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"Scratch!": What my son taught me about burnout

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Somewhere between his age and mine, I developed a growing hesitancy to asking for what I need. It took finding myself in articles about burnout to shake those old habits loose.

A couple of nights ago, as I was resting my head on my pillow, about to close my eyes for the night, my youngest son, freshly showered and wrapped in his favorite fluffy blanket, wandered into my bedroom. Without speaking, he walked all the way around our bed to where I was laying, and positioned himself so his back was right in my face. He lifted his t-shirt with the tiny tips of his fingers and said with great authority and zero apology: “scratch!” I pulled my hands from under the duvet and started scratching his back, from his shoulder blades, down his spine, and back up again to the nape of his neck. He directed me as I did, letting me know if I was scratching too soft or too hard or too high or too low, until he was ready for bed. Then, he turned around, smiled, hugged me, and went to bed for the night.

As he wandered toward the door, I said to him with a proud smile, “I am so glad you can ask for what you need.” It was true: I was glad. I was also jealous. Somewhere between his age and mine, I developed a growing hesitance to boldly asking for what I need.

Maybe it started when I was in college, on my own and hell-bent on impressing everyone around me with how smart and capable I was. Perhaps it sharpened when I became a mother, when so much of my daily attention and focus became attuned to the needs of someone totally dependent on me for survival. Maybe it deepened even further when I became a CEO, when my orientation to work became to ensure everyone else's needs were met so that our mission could be fulfilled to the greatest extent possible. Maybe with each new role, each advancement, I slipped a little further into the background of my own life.

As a CEO responsible for the cultural health of an organization of more than 150 employees, it has been important to me to stay tuned in to the social and emotional needs of our staff and the latest research on burnout prevention. They are nothing short of remarkable and have adapted brilliantly to all the ways our work has changed throughout this pandemic. Many of them are young women, working moms, doing life-changing work on a salary completely unworthy of their skill and impact. As I read article after article on burnout – how it happens, what’s at stake, what it looks like, and how to prevent it, I saw something I never thought I’d see in an article about burnout: myself.

I saw my anxiety, the ways that I’ve started over-preparing for every meeting, scared that I’ll say or do something wrong. I saw my self-critique, the ways that I mentally beat myself up over any misstep big or small, visible or invisible. I saw my lack of energy, how I sometimes get mentally worn out by noon and have to muster the capacity to hold a meeting or greet a new employee. I saw my sensitivity, the way I have felt strong and often difficult feelings about problems at work, problems that I’d ordinarily strategize about and overcome with relative ease.

I thought I was immune to burnout. I love my job. I love the kind of work I do, the teammates with whom I collaborate, the culture that holds it all together. I find great meaning in it – not just in the services we provide to our clients, but in the way we approach problems, the way we treat one another, the way we dream about the future. I’m good at it. I’ve made a difference there. And, if trophies were given for the appearance of self-care, I’d have at least three. I don’t work overly long hours, I have lots of hobbies, I lean on a strong support system of friends and family, I eat well and sleep well and exercise every day. I’ve cut out all the frantic running around, and I’ve traded screen time for time with my kids and books. Lots of books.

I thought I had checked all the boxes, done all I could to be A-OK. I even give self-care advice to others at my workplace and in my coaching relationships! And there I was meeting myself in the words of this author, a fellow CEO, founder of a company he loved, effective, committed, healthy. And all out of steam.

How can it be?

For starters, my work is intense most of the time. Coaching a leader to overcome an obstacle. Deciding to take the organization in a new direction and contemplating the changes (loss) that will create for people I care a great deal about. Getting a phone call that there’s been a crisis at one of our offices and we aren’t sure if everyone is safe yet. Hearing from an angry client about how we are the reason for all the things that have ever gone wrong in his life. Managing a significant conflict between two leaders who do not see eye-to-eye. Making a painful decision to close a program and coming to terms with the hardship that will create. Even the good stuff is intense: announcing a promotion, celebrating the launch of a new program, experiencing the elation of a new charitable donation.

Add to that the fact that I bring an enormous intensity to the work I do. Every week has a purpose, every day an intention, every hour a plan. I am not a CEO who goes through the motions. I bring my heart and my mind and my gut to every single day. I feel a great deal of ownership for the work, even the work I do not directly influence. I really believe that how I show up matters and I don’t phone it in. I know I’m on stage, I know people look to me for where we’re going and how we’ll get there and I don’t want to let them down. While I may step away from my office at a reasonable hour, I carry the sense of responsibility with me everywhere, all the time.

And: the ground is still steep beneath our feet. We are still living in a pandemic, managing risk we’ve never experienced, balancing the social and emotional needs of our staff with the need to protect our clients, families, and colleagues from illness…all from a makeshift office on the back porch while also trying to provide a home-school environment to my children. You get the picture because it is also so very much like your picture. It's harder right now. And I have done it without asking for what I need – without admitting I need anything at all. I’ve got it. I smile through the camera on the 5th zoom of the day. I'm FINE.

But I’m not. I’m running near empty – and when my tank is low, my emotions run high, my vision gets blurry, and I don’t trust myself like I should. It’s no way to lead others. It’s time to tell the truth: I need help. What does help look like?

Some days, I need a good laugh. A hot meal fixed by someone else while I put my feet up. A break from the computer screen and a walk around the block. Other days I need to have the conversation I’ve been avoiding for months. I need to paint, or write, or dance. I need to forgive myself for the missteps I made today. I need relief. Or to run. I need to talk to a friend who won’t judge all the ways I fumbled or all the intense feelings I had about it. I need to schedule a vacation or a doctor’s appointment or finally take my car to the shop. I need to call my mom or sit next to my husband or snuggle my sons and remember there are people who love me no matter what, every day, until the end of time.

Whether you are the boss of a kabillion dollar company, a front-line worker, a middle-manager, unemployed, or boot-strapping your first entrepreneurial adventure, you will find a day when you are over your head or out of your mind or in too deep. You will come to a moment when you realize you can no longer do this alone. You will need something you cannot provide yourself. In that moment, you will be tempted, as I have been, to ignore the need, to pretend you are FINE, to hustle through it. And I am here to tell you that in that moment, the most sane thing you can do is pay attention. Stay with it. Tell yourself the truth about what you need. Allow yourself to need it. Then go find help from whomever can provide it, and take the help that is offered with the confidence of a little boy getting his back scratched.

When we commit to care for another person, we make a decision each moment we are with them to be sensitive to their needs, to meet those needs when we can, and to find help when we cannot. We must do the same for ourselves. Self-care, in the words of my friend and fellow coach Kristin, is not a pedicure. It is not a bubble bath. It is not working at a company that has treadmills in the basement. It is showing up for yourself in mind and body with the confidence of a 9-year-old who needs his back scratched.

Admitting you need help is not weakness. Hiding what you need will not make the needs go away. Lying to yourself about burnout will not resolve it. Treat yourself with the same respect you'd treat your children, your friend, your partner. Every moment. Even if means you cannot do it alone. Because we were, after all, never really meant to.

Photo Credit: Nathalia Rosa, Unsplash

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