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Coming Through Burnout’s Heart Of Darkness

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BurnOut Kuel Category Expert: Liza Baker

If the first summer of the pandemic was the summer I read a lot of works on anti-racism and revisited Jane Austen’s oeuvre, this second one may just turn out to be the summer of Barbara Kingsolver.

I’m currently reading (ahem, listening to the audiobook) Animal Dreams, which was my introduction to her work. But I started my review with one of my all-time favorite books,The Poisonwood Bible.

“I was most deeply moved by Orleanna’s observations as a mother.”

Burnout’s Heart Of Darkness:

If you’re my age or older, The Poisonwood Bible is likely to bring to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Which I understand maybe on many people’s list of books that ought to be banned. And from there, it’s not a big stretch to The African Queen and probably even Out of Africa (which I’ll admit to watching at least 10 times in the theater while I was studying abroad.)

My younger self admired Leah’s passion for social justice. I was intrigued by Adah’s facility with language when making startling commentary on the world around her. Looked down my nose at Rachel’s utter lack of self-awareness. And giggled at Ruth May’s malapropisms. However, I was most deeply moved by Orleanna’s observations as a mother.

The Difference Between Our Treatment Of Our Babies:

“wanting to cuddle them and smell their skin as though we could breathe them back into our own bodies where we imagine we can keep them safe forever”

Having just given birth to my second child, I appreciated her articulation of the difference between our treatment of our babies: we cheer every effort toward independence in our first—rolling over, crawling, walking, running, even when those very acts send them on a trajectory away from us. And we baby the last one, wanting to cuddle them and smell their skin as though we could breathe them back into our own bodies where we imagine we can keep them safe forever.

Wow, did that come home to roost this summer as I applauded my eldest as she went off to a summer program in Minnesota. And panicked about my youngest as he took a road trip that included his 18th birthday with his high school friends to the Badlands: seven kids, two cars, two coolers, 2000+ miles round trip.

Negotiation Around Curfews:

This trip was directly preceded by yet another negotiation around curfews.

“Why do I have a curfew? None of my friends do. None of them have had a curfew since they were 16. And I’m already 18! What are you going to do next year when I’m in college? Check on me to make sure I’m in my room by midnight?!?”

“That’s different.”

“HOW IS  THAT DIFFERENT?!?”

“If you’re nearby, I can help you if you get into trouble; if you’re far away, I have to just accept that I can’t.”

“Whatever.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up: we hang onto that desire for control, which always turns out to be an illusion.

“Really trips into the heart of darkness made more difficult by our need for control and our distaste for ambiguity.”

Into The Heart Of Darkness:

When I teach nutrition, I refer to the center aisles of the grocery store as the heart of darkness. I’m thinking of giving that up. In part, because many of my clients are too young to get the joke, and in part because, that book is part of a past in which anti-racism was not even a glimmer on the horizon.

And yet, I’ve been thinking about how many of our most negative experiences, (physical disease, mental/emotional struggles, relationship issues, financial troubles, burnout, the pandemic, burnout around the pandemic) really trips into the heart of darkness. This is all made more difficult by our need for control and our distaste for ambiguity.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver titles her sections after books of the Bible with a strong dose of the Apocrypha mixed in. Genesis, Revelation, Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children—and subtitles them more simply: The Things We Carried, The Things We Learned, The Things We Didn’t Know, What We Lost, What We Carried Out.

As a health coach, I’m constantly looking for ways to simplify my clients’ health journeys. I search for ways to bring a little order to what can feel like overwhelming chaos of information “out there” in the land of doctors, therapists, alternative practitioners, friends, family members, and would-be gurus.

And it occurs to me that Kingsolver’s structure is a fine framework for approaching our health journeys, particularly if we are in burnout.

The Burnout Bible:

We Carry Burnouts With Us:

As women over 40, most of us are carrying a lot of baggage: yes, perhaps some extra weight and some hot flashes and emotional instability. But most of it is comprised of obligations and expectations—both external and internal.

Is it any wonder we’re burning out? We bear a disproportionate share of the mental load in most traditional households. The more full-time we work, the more of that cognitive work we take on; and we are disproportionately affected by the pandemic compared to men.

Depths Of Burnout:

“we cannot do our best work nor take the best care of those who depend on us if we don’t do our own inner work and nourish ourselves first.”

When we sink into the depths of burnout, the most important lesson we learn is that we cannot. In fact, have/do it all. At least not at the same time.

We learn that, indeed, the oxygen mask metaphor is an apt one: we cannot do our best work nor take the best care of those who depend on us if we don’t do our own inner work and nourish ourselves first.

We learn that doing the most good in the world means serving others from our abundance—what overflows our cup. Not from our lack – where we are turning our cup upside down and hoping we have some dregs to spread around.

What Do We Not Know?

All of our learnings come when we discover that we have not recognized our own innate value irrespective of others’ existence and demands. And we don’t fully understand our own strength and power until we can root ourselves in that value.

What Do We Lose?

One concept behind Maslow’s much-disputed Hierarchy of Needs really stands out to me: the idea that the first four levels (physiological, safety, belonging, esteem) are deficiency needs—we are driven to meet them from a sense of lack.

The final level, self-actualization, is a growth need. When we seek self-actualization, we are coming from a place of abundance. We have all we need. Fulfillment of our potential is an added bonus.

When I work with clients around the subject of burnout, one mindset shift I encourage them to make is from lack to abundance. We are conditioned to view the world from a place of lack: there are simply not enough resources to do what is being asked of us (or at least that’s what we think).

So what we lose in the process of reversing burnout can, ironically, be lack.

Topic Of Control:

“when we’re in the dark part of a health journey, we can think of “losing” as a positive act”

Back to the topic of control (and its illusion). One resource many women feel is in extremely limited supply is time. We are all given a different span of years, but we all get the same 24 hours in a day. If you think that you are “good at time management,” you are kidding yourself—you’re really better at stewarding your energy.

Stewarding our energy requires us to really engage our inner wisdom to discover what really matters and define what our values are. Then we align our daily choices with those values. When we view our lives through that lens, we can release a lot of the tasks we used to consider as things we “should” do.

(And speaking of “should,” that’s another thing it serves us to lose!)

Coming from a place of lack, the word “lose” usually has negative connotations. In a funny sort of twist, when we’re in the dark part of a health journey, we can think of “losing” as a positive act—releasing something that no longer serves you.

What Do We Carry Out?

If we think of “loss” as a release of what no longer serves us, what we carry out of the darkness are the bare essentials.

What we carry out is a renewed—or sometimes newly discovered for the first time, sense of self. A self that is valuable for the mere fact that she exists and not because she is a daughter, a partner, a lover, a mother, a friend, or a sister. And that woman comes out of the darkness wearing her oxygen mask and carrying her overflowing cup.

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Liza Baker

About the Author:

Liza Baker is a full-time health coach and nonprofit consultant, self-published author, blogger, podcaster, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Her favorite women to support are the under-appreciated, under-listened to, under-taken-care-of, under-valued, overwhelmed, overworked, overscheduled, overtired, and OVER. IT. ALL. women 40+ who work in the mission-driven/nonprofit sector. Put more simply: she helps women be well while doing good.