Burnout Seeds Can Be Stretchy
It's surprising to me how we can be transported back in time instantaneously.
Yesterday a friend was relating a story about helping a youth that they know, who I'll call "Thomas". Thomas had come over to help my friend with some yard work. While this young man had grown up not far away geographically, my friend soon discovered that there was another gap that was much wider than expected.
The first task on the list was to trim weeds with a string trimmer and Thomas eagerly volunteered to take it on. This task, which might seem straightforward to many, was a mystery to him.
I'm guessing that many of you are already visualizing how you'd move around the edges of the property, next to garden beds, near the foundation of the house, and all the other tight spots that a lawnmower cannot reach. Many people would do this without a second thought.
For Thomas, who was raised in the inner city in homes without a yard, the task was anything but intuitive.
Upon realizing that Thomas didn't know where to start, my friend took time to explain how and where to use the string trimmer, pointing out the areas that the lawnmower would be able to handle instead.
Turns out there was a lot to learn from this seemingly trivial task, both for my friend and for Thomas.
Meanwhile, as I listened to the story, my mind hopped into the time machine.
"I want you to go into the garage and grab me a putty knife, ok?"
In an instant I was remembering my 7-year old self hearing those words. Mr. Bennett, a kind yet rugged, no nonsense guy, had given me that task. I can't recall what project he was working on - there was always something to be done at his home, a well kept plot in the woods, dotted with meticulous vegetable gardens, outbuildings, and play structures for his kids. Whatever it was, he needed a putty knife.
Mr. Bennett was a firefighter and friend of my grandfather's. He was also the father of my best friend from elementary school, a boy named Bill. They lived half a mile up the road from me.
In another sense, it was like they lived on another planet.
I loved going over to play at Bill's family's house in the woods. Actually, a big part of that was because it felt like I was transported into a new world each time I went there.
He'd let me anxiously try their homemade zip line.
We would swim in their above ground pool.
We'd run through trails, pretending we were Ponch and Jon from the 70's TV show "CHiPs". (I was always Ponch.)
And we'd always have to earn our playtime by helping with chores.
So when Bill's dad asked me to go get a putty knife, I simply said "Yes." I wanted to help and I wanted him to know I could be counted on to do what he asked.
The problem was my frame of reference did not match Mr. Bennett's. The only way I understood the term "putty" was from the Silly Putty that I had at home. But my little 7-year old brain quickly recalled the little curvy, red plastic knife that my sister and I used to dice up our Silly Putty.
"I can find that!", I thought.
Then I got into the garage. There was nothing red, nor plastic, in sight. There were lots of bins and a big workbench, a pegboard that held lots of tools I didn't recognize on small metal hooks.
Fear set in. I didn't want to disappoint Mr. Bennett. He had asked me to help. I was important! But I couldn't find anything in the garage that looked right. So I scrambled.
"What can I find that's the same shape and size as that red plastic knife?"
And at the last minute, as I was heading back from the garage, ready to disappoint Mr. Bennett by failing to deliver the precious putty knife, I discovered it. There, lying on the ground, was a stick that was so close in shape and size to what I was seeking! I eagerly picked it up and brought it to him.
I'll never forget Mr. Bennett's reaction. A serious man, he looked at me with a quizzical look at this "tool" I had offered him. And then he asked me a question I didn't like.
"You don't know what a putty knife is, do you?"
And here another miracle of time and space took place: My fleeting sense of pride in my unexpected discovery (the stick) turned instantly to deep shame. Though Mr. Bennett kindly walked me to the garage and explained to me what a putty knife is, I was already gone, deep into a spiraling embarrassment that stunned me.
All these years later I finally understand what was going on in that moment.
It ultimately had little to do with my lack of knowledge of tools. It was the underlying realities.
Bill lived 0.6 miles from me. In a house. With a yard. And play structures and a garage filled with tools and a pool. And his sisters and his firefighter dad and his homemaker mom.
I lived in the Elm Street apartments, in a second story, two-bedroom apartment. With a shared yard. And neighbors on the other side of the wall. And those candy cane-like pipes that peered up from the septic system's leeching field. And a sister and a single mom, who needed me to spend time at a friend's house after school while she was working.
I was so ashamed of my situation. I didn't have a Dad around to teach me about putty knives. I didn't have a yard to play in. I didn't live in a family that had money to spend on pools and play structures.
And I wanted to be accepted. I feared that I wouldn't be - that my differences would be revealed.
This is where yet another burnout seed, a stretchy one, had been planted in me.
My response to Mr. Bennett's request wasn't to ask for help. I didn't feel like I could. I didn't want to be exposed for the things that felt shameful to me. Instead, I put my head down and tried to come up with an answer that I couldn't possibly find.
The pattern that took root for me was this: When faced with situations where I felt shame about my "not enoughness", I decided to isolate and work through the situation, often times with tools that didn't make sense.
This over-functioning carried on from childhood through adulthood and across every aspect of my life. Whether trying to figure out dating relationships, calculus homework, or a new job, I continued to go it alone and suffer in silence.
I now realize that the effects of all of that isolation and my attempts to outwork every problem were key drivers for my years of burnout. My attempts to hide my shame, rather than deal with it directly, deepened the spiral.
Shame, like Silly Putty, is powerful.
Both are able to pick up an image and reflect it in a distorted manner.
And, with my case as an example, they can both stretch on in ways that we can't even imagine. They might even lead you straight into burnout.
Jim Young is a men's burnout coach. He works with men on understanding their own unique version of burnout and which elements contributed to it. Because, like Silly Putty, burnout can take an infinite variety of shapes.
When he's not coaching or leading groups, Jim likes to ask questions and learn, without shame. He especially likes learning from his kids, his partner, and his friends, all of whom know how to bring openness and laughter into his life, often through the use of play. (Who knew that could be possible?)
If you'd like to talk more about burnout or learn about how Jim helps men with it, you can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim will be opening up his Every Day Breakout community, designed specifically to help men recover from burnout, in late 2021.