More than a few of you reading this know you are on the edge of the cliff we call burnout. And probably a few of you are in free fall right now. What’s so perplexing about burnout (and especially low-grade burnout) is that more than a few of the symptoms strike people as “normal.” So how do you know if you’re heading for burnout?
I’ll describe 11 signs and symptoms I personally experienced as I burned out. If you recognize one or two of them, you’re likely not burned out. Consider them warning signs. If you show six to eight, you may be in low-grade burnout or heading for the cliff. If you resonate with most or all of them, you’re likely in full-fledged burnout. I hope these signs can help you see the edge before you careen past it.
1. Your Passion Fades.
Everybody struggles with lack of passion from time to time, but burnout moves you into a place of sustained motivation loss. Remember passion? It’s what made you fall in love, stare at white clouds on a blue-sky day, jump up and down when you got accepted into your college of choice, and cry when you saw your firstborn. It’s what infused your work with enthusiasm and made you a gifted, obsessive nerd at the hobby you used to pursue with a smile. Passion got you into all kinds of things, and it’s one of the factors that makes both life and leadership wonderful over a long period of time.
When I burned out, my passion set like the sun. I knew what I was doing was important (leading a local church, raising a family), but I couldn’t feel it anymore. I realized that a passionless person would never lead a passionate life. But I just couldn’t find it anymore. My passion had died.
2. You No Longer Feel the Highs or Lows.
If you’re healthy, you feel things. You experience highs and lows. When I burned out, I couldn’t feel either properly anymore. My main emotion was numbness. It was like my emotions had become a long drive through the Great Plains … flat for endless miles. If a friend had a baby, intellectually I knew it was an important moment that was supposed to generate joy, but I couldn’t feel it. Conversely, if someone was sick or landed in trouble, I didn’t really feel for that person either. I just felt numb.
Burnout numbs your heart, and this was one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near. The numbing of my heart was something I had battled for three or four years before I fell headlong into burnout. Even now, I watch for it as a sign that something might be wrong.
You’re designed to celebrate when people are celebrating and mourn when people are mourning. If that’s not happening, something’s not right.
3. Little Things Make You Disproportionately Emotional.
It’s not that burned-out people feel zero emotion, but when you’re burning out, you often experience inappropriate or disproportionate emotions.
Leading up to and during my burnout, little things started to set me off. Something like a missed deadline or a dishwasher that didn’t get emptied might be a one or three out of ten on the problem scale, but I reacted like it was an eleven. That’s never good. Treating small things like big things and big things like small things are both signs that something deeper is wrong.
4. Everybody Drains You.
People are a mixed bag for sure. Some energize you. Some don’t. I get that. On this side of heaven, that’s life. But when I burned out, nobody energized me anymore. Not even my family, my friends, or my leadership team. In my head, I knew they were good people, but my heart couldn’t feel it. When nobody energizes you, they’re not the problem. You are.
5. You’re Becoming Cynical.
We’ve already explored cynicism in chapters 1 and 2, but it deserves mention as a further sign of burnout. It’s not that cynicism is itself proof you’re burning out. You can be a cynic for a long time without burning out. But if you find your cynicism is advancing at a rapid rate, it may be a sign you’re burning out. Cynicism never finds a home in a healthy heart.
6. Nothing Satisfies You.
One of the hardest aspects of burnout was that nothing seemed to satisfy me anymore. Sleep didn’t. Prayer didn’t. Good people didn’t. Recreation didn’t. Vacation didn’t. Work didn’t. Food didn’t. That’s a sign of depression, and it’s also a sign you’re burned out.
7. You Can’t Think Straight.
When you’re burning out, your heart messes with your head and you lose the ability to think clearly. I remembered having read enough about midlife crises and burnout to know that people make stupid decisions when they’re burned out. So I had a daily conversation with myself that boiled down to five words: Just don’t do anything stupid. This would include things like quitting my job or screaming at people. Some days, simply avoiding stupid is a win.
8. Your Productivity Is Dropping.
One sign I knew indicated I was in burnout was my incredibly low productivity. I’m usually a fairly productive leader and person (some would say highly productive). But when I fell into burnout, even writing a simple email sometimes took an hour. My thoughts wouldn’t come together. My pace slowed right down. And I felt like there was a cloud between me and everything I was trying to do. If you’re working long hours but producing little of value, pay attention.
9. You’re Self-Medicating.
In the early stages of burnout, many people turn to self-medicating to numb the pain. This might involve overeating, overworking, sexual addictions, drinking, impulsive spending, or even drugs. When this occurs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication instead of self-care to deal with the pain. I avoided drinking, drugs, and sex outside of my marriage. My medication was, ironically, more work, which just spiraled things downward. People who are burning out almost always choose self-medication over self-care.
10. You Don’t Laugh Anymore.
This seems like such a small thing, but it’s actually a very big thing. If you’re burning out, you don’t laugh like you used to. I remember laughing out loud one day during my recovery after listening to something on the radio. It was then that it hit me: it had been months since I had laughed out loud. When you’re burning out, nothing seems fun or funny, and at its worst you begin to resent people who enjoy life.
11. Sleep and Time Off No Longer Refuel You.
If you’re just tired, a good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. If you’re burning out, sleep and time off no longer do the trick. You could have a month off when you’re burned out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burnout, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign that you’re burning out.
Some of you might be really alarmed right now because you’re registering eight out of eleven symptoms—or maybe all eleven. Some of you might be concerned for your spouse or a best friend because you recognize the symptoms in him or her. So what do you do?
If you show any signs of burnout, I encourage you to seek immediate professional help. In my view, the best help will come from a combination of the care of a medical doctor and an excellent, trained Christian counselor. Your medical doctor will help you figure out how serious your symptoms are, and a skilled counselor will help you identify the reasons and conditions that caused you to burn out. If you’re in a state of burnout or nearing it, I can guarantee that you have issues. I had a load of them. My wife Toni had urged me to go to counseling for a few years before I actually went. I was too proud to go. I sent people to counseling, but I didn’t want to go myself. How stupid. My wife saw issues I couldn’t see. Others saw issues I couldn’t see. And they were right. I was hurting others unintentionally.
The truth is that we all struggle with unresolved problems. And the sooner you deal with them, the better off you and everyone around you will be. Your unresolved past will sink your future unless you deal with it. That’s what my unfinished business and unexamined issues did to me. They made me work insane hours at an unsustainable pace and see people as projects rather than relationships. I became a performance addict, and God needed to speak into that space so I could use the gifts he gave me in a healthy way.
Christian counselors helped me get to the bottom of that. I’ve seen a number of different counselors over the last fifteen years at different points, and each has played an instrumental role in my healing and spiritual formation. You may not need more than one, but for me, getting the right perspective at the right time has been so healing and freeing.
Why do I suggest a trained Christian counselor? First, not all counselors are great at what they do. Check for both credentials and references. Seek a recommendation from a trusted friend. Second, I am a firm believer in Christian counseling not just because I’m a Christian but because I believe the very heart of the problem of burnout is spiritual. If you leave Jesus out of the cure, you leave out much of the potential healing.
Speaking of healing, how do you move out of burnout? Believe it or not, you can come back. And come back more fully alive than you ever were before. That’s what happened to me, and I’m not alone.
Excerpted from Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. Copyright © 2018 by Carey Nieuwhof. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.