In a perfect world, when people—you, me, our kids, our coworkers, our clients—are functioning optimally, we’re able to balance our priorities, navigate competing imperatives, and meet daily challenges with flexibility and creativity, all while maintaining fidelity to our core values. Living this way lends our lives a sense of meaning and satisfaction.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, so occasionally we end up fumbling priorities, getting irritated, and wondering why we can’t be the serene paragon of excellence we imagine we’re supposed to be. Yet despite our imperfections and the curve balls that life throws at us, we can still find meaning and satisfaction in our complicated lives.
We’ve all experienced crisis mode. Parents are particularly familiar with it: A catastrophe occurs and all our mental and physical resources are redirected to avert the danger, to stop the bleeding, to rescue the kid from the burning house. The ability to focus on an immediate hazard is terrific, but when the crisis goes on and on, we’re going to run into system overload. And here we are.
Constant, ambiguous dread leaves us feeling like we need to do something but robs us of any sense of what we might do first. We can get stuck in decision paralysis; there are too many options and we’re unable to choose the best one. Our brains try to maintain the level of arousal required in an emergency, but our resources become depleted. We get overwhelmed and, eventually, we’re left depressed and dissatisfied—burned out.
The symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, cynicism about work and reduced efficacy. We feel that we’re not living up to our own expectations and tend to be plagued by anxiety, doubt, and shame. This is an understandable reaction to an extreme situation.
People often have limited control over their immediate circumstances, but we get to decide how we interpret and respond to what’s happening to us. Viktor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is essential in the face of catastrophes like loss of function or chronic pain. Maintaining focus on the things we can do, giving ourselves things to look forward to, finding new ways to engage in life—this perspective is essential to adapting to chronic conditions.
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean acknowledging what’s happening and having a detached curiosity where we can ask: What’s happening here? How am I feeling? What am I anxious about? What am I avoiding? What are my values? What is workable and what do I need to let go of? Acceptance brings us to self-awareness, connection, and compassion for ourselves in all our messy, imperfect humanity. It allows us to make mindful decisions about how we want to respond to where we are instead of wishing we were somewhere else.
From here we can take an inventory of what’s important to us. How much time are we focusing on the things that provide us with meaning and satisfaction? We might try keeping a worry log and consistently checking in with ourselves. Gratitude journaling is helpful, as is a more general accounting of the things that brought satisfaction that day.
We want to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. To do this, we can walk, we can get in touch with things bigger than ourselves—art, music, nature. We can meditate. Sing in the car. Use emotional grounding or mindfulness exercises. It’s good to do these at transitional points throughout the day.
Research demonstrates the positive impact that showing up for other people can have on us. Small acts are often more meaningful than grand gestures. We can tell people when we appreciate them. We can focus more on habits and efforts, less on accomplishments. At work, or in groups, focus on superordinate goals (goals you share with others that require their cooperation to achieve them) and group identity. Maintaining a sense of shared well-being is essential to addressing burnout in employment settings.
Humanity will survive this time of stress, as it’s survived many other catastrophes. Hopefully, we can derive meaning from our experiences now as many have before. Be kind to yourself, focus on what you’re doing well, notice and learn from missteps, but then forgive yourself for them. Take care of yourself so you can continue to show up for other people, because we’re all in this together.
Dr. Cundick is a psychologist who works with adults, teens, and children and provides psychotherapy, psychological testing, and in the future, parenting classes to the Moab community. He is the incoming president of the Utah Psychological Association.