This post shared with permission of Carey Nieuwhof.
When you start out in leadership, it’s easy to think that everything will be up and to the right. I mean that’s how we plan it out in our heads, isn’t it?
And yet every leader I know faces a season or two that threatens to take them out. It just feels too hard—or not worthwhile enough—to continue.
For me, it came 12 years ago. It was the year I almost gave up on myself.
If you haven’t reached that moment, (sadly) I promise you as a leader it will likely come.
Can I share with you how it shows up for many of us?
It shows up for a lot of us as some form of burnout. I’m increasingly convinced the majority of leaders go through burnout in some form, and what makes it so difficult is that it’s hard to spot when you’re in it. In fact, others will see it more deeply and intensely than you will. You may be in it right now and have no clue that’s what’s ailing you.
I also increasingly think there are two forms of burnout. There’s full-on burnout, a condition so intense your life grinds to a halt. That’s what happened to me twelve years ago.
But I’m also seeing a second form. I call it low-grade burnout. All the symptoms of burnout are there, but not intensely enough to grind your life to a screeching halt. You can function, so you do function. But your soul feels like it’s been sucked dry, your joy is gone and frankly, you’re not having much fun anymore anywhere. Your heart feels like it’s slowly shrinking and dying.
You know what happens when you get into any form of burnout?
You want to give up on yourself.
That’s what happened to me twelve years ago. I felt like I was done.
I thank God looking back that I had friends and family who didn’t quit on me when I wanted to quit. They prayed for me, supported me and helped me get better. I’m so grateful for that. Sometimes you just need people to believe in you when you’ve stopped believing in yourself.
Sometimes you just need that friend, even if he’s a thousand miles away and writes a blog like this one. If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to give up on yourself, read on. It might be burnout.
Burnout can be hard to diagnose. I knew something inside me had broken, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
My speed decreased to a snail’s pace.
Hope felt like it had died.
My motivation and passion dropped to zero. (Make that zero Kelvin).
Like most people who experience burnout, it felt like a strange land. I had been tired before, but I had never truly been burned out. It was so disorienting I didn’t know what to do.
What terrified me is that I knew many in ministry and life had gone down this road before me and some of them never made it back. For them, their leadership was done. And sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before.
What’s worst is I think they were done with themselves before God was done with them. That’s what burnout does: Burnout can make you feel like you’re done with yourself long before God is done with you.
In my case, I had run hard for a decade, almost never stopping. In caring for others I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.
I spiraled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.
Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, board, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover.
It took, honestly, a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.
The good news is, there is life after burnout. In fact, my very best years in life and leadership have been after burnout.
I’m writing this because there’s hope. Maybe you’re right on the edge of the cliff right now. Or maybe you’re in free fall.
You don’t need to give up on yourself. It’s not over unless you think it’s over.
So how do you know if you’re burning out—either in a low-grade way or you’re experiencing full-out symptoms?
Here are 11 things I personally experienced as I burned out.
Experience enough of these, and you’ll be ready to give up on yourself.
What you need to know is that God hasn’t given up on you. And other people haven’t, even if you have. But these symptoms will make you feel like it.
Everybody struggles with passion from time to time, but burnout moves you into a place of sustained motivation loss.
Think about it, for those of you in leadership or ministry, you used to have a passion for what you did. Passion got you into leadership, and it’s one of the factors that make both life and leadership wonderful over a long period of time.
But when I burned out, my passion set like the sun.
I knew what I was doing was important (leading a local church), but I couldn’t feel it anymore.
I realized that a passionless leader will never lead a passionate ministry. But I just couldn’t find my passion anymore.
If you’re healthy, you feel things. You experience highs and lows.
When I burned out, I couldn’t feel either properly anymore.
If someone was celebrating the birth of a new child, I couldn’t feel happy. I just felt numb.
If someone was sick or fell into trouble, I couldn’t feel for them either. I just felt numb.
Burnout numbs your heart, and this was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near.
It’s not that burned out people feel zero emotion, but I know when I burned out, the emotions I felt were often just wrong.
One early sign I was heading for burnout was that little things started to set me off. Something (like a missed deadline) might be a 3 out of 10 on the problem scale, but I would react like it was an 11. That’s never good.
Treating small things like they are big things is a sign something deeper is wrong.
People are a mixed bag for sure. Some energize you. Some don’t. I get that. On this side of heaven, that’s life.
But when I burned out, I realize nobody energized me anymore. Not even my family, my friends or my leadership team.
In my head, I knew they were good people, but my heart couldn’t feel it.
When nobody energizes you, they’re not the problem. You are.
Oh, cynicism. It’s hard not to become cynical as you age (here’s why).
But cynicism never finds a home in a healthy heart.
If you find your cynicism is advancing at a rapid rate, it may be a sign you’re burning out.
One of the hardest aspects of burnout for me was that nothing seemed to satisfy me.
Sleep didn’t. Prayer didn’t. Good people didn’t. Recreation didn’t. Vacation didn’t. Work didn’t. Food didn’t.
That’s a sign of depression, and it’s also a sign you’re burnt out.
When you’re burning out, your heart messes with your head; you lose the ability to think straight.
I remember having read enough and listened to enough about mid-life crises and burnout to know that people make stupid decisions when they’re burnt out.
My emotions made me think I would always be this bad. That I was a failure. That there was no hope. That I should just quit.
So I had this daily conversation with myself that boiled down to five words: Just don’t do anything stupid.
For me, that meant not doing three things. I told myself, Carey, don’t:
Quit your job
Have an affair
Buy a sports car
By the grace of God, I did none of the three. The first two are still not part of my long-term plan, but one day I think it would be fun to have a sports car.
Some days, simply avoiding stupid is a win.
One sign I knew I was in burnout was incredibly low productivity.
I’m usually a fairly productive leader and person (some would say highly productive). But when I fell into burnout, even writing a simple email might take an hour.
I couldn’t think straight. My pace slowed right down, and I felt like there was a cloud between me and everything I was trying to do.
If you’re working long hours but producing little of value, you might be burning out.
In the early stages of burnout, many people turn to self-medicating to numb the pain.
Whether that’s overeating, overworking, sexual addictions, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care.
I avoided drinking, drugs or sex. My poison was, ironically, more work, which just spirals things downward.
People who are burning out almost always choose self-medication over self-care.
This is such a small thing that’s actually such a big thing.
If you’re burning out, you don’t laugh a lot. I remember in my recovery laughing out loud one day after listening to something on the radio. It was then that it hit me: it had been months since I had laughed out loud.
When you’re burning out, nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.
If you’re just tired, a good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy.
If you’re burning out, sleep and time off no longer refuel you. You could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference.
I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign that you’re burning out.
What if you don’t need to live that way anymore —exhausted and burned out? Can you have a much higher impact at work AND get your personal life back on track?
Actually, you can.
By the grace of God and with the help of some incredible people, I did come back from burnout and was able to keep leading, this time, far more healthily than before.
So how do you know if you’re burning out?
Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.
If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.
On the other hand, if you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself—burnout, either low-grade or full out.
If you are burnt out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor. I would also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends (again, my next post will be on recovery from burnout).