That time I burned out | Thinking Out Loud No. 37

And being vulnerable on the Internet

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I burned out a couple of years ago

I’m going to go straight into it and finally go here. For some reason it came up this week, so I’m going to follow it through to its conclusion.

Around New Year 2017/2018 I ‘burned out’, mainly because of work-related factors, though there were some other personal life things going on at the same time that contributed.

The main context was that I had been working 70-80 hour weeks solidly for months, with no meaningful boundary between work and home life. Then, one morning, actually after a non-work related stressor, I woke up and I couldn’t work any more.

When I say burnout, I don’t just mean slow and gradual loss of interest and increasing fatigue, although that happened too. I mean that I had a dissociative episode, which I recognise on reflection, but didn’t recognise at the time.

I didn’t see emails to respond to when I looked at my laptop screen, I saw blurry shapes and colours. I seemed to have no meaningful theory of mind, either. Other people surely didn’t have their own subjective experience, they were Non-Player Characters — just like me.

I only took a week off and then I was back at work, but I was not okay. 

Over the coming months I somehow managed to claw my way back to about 50-70% of my previous high capacity, but then stayed there. A year and a half after the episode in that same job, and after trying and failing to get back to where I was, an opportunity came up for me to go somewhere else. So I did, hoping a change of scene would help.

It did not. 

I mean, I was doing fine. The sort of fine that is okay for coasting and occasionally impressing people at the right moments. But that’s not what I wanted and it dawned on me: “I shouldn’t start from here”…

A traveller stops to ask a farmer the way to a small village. The farmer thinks for a while and then says "If you want to go there I would not start from here.” — Apparently an Irish joke, retrieved from WordReference.

That’s why I quit not only my job, but the frame it represented. I built my escape route from that system on the side, because I knew I needed to explore an entirely new way of being — to heal, and to figure out the frames that allow me to be at my best without also hurting me and, by extension, those around me.

This is where I am now — and I think this is an excellent place to start.

Well that was vulnerable, wasn’t it?

My style of writing seems to be to look at my own experiences and extract some kind of wisdom or generalisable principles that I can share usefully.

This often leads me to some pretty personal places, like what I just talked about, although I rarely feel so uncomfortable that I pull back. Sometimes I move closer to “this might be too much”, but I sit with the feeling and I’ve never regretted writing and publishing what I find in that space, although of course I wouldn’t publish everything.

On the whole, I think that the benefits of being vulnerable outweigh the risks, but that doesn’t make it easy, nor would I recommend that everyone just dive into it. 

Here are two big benefits.

By sharing my own stories other people might see something they can connect with.

Seriously, I get more and more emails and DMs on Twitter where people say “that sounds familiar” or “I’m there right now” or, most simply, just “thank you”. 

That alone makes it worth it. Being vulnerable lets the others find me.

I process out my own trauma.

Whenever I share something vulnerable, particularly in a public space like this newsletter, on Twitter, or on YouTube — or even just with a small group in person, when that used to happen — I go through a similar experience of fear, relief and then exhaustion and weird mood.

My sense is that it's appropriate for this to happen and I've learned to watch and lean into it. It’s just my system recalibrating to the fact that it was probably okay to share that thing, actually, and perhaps my world is safer than I thought it was. 

The immediate tiredness is probably a release of long-standing muscle tension associated with that held emotional and psychological pattern. Again, I think this is a good thing, because it leads to an ease and lightness as my body gets more and more relaxed.

“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” – F.M.Alexander

Listening to the wisdom of the body and using that felt sense to navigate my inner and outer worlds really is a powerful way to be. The vulnerability hangover is just part of that process.

If you’re tempted to go here yourself, I encourage it, but I should caution you as well.

First, I have been practicing this for many years now, playing with my fear dials such that I am now pretty good at reading my own psychophysical sense of what is the right amount of vulnerability for where I am. I am a trained coach and Alexander Technique teacher, both of which give me space to practice and tools to navigate all this. And I have been writing online for larger and larger audiences for years. 

Second, whether by chance or by skill, the spaces I occupy online give me a sense of psychological safety. If you’re not used to being vulnerable, particularly publicly, then being criticised when you are can be a dangerous thing. A great way to mess up children, for example, is to punish them for doing something good, and that is what criticising earnestness and vulnerability is like. 

The risk of being criticised for being vulnerable never goes away, of course, but the more you do it and the more comfortable you get with it, the thicker your skin and the more easily you can see criticism in context. It might be information that you crossed a line, but more likely it’s information about the person criticising you. 

Despite those warnings though, I am hugely grateful that I’ve been on this journey and I encourage others to dip a toe in to the extent that is stretching, but not too stretching. If you’re embarking on something similar and want to talk about it, feel free to hit reply.

By the way, if you read on you’ll see where a lot of the ideas I just talked about came from…

Daily writing, my Notebook, and things I have made this week

This week I made a new ‘Notebook’ section on my website as a space for daily writing. Why?

Basically, I am now someone who makes a living (I hope) from making things. I have become ‘a creative’.

Cool! Living the dream. But, actually, that requires me to be creative and to make things. Who knew?

Words are the stuff my creativity is made of — even the YouTube videos — so I need to write, and write a lot. I want to be able to write consistently, prolifically and insightfully about a wide range of topics. 

In service of that, I want to establish a daily writing and publishing habit. My friend David MacIver has written an excellent note (in his Notebook) on why a Notebook is a good way to write a lot and I encourage you to read it. For me, having a public place to put something of a minimal viable level of polish that people could conceivably read is an excellent motivator — far more than writing in a private journal. 

Aiming to get one something published in my Notebook each day is my main writing goal for the foreseeable future. Many other written things, I suspect, will emerge from that. 

This week I wrote:

And since I’ve been on a creative roll this week, I made YouTube videos about many of these. 

This has been a really good illustration of how creative workflows and ‘repurposing content’ can be unbelievably useful. In each case I wrote the notes first, which loaded a set of structured talking points into my brain, and then all I had to do was riff on what I just wrote about.

This is a valuable thing to be able to do, because I end up getting YouTube practice, the audiences are very different, and I develop the ideas some more as I shift medium.

Here are the videos.

Play long, different games; win. This isn’t one of the notes above, but talks about why playing different games from those around you — perhaps triggered by long term thinking — helps you avoid competing with them, and lets you win your own game on your own terms.

Not caring helps us perform better.

Recovering from burnout

Navigating the vulnerability hangover

I have a new Zoom setup

And I think it’s fair to say that this is enough now, Michael.

It’s great, but I think some people feel like they’re talking to a YouTube video, only one that hears what they’re saying and then talks back.

Thanks for reading! See you next time.

Michael


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