You don't get burned out in a day, a week, or even a month. Instead, it washes over you, a slowly rising tide of "toomuchness" that you don't notice until you are bobbing and gasping for air. You probably also notice that it's been quite a while that you have been saying, "I just need to swim a bit longer, dig a bit deeper. I'll get through this."
The problem is that you keep saying that, yet more water keeps flooding in, no matter how hard or how well you swim.
I know. That hand sticking up from the water in a desperate last gasp is exactly how I felt 8 years ago. I was metaphorically drowning as a result of burnout. It could have killed me if I hadn't done something different.
The Kiddie Pool
From as far back as I can remember, I got the message to go it alone even when I was scared and didn't know what to do. I recall so vividly the first instance of that, the one that set the tone for me for the next 35 or so years.
It was late fall, 1979. I was 9 years old and my mom had recently (finally) kicked her abusive boyfriend out of our home. It was a Wednesday night, which in our apartment complex meant that trash was being picked up the next morning. I'll never forget my mom turning to me in the kitchen and telling me that I needed to take the trash out because, in her words, I was now "the man of the house".
I also remember my exact reaction in that moment. First I was hit with a wave of fear - I had to go out alone across a dark parking lot to a dumpster in this shady part of the parking lot. Then it hit me that I didn't actually know how to take the trash out. Not that it was super complicated, but I didn't know any of the details of bagging it, collecting the other baskets' contents, or getting into the dumpster.
In that moment, I froze.
Then I did it anyway, without asking for any help. And I did it right. I got affirmation from my mom. I had helped. It felt strangely good.
Now don't get me wrong. There are some positive lessons in that story. Being able to take on a challenge, solve new problems without much information, and working with autonomy to get the job done are among some of the best masculine qualities.
The problem lies in how far we go, or try to go, with that type of strategy. Failing to recognize that we can't go it alone and that we need help from time to time is a sure way for men to get ourselves into burnout.
For me, at the age of 9, I was afraid to ask for help or to admit that I didn't know something, largely because I had just been given the "Man of the House" mantle. That title, in my undeveloped mind, carried a set of expectations that most certainly did not include asking for help.
And when I got celebrated for doing the job on my own, it reinforced my desire to do it that way again. Over and over and over. Even when it resulted in greater and greater levels of stress.
Off The Deep End
As I grew up inside this "Man of the House" pattern - always keeping my head above water, never asking for help - I began to feel new pressures.
When I hit high school and realized I couldn't continue to coast on my intellect, I never spoke up. I just worked harder at it, shielding my misery with secrecy.
Faced with huge uncertainty about my future as I approached college, I simply followed the crowd and pretended I knew what I was doing. Despite my confusion about my life's direction, I never told anyone about it.
Heading out into the job market with no idea of who I was or what I wanted? I figured out a way to survive, even though I hated the work and was terrified I was going to fail.
My blessing and my curse throughout all of that was a combination of good intellect and an ability to endure. I worked my ass off - and I shut my feelings down - so I could get through all of those situations, and more.
And I got damn lucky, too, because the only way I got through all that stress was by numbing out. I've always been a sensitive person, so my feelings can be pretty powerful. In order to keep those powerful emotions from derailing me (or so I thought), I frequently turned to both alcohol and drugs to "take the edge off".
Did it work? Sure, in the same way that a sandbag keeps the tide at bay. Which is to say that all I was doing was delaying a surge that would be a lot worse later on. Fortunately for me, I dodged the addictive gene that runs through my family and didn't succumb to alcoholism or drug addiction. I dodged a freakin' bullet in that sense.
Unfortunately, I didn't dodge all the other difficulties that my "go it alone" strategy presented. Many years into my career and my marriage, I discovered that I had isolated myself in my work persona, the one who could achieve almost anything at seemingly any cost.
Still craving the praise and recognition I had received since age 9, I continually dove into my work. It was the only reliable way I knew how to get those rewards. What I didn't realize is that turning off my emotions had trapped me in a state of desensitization. I didn't feel anymore. I had become almost entirely numb to my existence. I barely even saw my divorce coming, nor the crash & burn that awaited me in my work life.
Learning To Read The Tide Charts
A year after my wife told me she wanted a divorce, in the midst of an incredibly stressful time in my job as a senior executive in a tech company, I had a major realization. Sitting at a red light on my way to see my therapist, the words "What do you want?" popped into my head. I was stunned to discover that I had no idea what I wanted for myself.
In that moment it was like the earth had opened up a black hole beneath me and I was there, floating in a vacuum of absolute nothingness. I didn't know if I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, if I wanted to retire to the mountains or ... well, anything.
It scared the hell out of me to be 42 years old and realize that I had lived that long without defining what I wanted for myself.
(By the way, that story might show up again in another post that I'll probably call "The Provider Trap". Because that's a thing.)
Faced with this realization I could've gone in a couple of different directions. I could have doubled down on my numbed-out, go-it-alone strategy. I've seen plenty of guys do that. Fortunately I realized that strategy is what had led me to the multiple varieties of burnout I'd experienced.
The other option was to change. I took it.
For the past 8 years* I have taken at least one small action nearly every single day that has helped me learn how to navigate the never ending waves that life brings to us. There are many days when the tide of my life is high, my world teeming with opportunities and possibilities. There are just as many days when those waters have ebbed, leaving an empty beach and flat water that seems to be so far away.
Here's the thing. I know how to handle high tide, low tide, and everything in between. I use my personal values as a rudder to steer me, a clear understanding of my purpose as a light house that continues to orient my direction, and a robust set of centering habits to stay afloat, no matter where the water line falls.
Most importantly of all, I have come to understand how crucial it is that I honor my emotional waves and, when the waters feel too rough for me, to ask for help from the many "life guards" with whom I've developed special relationships.
And let me say this plainly: It is abso-fucking-lutely manly of you to open up your emotional treasure chest and let others ride those waves with you. (You're welcome for that blatantly mixed metaphor.) Ignoring your emotions is the way to end up submerged and burned out.
Take The Plunge
If you're feeling burned out, take a look at your stories. See where there's a pattern that you can trace, one that you are ready to break. And whatever you do, start doing one little thing every day to change your course. That ocean is powerful, but you can navigate it.
* - The very first thing I did was to sign up for the Gratefulnes.org Word For The Day newsletter. It gave me something positive to see at the start of every day, which helped me move towards gratitude and away from fear. I still read it every morning.
Jim Young helps Tech CEO Dads get their lives back. He does that in his work as an executive coach, under the name "The Centered Coach". His own experiences with burnout, as a Dad, and as a senior executive & entrepreneur have served as a master class in balancing his life, one that he values deeply for all of its ups & downs.
Though he still loves his work (more than ever), Jim now fits it around his life, which he loves (more than ever). You will often find Jim goofing around with his three ridiculous teenagers, geeking out on relationship & intimacy skills with his partner, and performing live improv comedy shows with his group, "Not In Charge".
If you are a Tech CEO Dad who's facing burnout, Jim would LOVE to help you. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.