Burnout is marked by exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of personal ineffectiveness. It arises when our values are out of sync with the place and people we work with. It’s a vicious cycle: try to bring it all together and we get tired enough that the worth of the work comes into doubt. Not only that, the people we serve become the target for our frustrations and disgruntlement. Slowly, our confidence erodes and we don’t feel like showing up for fear that we will be discovered to be incompetent. Dissonance in our internal value system can also feed into this depletion cycle.
Somewhere in my long, slow, sinking spiral, I began to see that the connection between what I set as my ideal experience and how I judged my lived experience was doing more damage than any Captain Bligh I could serve. It was exhausting to wake up every morning to the same refrain of failure and inadequacy. It was heart-numbing to bear the unending assaults of disappointment and recrimination for the slightest misstep. It was terrifying to believe that all the years of training, practice, and dedication had not made me good at what I loved.
Caught in the thrall of my fear-fueled ego, it didn’t occur to me to check in with reality which told a different story. That only came with unrelenting practice on the cushion; it gave me the Ta-Da List. Not only was I learning to check off the icky, sticky treacle of the mind, I was also beginning to note the neutral and pleasant stuff. I was learning to observe and study the whole landscape – the real nature of my life. In truth, my ideal set point didn’t really drop a notch; I enjoyed (still) setting high standards for myself. My actual experiences didn’t change much either; I got the work done, met demands and requests as best I could, and deadlines were met or not. However, I did stop becoming harsh in my judgments of the differential between the ideal and actual states of my experience. I learned that clutching to the ideals was what made me Captain Bligh; appealing only my lived experience was a flight into hedonism. The path was to be navigated somewhere between the jagged cliff and the whirlpool.
One of the neat discoveries in the Chaplaincy thesis was the relationship between the three burnout factors and spiritual incongruence in the personal domain; the other domains are Community, Environment, and a Relationship with the Divine which were only related to personal ineffectiveness. People who experienced high levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and belief of personal ineffectiveness also felt the greatest differential between their ideal and actual personal spiritual values. They felt disconnected from joy, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and meaning. They had high ideal scores on spiritual well-being and felt they moderately met these ideals. And, the personal domain showed the greatest dissonance between their ideal and lived experience.
It makes for a good argument for self-compassion, doesn’t it? But self-compassion is only indulgence without the fierce companionship of our values. As long as I am willing to be dragged along in the wake of strong forces that are the trademark of organizations and internal cravings to be protected and cared for, I cannot stand true to my values. And it is only by noticing the differential between my ideal and actual self that I can adapt to navigate the waters safely.