Lessons in preventing burnout

Jul 13, 2020

A recent vacation this month gave me much needed time to break away from work and space for quiet reflection. The past four months have felt like a downward spiral with the pandemic and the challenges that have come with fighting for equity in local networks impacting children and families. An educator’s nightmare happened with school closures in mid-March. We are just starting to understand the social, emotional, and academic consequences on youth from prolonged school absences. Learning loss is no longer limited to the summer months but extended by an additional 2-3 months. Inequities within education were exposed like a wound that never healed.

Prior to our trip I was exhausted and burned out, mostly from frustration about our country's tangled systems, but I’m now realizing there was something more underneath it all. My desire and urgency to keep creating positive change wherever possible is ever present, but I feel like the kind of change needed is too heavy to lift.

In most circumstances, I’m optimistic when it comes to laying out a process and sticking to it. With work and life, I celebrate small wins and share these in gratitude with everyone involved. However, this year has uncovered so many frailties and systemic gaps that those small wins have been overshadowed in my mind. Our current situation has made me wonder if our collective society genuinely wants a country in which every person has the foundation for well-being.

Are those of us who are privileged willing to be uncomfortable and make sacrifices to ensure equity and safety encompasses every person?

The political landscape is so ugly and hateful right now. The word "divided" seems inadequate to describe what's happening and this is overwhelming for brokers of peace.

My pattern is to try and pull lessons out of experiences when I start to feel overwhelmed, so here is what I've pulled out during my break away from Iowa. I realized that these apply to the systems work I engage in daily:

1) The unexpected is natural.

While I dislike structure imposed on me from others, I need and rely on structures I create for myself. Yet, I’m realizing things often don't turn out exactly as expected, even with the most carefully constructed plan, and this is the natural state of circumstances. Disruption is a natural cycle and if we lean into this disruption and feel our way through it, we grow.

2) Change is messy, but there is beauty in the messiness.

My curse as an optimist is to look for beauty in the direst circumstances. I recognize that there are some situations in which beauty can not be found. With these, the best we can hope for is resolution. However, in most cases, when change is occurring, and specifically with change in systems, sweet moments of unity shine through and provide hope.

3) The sweet moments are a lifeline for advocates.

We need to recognize the sweet moments of unity when they come. They are lifelines that can be gathered when things are overwhelming. The word “mindfulness” sounds cliché and has been overused, but it’s truly this spirit I need. Mindfulness to me means the reverence that comes with feeling through things when they are happening. When it's time for me to jump back into the fray and chip away at those systemic gaps, I will need the relief of the sweet moments to help me move forward.

4) Take a break.

Advocacy is hard. Working to create positive circumstances for others is hard. Understanding the weight of trying to change things without having a lot of control is hard. Despite this, my mantra lately has been, “I can do hard things.” Now I also see that it’s okay to take a break, breathe, and re-center myself. The break will help me build up my strength to be a better advocate in the long term and tackle the hard things while not burning out.

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