We had great intentions when we moved our young and growing family into a tough, inner city neighborhood. We were going to be part of the solution. We invested 10 years of our lives there. And boy do I have some stories.

Here’s the thing. With all the good that we did, something was increasingly missing. It took ten years of living there and three years living other places to figure it out.

I was absolutely burned out.

Parker Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change.

Palmer defines burnout as “violating one’s own nature in the name of nobility.” 

I figured out that I was starting with what the world needs–which is everything. Instead I needed to ask where I could uniquely contribute–not out of my flawed notion of nobility, but in a generative way that cultivated joy.

I was violating my own nature by ignoring my gifts, strengths, and purpose because I believed that hard, noble sacrifice was better. I was wrong. As I became clearer on what I did best in the world, it took me further from our neighborhood. I struggled to reconcile that distance which morphed into compulsive activity; then guilt; then numbness; and ultimately, disengagement.


Helpful Tools

Palmer’s definition of burnout requires a healthy dose of humility and a lot of inward reflection.  If inward reflection seems vague and uncomfortable to you, I recommend two powerful tools:

The Birkman Assessment measures 11 axes of personality, integrating behavioral, motivational, and occupational data to predict behavior and work satisfaction. It provides a powerful vocabulary for understanding your “nature”; how you, others, or your environment may be violating it, and what to do about it. If you want to learn more, give us a holler and we’ll be happy to share our experiences with the Birkman.

The “BOX” in our BOX Chart stands for Behavior, Outcome, and Trans(X)formation. You can use the BOX Chart to reflect on the Outcomes you really want, the Behavior that will drive that outcome, and– most importantly– the internal Transformation that will lead to sustained behavior change.


Here are 2 Keys for Avoiding Burnout:

  1. Question your core metrics and redefine success.

There’s nothing wrong with tracking things like efficiency, productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability. However, the most important work we do— relationship building, cultivating ideas, improving processes, identifying opportunities, developing people— is not as easy to measure, nor should it be. This is your unique contribution to the world. It’s messy, time-consuming, and absolutely essential.

I propose you measure progress toward your definition of success. Why do you do the work you do? What does true success look like for you? What are some of your markers of progress? (If you want to make this more practical, consider writing them in the Outcomes column of the BOX Chart, and let that guide the key behaviors and transformations needed to get you to success.)

  1. Reconnect with what makes you come alive.

Is it a basketball game with the guys? A hike through the woods? Playing soccer with your kids? Seeing a great movie? Time away from work shouldn’t be another form of busyness, but an intentional return to wholeness.

Writer Courtney Martin says, “It’s an act of rebellion to be a whole person. It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.”


I challenge you to rebel.

Reject the false nobility and compulsive work that leads to burnout.

Do the important work that only you can do.

18 Comments

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  1. This is a great blog post that is personal, transparent, and practical. I will definitely use the tools you’ve linked and described. I appreciate the way you coach and encourage, choosing not to burden the reader with unattainable or unrealistic expectations. Just what I needed today!

  2. So interesting that noble motivations don’t insure noble behaviors! Your awareness and transparency are gifts! Thank you!

    Well said! Be whole!

    wrd

    • Wil -It is interesting–and frustrating. I wish noble motivation was enough. There are a couple of interesting books on that topic: When Helping Hurts & Toxic Charity. Lots of food for thought.

  3. Excellent thought on this important topic! Thanks, Christin.

  4. Wow, Christin. Powerful words! I could definitely relate. We lived in a challenging neighborhood for 8 years where we confronted a lot of fatherless children. I believed God was calling me to that neighborhood but did not see much fruit/change. Eventually, God called us to a new neighborhood and in our first 6 months, we had more opportunities and more impact than the previous 8 years. It was a better for our family to minister. I don’t believe we have met, but
    I am connected to Chip in a number of ways, the first being that his wife was our doula!

    • Christin (Author)

      Austin,
      Isn’t that incredible? I think we don’t tell these stories enough. For me, it was because I still wrestled with lingering questions about trying harder and selfishness. I’m glad for your family and the impact you are having now. Would love to meet sometime.

  5. Your post reframed a recent experience for me– over the Christmas break, I was playing some board games with my family (ostensibly a ‘noble’ thing to do). It should have been relaxing and connecting, but instead I found myself disconnected, hypercompetitive, and irritable. It didn’t give me life, because I was doing it for the wrong reasons. Too often ‘should’ gets me in trouble.

    • Christin (Author)

      I can relate, Chip. The challenge is to see that false nobility and shift gears before we make ourselves and others miserable. My hope is that I catch myself “should-ing” faster and faster and give myself permission to bow out. What about you?

    • Wouldn’t it be easier if you just caught me instead? :)

  6. Your words touched my heart. I have been active with my faith community for many years and a few years ago I was feeling kind of empty. A friend encouraged me to go salsa dancing – something I used to do over 20 years ago – and with a few twirls around the dance floor, I had a life altering experience. I realized that with the demands of motherhood, faith commitments, work expectations, and community service I had forgotten what makes MY SPIRIT SOAR! Now, I spin around the salsa floor every other week and I the “grin” – that was so prevalent in my younger years – has returned! I am thankful for this small moment in my life when I can just be free!

    • Christin (Author)

      Tina,
      I love that image! I’m glad you have such great friends and that you said yes to what brings you joy. Dance on, my friend.

    • Alyssa Johnson

      Tina,
      That’s such a great reminder to us of the importance of honoring our needs. Too many times, we put those needs aside because we believe they’re silly or selfish. We think we need/should focus on everyone else in order to be “good”. But ignoring our needs drains us and makes us ineffectual in serving the ones that mean the most. I’m so glad you’re getting out there and letting your spirit soar. What a great model for your kids and the other adults in your life!

  7. David Leazenby

    Thanks for the insight, Christin. Great post.

  8. I really enjoyed your perspective on this topic, Christin. Helping people with “everything” can take us away from (1) what we are really good at and (2) what we enjoy. Rebelling can allow you to start saying no to “everything” as you redefine success for yourself. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks Mike. You’re right. But it’s so tempting to believe that helping with “everything” is better, isn’t it? This was a hard and humbling lesson for me, but I’ve found so much joy on the other side.