relationship.

Louise knows now that transformation is a process. She knows that there is no transformation without pain. Before her burnout, her pain was silent and insidious. After the burnout, her pain is clear and transparent. She cries a lot but that’s all right. Previously, she could count on one hand the number of times she cried in her adult life. She had never cried for the loss of her marriage and that old life. Now she feels her emotions. She welcomes them. She knows that they are trying to tell her something from her subconscious. She has had a shift in how she handles her pain.

She looks at her five bedroom house when she leaves her youngest son there and is sad that she had to leave. When her children and her ex-husband have Sunday dinner, she is not there. This hurts her, but she knows that she could have died by her own hand in that kitchen had she stayed there

While this grieving affects her experience of the joy in her new relationship with Paul, she at least can feel the joy in herself for the first time in her life. She knows there is more pain around the corner. The family home will be sold and assets divided. The life that she had led for over twenty years will be disentangled but she knows it is transformational.

Louise’s business has now taken off. In the last 60 days, she generated more revenue than she had in the previous two years. She is a more authentic coach and her work rate is starting to get back to her previous levels. Customer reaction to her work is excellent and referrals are consistent and quality driven. Things are looking up.

She feels her true self more than she ever did. She is a better brand than she ever was. She realises that she did not need the business partners that she first chose. Looking back, she realises that she was suffering from the same authority complex in her choice of business partners. She now realises that she is just as good as they are. She has begun to win her own deals and they are bigger and better than before. Her self confidence is returning. She has been offered work in the UK, the EU and in the Middle East. She was asked to join a global forum on the future of coaching. Her authenticity is making a difference and this difference is generating business for her.
While she admits to experiencing a real and holistic happiness for the first time in her life, she cries a lot more. But this time, she says she can afford the luxury of a good cry and the toxins in her tears carry away some of the frustration. She feels she could never afford that before, but with her new partner and her new business, it is all part of the daily ups and downs of a fulfilling life.

She regards her burnout as transformational. She wishes it had come sooner in her life to tell her not to judge herself. She sees that her burnout helped her to realise that she was envying what other people had, or appeared to have. Her burnout made her realise that she had wonderful friends and family. Her burnout made her realise that she is now able to ask for help before it is too late. It helped her to focus on herself and on what was important to her; that she had to look after herself in order to be good for the other people in her life – her children, her family, her partner, her friends and her customers

She realises that she wanted to set her own standards. Her burnout led her to the conclusion that she had to live her own life, not the one that was conditioned for her. She realises the importance of real love. Her burnout has allowed her to be true to her self. Louise’s story is a common one that we that we meet on the Resilience4Enterprise programme. The meta resilience model that we have developed contains four factors which need to be increased in order to release resilience; personal persistence, personal efficiency, experience of adversity and openness to change.

For Louise, her Personal Persistence continues. She has more self belief. She knows the value of hard work, but this time, its meaning has changed for her. She persists with her new partner, her children her business and her other loving relationships. She has not lost hope. She is optimistic about her future. She is not sure of the outcome, but she keeps trying. She is now learning from failure all the time.
Her Personal Efficiency has also increased. She sets her targets lower and makes smaller demands on her abilities and capacity. She is still astounded by how much she gets done, but this time, the workload is not killing her. Her focus has changed. Her expectations have changed but so has her output. It is now more balanced.

Her Experience of Adversity has helped her cope. She knows the very high cost of “doing nothing”. Old patterns are hard to break but she struggles to break them slowly. Her experience of facing tough times both in the distant and recent past gives her confidence that she can face tough times in the future. She knows that she has the resilience to survive and even thrive.
Louise’s Openness to Change is now a powerful factor in her growing resilience. She says the main change has been with how she sees herself. That has made her world change enormously. She has become the change that she wanted to see. It is a powerful aphrodisiac and she wants more.

The Resilience4Enterprise model also includes four factors which need to be decreased in order to increase resilience; Obstacles to Adaptation, Instability of Environment, Personal Vulnerability and Low Self Esteem.

The Obstacles to Adaptation for Louise are more internal than external. Yes, her husband was an obstacle and her dead marriage was an obstacle. But she was the most stubborn obstacle herself and it was not until she was able to change herself that things began to move. The near death experience of suicidal ideation was her lowest moment, but it was the moment of truth in her burnout story. Thankfully, Paul was there. “There is a God. He sent me Paul” Louise says quietly.

The Instability of her Environment was mostly about negativity and lack of support. She only noticed this when she moved into her new apartment with her partner and son. She now receives stable and loving support not only with the housework, which is a genuine issue for women with families and households to run, but with her business challenges and commercial objectives. She is encouraged to think big and to act proud and confident. She is encouraged to fight back and she does. Once the negativity was destabilised, the optimism poured in and her life began to be a happier place to live in.

Her Personal Vulnerability was mostly to do with finances. Even though she was the biggest earner in the marriage, she had forgotten that she had uncapped potential. She felt like she had an economic dependency on her spouse. Having shared all the bills for twenty years, bought the cars, arranged and paid for the holidays, she soon realised that it was the other way round. Louise is now looking at a six figure salary in her third year of business. Her children were also a point of vulnerability. They continue to be her biggest weakness, she loves them dearly but she is beginning to feel less guilty. She does not model herself on other ‘perfect’ mothers; she is just herself. She does what she can which is her best. She continues to decrease the effect of her own vulnerability

Louise’s Low Self Esteem has also decreased. She feels much better. She went back to the gym. She now demands that her invoices be paid on time. When she asks for payment, she gets paid. She is adding value and clients want to keep her on board. They give her more work and
she gets more respect. She values herself more and she realises that her low self esteem serves her no longer.
At this point in the interview Louise started to cry. I asked her why she was crying. “I am crying for the six year old girl who was told by her daddy that she had a big mouth for having an opinion. I am crying for the seventeen year old girl who had no money to go to university. I am crying for the little girl who was told to keep her trap shut because she was putting her foot in it and “ What did she know?”.

“I am crying because that is what people pay me for now. I ask the hard questions. I do put my foot in it, but I am usually the only one who is brave enough to see the elephant in the room and I say what I see. I am crying because that authentic little girl was suppressed a long time ago but she is now coming alive again”.

George Bernard Shaw once said that all truths start with a blasphemy. Louise’s blasphemy has turned out to be the truth.
On burnout, Louise has this to say. “I wish it had come along sooner and sent me a messenger much earlier in my life. It should have told me when it was ok to give up the fight and to try something new. I was flogging a dead horse but I did not realise that I was just as dead myself. My pain was high, but so was my pain threshold. After my burnout, because I am in touch with my emotions, my pain threshold has come back to normal. I now allow myself to be emotional and it is serving me better than I ever thought possible. I cry a lot now and I like it!”

Burnout has transformed Louise and thankfully, Louise has transformed her burnout.

© The Alchemism Foundation 2006-2008
Paul MOONEY is the founder of Resilience4Enterprise and The Alchemism Foundation. He is also the founder of the Transformational Burnout Movement
He can be contacted by emailing
paul@resilience4enterprise.com or on www.alchemismfoundation.org



No comments: