Healing burnout

How “who we are” and “what we do” affect our health

Growing up, most of us learn that we are either healthy or sick. And when we are sick, we usually treat the illness on a physical level, with medication, therapy or surgery. We rarely think of our work, our attitude towards life or towards others and ourselves, as being a possible cause for illness. Over the course of many years, I have come to realize that health has another, more hidden aspect: it is connected to us living our true potential as human beings, based on who we are.

Our potential is rather like a muscle: if we don't use it, it shrivels and its energy goes stale. This affects our mental and physical health, leading to anxiety, lack of energy and motivation, but also to more serious diseases.

Each one of us is a unique instrument of creation, defined by our background, perception and talents. Often, we use only those aspects that are acceptable to the norm and people around us, beginning with our families and schools. We thus cut off and deprive ourselves of a great potential and energy that can be decisive in creating what matters to us.

A young man, around the age of 30, came to me for career coaching. His doctor had diagnosed burnout. He was not yet at the stage of not being able to work at all, but he was off work regularly, generally lacking energy, and unable to breathe properly. Because he also wanted to change careers, but didn't know what exactly he wanted to do next, and how to go about it, he was referred to me by a friend.
After our first coaching he said he was able to breathe for the first time again in ages. After about a year he had changed careers and was doing exactly what we had found to be his next preferred career step. He was still working within the same company, just as he had hoped for. And in a team he absolutely loved and who really appreciated him, supporting him in his move.

What did we do that enabled this? The process was simple, though this doesn't mean it was always straightforward and easy! There were several crises on the way, times, when we didn't know where this would lead.

What I did in the first session was to create a space of acceptance and trust. The issues that had led to his burnout were openly acknowledged, addressed and taken seriously. This is what I call “loving who you are”.

During the course of our next sessions, we went on to explore what his strengths are, his values, what kind of environment helps him create success in his life. Once this has become clearer, we can proceed to find a suitable environment, type of work, activities to do. I'd like to add that this process contiues for as long as we live. New potential can be developed at any age. And once we've activated hitherto unknown strengths, there are new ones to be discovered.

I'd like to use an image to illustrate: if we were a plant, a tree, we would first need to find out what kind of a plant this is, what it needs in terms of water, light, soil etc. What is the right environment to plant it in, where it can thrive and produce fruit. This fruit, in turn, can nourish many people surrounding it. If we plant it in the wrong soil, feed it too much or not enough water etc, it will ultimately die. Now, we usually do this for plants, why not for us human beings?

Taking a first next step to create something that matters in our lives, is the key to unfolding our hidden potential. In the case of my young client, through exploring who he was, and what he liked doing, we found that in his work, up to that point, he had alway liked coaching, teaching others, helping them to do a better job at selling. As a sales person he had also done some sales trainings. He enjoyed inspiring his collegues, which quickly brought us to thinking about a career move, from sales to training.

The most obvious next step was to look into further education for him to become a trainer, but we also remained open to other options. During this time, he activated his network inside his company, and someone came up with the idea of doing a kind of „taster day“ in the department he wanted to work in, i.e. in training. On that day, he did a really good job there, met lovely people he liked, and who liked him. Unfortunatly they didn't have a job for him at the time.

The process of finding his next step was not linear. He continued looking for other options and applying for jobs in other companies, but kept his desire to work in that training department alive. And, in spite of all his doubts, crises and uncertainties, after a year, he was exactly where he wanted to be. He had managed to change jobs, and was now working in the training department of the same company he had worked for before, in sales. When I saw him, a few months later, he was very happy – and just as important: he was completely restored in his health and revitalized.

How did our coaching help? My job as a coach was to believe in his future, and in his secret potential, to enable him to feel courage and strength, and to support him in stepping outside his current comfort zone. Where necessary, I was also able to help with practicalities, connecting him with others, using my network, adapting his CV etc. He could have done all of these things on his own, but he may well have given up along the way.
Besides more traditional tools, we used music and meditation techniques to help him relax. Relaxing is a key element in opening up to new possibilities, to life. It's rather like trying to fill more water into a full glass: you can only do it if you empty it first. If it's full it will overflow. The same is true for us.

We also used pictures to visualize his inner vision, and to gauge what point of implementing his vision he was at. On a more practical level, we redid his CV to match his goal. And last, but not least, I held the space for him to believe a major change of career and lifestyle was possible, until he trusted himself, and life, to make this move. He wanted more than anything to change his life, but he was also very much afraid. This is true for many people. We grow to feel secure in what we've built, even if it's no longer valid and no longer makes sense.

Making changes in our approach to life, in what we do professionally, or in our attitude to ourselves, has a profound impact on us, and on our health. I have come to realize, both in working with clients, and in my own life, that there are 3 basics, and one overriding principle.

The basics are:

  • know yourself -
  • love who you are -
  • and create what matters.

If you're lacking just one of these three, you may well get sick, as I experienced myself a few years ago. In my case the missing link was loving myself.

I had always followed my passion, first in music, becoming a professional musician, then as a visual artist, painting and sculpting. I was successful in both, having followed my inner calling. I had “known myself” and “created what mattered” most to me. And yet, I had fallen seriously ill, which made me question my values up till then. At this new crossing in my life, using one of the techniques I had developed, which was to tap into my own inner wisdom, I received the follwing answer: you've learned to love others unconditionally, it's now time to learn to do the same for yourself. By loving myself, I re-created a new cycle of getting to know another part of myself, and have since started to create an entirely new life, based on this new potential. Once again it was an illness that triggered full potential.

This brings me to the underlying essential principle I've discovered: we co-create our lives with life as our partner, and we will be most successfull, happy and healthy if we learn to co-operate with life as it is, rather than imposing our wishes, or ignoring what life is offering us. We need to start exactly where we are, with life as it is and under the existing conditions. No use waiting till everything is the way we think it should be. Conditions will never be right for us to do what we most want to do.

On the other hand, life has a way of presenting us with many opportunities, which we often miss, due to our narrow focus on what we want, what we think is possible or necessary, and on how things should be. If we open up to realize that life is here to support us, and that it has endless highly creative ways of helping us get to where we want to go, we can notice opportunities that will take us to places we could never have dreamed of.

In the case of my client, it was life that presented the perfect answer, one we would never have come up. By co-operating and seizing the opportunity it was giving him, he managed to get exactly where he wanted to go – a place that life first made him experience.

Learning to love myself started about four years ago, and I doubt it will end before this life is over. There is always more to learn. It has led me to a completely new life, coaching business people. This was not a plan I made, but something that came about by co-operating with life as it presented itself to me at the time. But that is another story...