WomenEd Blogs

Overcoming Burnout


By Rita Rebizant, @RitaRebizant

I spent all of July in a kind of mindless fog, not quite sure what to do with myself. My brain was still full of school stuff but along with it came a lot of deep-seated emotion that I didn't know where to put. 

I cried a lot. I couldn't sleep. I sat staring at nothing a lot. 

I scrolled through endless Twitter and Instagram feeds because it contributed to the mind-numbing bliss I thought I desperately needed. 

I could hardly have conversations because following the threads and forming comprehensive thoughts were beyond me.

Come August, I met up with two dear friends and when one of them asked how I was doing, I crumpled.

There was absolutely no way that I was in a head space to start gearing up for school within the next few days. The provincial announcements were about to come down about how the start of school would go, and all I felt was an overwhelming sense of dread and panic. 

Over the course of the next few hours, with my dear friends at my side talking through all the possible pros and cons, I made the tough decision to take a leave of absence. I felt ashamed that I couldn't handle it. What would my principal colleagues think when they found out? That I was a failure? That I couldn't handle it? That I finally cracked and had a breakdown? 

The guilt about abandoning the teachers and staff was paralyzing. But as one of my friends pointed out, 'They feel exactly the same way, you're just the one who's brave enough to do it'.

I needed time. Time to properly process and recover. Time to heal my soul, my body and my brain. And finally, I needed to figure out why it all came crashing down.

But before we go much further, allow me to introduce myself. 

I'm married to an amazing man who is also an educator, and the mother of two brilliant young women. I'm a principal of a middle years school in a rural school division on the prairies in Canada and live in a comfortable home, with food in the fridge and a couple of cars in the garage. I'm more blessed than a lot of others and try not to take it for granted. I have friends and family that, although I don't see them as often as I'd like, showed up for me when I needed them.

Books have often been my solace – whether it's for some brain candy, to challenge my thinking, or to follow up on what I hear and learn from others about education, relationships and leadership. Podcasts have also become a great way to learn and I started following Brene Brown's Unlocking Us (Unlocking Us Archives – Brené Brown) and Dare to Lead (Dare to Lead Archives – Brené Brown) because so many of them were inspirational, educational and relatable.

It was from one particular Unlocking Us podcast that the term 'Burnout' came up –Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle – Brené Brown. The conversation between Brene and the Nagoski sisters had me rewinding and replaying multiple statements and I had THE most spectacular face palm. Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA wrote a book called Burnout; The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle and it was through this conversation that some of the tumblers in my brain started falling into place. Their foundational definition of burnout came from Herbert J Freudenbergers, Psychologist, who defined it as:

"physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll. Burnout is most often observed in professionals who work in service-oriented vocations (e.g., social workers, teachers, correctional officers) and experience chronic high levels of stress. It can be particularly acute in therapists or counselors doing trauma work, who feel overwhelmed by the cumulative secondary trauma of witnessing the effects". (APA Dictionary of Psychology)

Well, that explained a few things, mixed in with the compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion that comes with the role of principal, it became extremely challenging to keep my head above water. As an educator, I am relationally driven. 

Whether they are students, teachers, or families, I have learned that unless there's a connection – a real, authentic connection – there is no learning, no relationship, no real problem solving, no trust, no respect, nor understanding.

And because I knew this, my heart and soul were committed to these students, these teachers and these families. I made a promise to my staff that my number one priority for the 2020 2021 school year was to make sure they were OK. Because if they weren't, the kids didn't stand a chance! Thank you Dr. Jody Carrington! You can find her best work in her book Kids These Days – a total game changer!

It is not necessary to share all the details about specific events or times when I felt completely handcuffed in my capacity to make things better for my staff. We all have our stories of being overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry. As leaders we know and understand what it means to be on the receiving end of irrational parents, emotional teachers, and students whose mental health is hanging on by a thread. Many reading this will understand that this is all just the tip of the iceberg. Because for me, as a woman, I have been reminded time and time again (ad nauseum) to "let it go", settle down, don't overreact, be respectful, be kind and then get the figurative pat on the head… "there there, it's all fine". So there I sit, with the anger nearly choking me, quietly trying to placate whoever is pissing me off at the moment, wishing that I could let it out – scream, yell, swear or reach across my desk and throat punch them. But nope, can't do it. It would be unprofessional and create a 'bad optics' situation. 

It never ceases to amaze me how much we in the education sector (like healthcare) are constantly absorbing other peoples' fears, anger or (let's just admit it) stupidity, with absolutely no recourse to respond other than to sit on our hands, put a smile on our face and shut our mouths.

Which brings me to the Stress Cycle that the Nagoski sisters explain so well in their book. The Stress Cycle has a beginning, middle and end. It is the way we move from stress to calm – from activation of the stress response to the completion of the stress response.

Emily and Amelia explain it here: Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle. When listening to the book (I love Audible, especially when I'm walking my dog), it became abundantly clear that my stress cycles weren't being completed, which is what led to me becoming so overwhelmed that I was unable to move – to do my job, to connect with my friends, to enjoy conversations.

I mentioned in my intro that I had trouble sleeping, was crying a lot, and had a hard time staying focused. It dawned on me at some point in early September that maybe this was my body's way of completing those stress cycles. I understood that it wasn't depression or even anxiety. My body needed to heal – it needed peace and calm and balance.

Imagine a toddler moving through a stress cycle – trigger (didn't cut the bread the right way Mom!) to tantrum (screaming, kicking, crying) to calm (body shudder, hiccup crying, exhaustion and sometimes sleeping). They naturally move through that stress cycle if they have an adult that helps them regulate emotionally (again, thank you Dr. Jody!). But if they're yelled at, told to shut up, stop crying or "That's ENOUGH!", then they don't complete that cycle. The emotions are still there, pushed down and boxed away. But without a doubt, they will re-emerge and more often than not, when they do, it's not going to be pretty. 

And so it was with me – my emotions needed to be released and thankfully I had a partner that gave me the safe space to do that. Without shame, without guilt and with a tremendous amount of love and support.

Once that realization was made, I stopped fighting it and wondering what was wrong with me. I let it happen. And every time I did, I began to feel mentally stronger – tired, but stronger, as if I was starting to wake up. I also knew that it was up to me to fix it and to start trusting myself again. I needed a place to put the feelings and move from stress to calm in a healthy way. 

So, enter step #2 – EXERCISE! And I really love Crossfit.

I knew I needed to get control of my health. There had, admittedly, been an increase in wine consumption, emotional eating and general immobility. This wasn't me and I needed to change these bad habits. With the encouragement of my husband, daughters, and sister, I headed back to the gym. I won't lie. It had been a hot minute since I'd been and I needed to swallow a lot of pride, be humble and give myself a ton of grace. 

But I made myself a priority

I started slowly and within a couple of months I'm back at the gym 3-4 times a week. I've become more conscious of what I eat (not every day, I'm not friggin perfect!) and enjoy wine Fridays.

So here I am – it's February 14th 2022 and I feel better than I have in a long time. I had a goal of returning to work after the Christmas break and thanks to a podcast, a book and the love and support of the ones I hold dearest, I did it.

And nobody is going to tell me to 'let it go' anymore! Dammit!

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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