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01.27.2015 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How to End Burnout: Solution #1

Our son Michael was physically disabled and became critically ill the last four years of his life. It wasn’t until his death that I realized I’d slipped into burnout.

It wasn’t obvious at first. I was exhausted and with good reason. For over a 1,000 days, we barely had a decent night’s sleep. The passing months were filled with stress and worry. Each morning, my husband and I jumped out of bed, sword in hand, ready to fight the next battle.

Keeping Michael alive was our primary focus.

Fortunately, I never experienced depression. I did, however, fall into adrenal exhaustion. I gained weight. I no longer had passion for my work. I had trouble concentrating, and, I lost my sense of purpose.

Shortly after Michael’s passing, I read Counterfeit Gods (2009). Keller speaks to the idols of the heart: our innate need for power, control, and approval.

I now believe that these same idols are often the root of burnout. As I stated in an earlier blog, burnout stems from giving something that you don’t have.

In my case, it was twenty-seven years of caring for the physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of a child with special needs. The morning after Michael’s funeral, I realized I simply had nothing more to give. My tank was empty.

Grief can feel like burnout especially when the mind, body, and spirit have been traumatized. Throughout Michael’s illness, I did an amazing job of protecting my time and energy. I carefully balanced my many business responsibilities with my dedication to Michael’s care. I even managed to somehow attend to my own spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.

The desire for power, control, and approval, however, was stronger than all my efforts.

My belief that I had the power to keep Michael alive if I just worked harder proved to be the source of my own burnout.

When we come to understand the source, we can reignite our passion for living.

Solution #1: Understanding How Power Contributes to Burnout

Our need for power is a natural part of life. We hunger for the ability to influence the people and circumstances of our world.

When we live a balanced life, we exhibit positive power. But, there is another kind of power that stems from fear. This negative power only gives birth to more fear and the deep-seated belief that we, as the ultimate god, have power over all things.

Worse yet, this craving for negative power has an addictive element to it. This quest for power is separate and apart from our desire to have a positive impact on others. It stems from an ego-centric thirst that can never be quenched.

It can never be quenched because we’re seeking power over that which we have no dominion.

I am a follower of Jesus. Christians proudly proclaim that we believe in the Sovereignty of God. Yet, somehow, in my incessant desire to save my son, I came to believe I had power over life and death.

It’s this false sense of identity that eventually breaks us. Like a hamster spinning on an endless wheel of life, we try to escape the cage of our own destiny. We run, exhausted and worn, wondering why we never reach the finish line when all along the finish line rests in the loving hands of our Creator.

I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to settled down in your cage. Allow the incessant whistle of the wheel to fall still long enough to hear the voice of God. Catch your breath and experience the sacredness of the moment before you.

In retrospect, I have come to learn an even more valuable lesson: I only need embrace one choice to realize the ultimate power.

I can choose to love God. It’s His unconditional love which gives me the power to love others.

In the final days of Michael’s life, I watched him slip away knowing there was nothing I could do to stop the process. I didn’t question the wisdom of the doctors. I didn’t demand more tests.

I simply did my best to listen for God and love my husband and son.

In complete and utter exhaustion, I came to solely rely on the Sovereignty of God. I settled down into my cage and accepted that I never really had the power in the first place.

Still, I sometimes confuse responsibility with power. Whenever this happens, I remind myself that even Jesus did not exercise power over the circumstances of his life.

Scripture tells us that as the source of all power, Jesus:

  • Never established an earthly kingdom of wealth.
  • Chose a life of service to others.
  • Empowered others to live out their purpose.
  • Used his power to include rather than exclude.
  • Never demonstrated power over those in authority.
  • Submitted to scorn and humiliation.
  • Humbled himself to death on the cross.

Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s also worth noting that Jesus didn’t use his power to heal everyone. He took time away from the crowds to rejuvenate his mind, to nourish and rest his physical body, and to connect his spirit to the Father.

I’m inviting you to settle down in your cage.

Stop. Listen. Love.

Stay tuned for Solution #2. I’ll be going deeper into control as the source of burnout in the next blog.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. January 27, 2015