While I was still a middle school teacher in 2009, I burned out spectacularly. According to stressdoc.com – the website that enlightened me during those dark days – here are the 4 stages of burnout:
- Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion. Check!
- Shame and Doubt. Oh, heck yeah!
- Cynicism and Callousness in response to that prolonged feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. Yep, that too!
- Failure, helplessness and crisis…”your coping structure seems to be coming unglued.” Add those emotions to the list, and we have a perfect burnout score.
I was stressed out of my mind, and it didn’t help matters that I had chronic insomnia as well. During that time, all I wanted to do was spend my days in my pajamas and cry, but life moved on and the classroom waits for no one.
It took every ounce of energy I had to turn up for work every day, try to put on a brave face, and teach, but I knew this pattern was unsustainable. I had to make an exit strategy from this situation, or face dire consequences to my life and health.
When I look back on that time in my life, I wonder how I ever got myself into that tough situation in the first place. Something that was well within my control was my need for perfection. I was always searching for ways to be a better teacher, to try new things in the classroom, to make the learning fun, and to be engaging. I was always raising the bar for myself. I’d observe other teachers and think how wonderfully and easily they did everything, and raise my bar even higher. I’d attend workshops and gain lots of new ideas, and the bar went up.
These high professional standards might sound wonderful, like the traits of an ideal teacher or employee. Don’t be fooled. They’re not. In my drive for perfection, I set the bar impossibly high. When I couldn’t achieve all of those things to my imagined standard, I suffered from physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, shame, doubt, insecurity, vulnerability, feelings of failure, and helplessness. Welcome to burnout.
Although perfectionism looks like a positive quality on the surface, it is really just another type of fear underneath. It’s the fear of not being good enough, as in I’ll feel good enough when I’m perfect. That statement sounds ridiculous, if weren’t so potentially debilitating and even life-threatening.
Perfectionism is not your friend. Set boundaries for self-care and work/life balance and make them non-negotiable. Wrestle your life back from the ultimate frenemy.