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Burning it Out: How to Avoid Shame and Burnout

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

The first rule of customer service is, 'never say no'. It's easy therefore to attribute my 'yes woman' behaviour to this simple rule.

At my work, for example, a customer may purchase an expensive gift, wanting me to personalise it for them by hot-stamping the recipient's initials into it. There is a chance that I could burn the gift and ruin the whole item, and consequently, be severely reprimanded. But How do I respond to the customer in a hot minute? Sure!

Why is it that we’re sometimes so willing to dabble in risky behaviour with little thought to the outcome for ourselves, simply to satisfy the expectations of others?

On one level, from a space of self-belief and optimism, I enjoy the adrenaline of committing to something that I'm not entirely sure that I can pull off, only to rise to the challenge and set a new height for myself! And I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

But when this behaviour comes from a slightly darker space without our best interests at heart, why do we keep doing it? Why do we keep sacrificing the things that we need for our own wellbeing to feel whole and worthy, and allow ourselves to go without?

For me, there are two answers. One is, there are moments in life when we need to make sacrifices. The greater good may be at stake, or it's the kinder thing to do, or you know it's only for a short time and better for you in the long-run (think: giving up alcohol for a month for your health). Logical. But then there's the second one, the darker space as mentioned above. Where you're willing to sacrifice your mental and/ or physical wellbeing in order to meet those targets set before you…

…and that's all that matters, right?

Because people see those targets, and whether we meet them or not. They don't see or feel our panic, our loss, our stress. So then I wonder, how many times is it acceptable to do this to ourselves? To sacrifice our wellbeing, at the cost of achievement and saying 'yes'. Why is it we are so willing to treat ourselves in a way that we wouldn't dream of treating others? It’s maddening!

So I decided to cut my ‘yes’ trend, and refuse to feel guilty about it.

It was a Thursday, almost Friday and the weekend - the time for recovery. The time to put yourself back together and refresh and catch-up with all those things you couldn't do for yourself during the week, so that by Monday you look perfectly refreshed and nobody is the wiser, or heaven forbid feel inclined to ask you, 'so tell me, what's really going on?’

I looked at my diary and realised, for me to get everything done in the coming month I would have to sacrifice Christmas. And what I mean by that is not a pointed dig at the fact I'm working both Boxing Day and New Year's Day (the sad life of a customer-service employee), it was simply that I would have to sacrifice that joy I look forward to all year. The cosy nights of mulled wine with long talks and not counting how many mince pies I pop in my mouth; the excitement (and frustration!) of choosing and wrapping gifts I can’t afford; the moments to take in a big, deep breath and congratulate myself on a long (and what has been, pretty difficult) year and simply allow myself to be in the midst of Christmas cheer.

And for me, that was my line.

I reflected that this year, if anything, has taught us all that we're perfectly capable of giving things up and of going without. But hopefully, it has also taught us that, whilst in some instances we can, it doesn't mean we should.

Yes, we can have virtual gatherings/teachings/seminars/performances but it doesn't mean we should.

Part of the joy of all these things is in the physicality of being in a space with others sharing a moment. I realised I wouldn't be able to do that – I might physically be in those spaces with others on Christmas Day and during the season but I would be so far away in my thoughts and panics and my 'just keep on keeping on' mantra, that I would miss everything around me. So I decided to do what I never do. I, (and brace yourselves, this part is a little gross)…asked for help.

But what's the big deal, you're wondering? Ah. Yes. See for me, asking for help is something I've heard of (in the same way one hears of mystical beings like the Loch-ness Monster or job satisfaction or a promotion) but it's not something that I can apply to myself and my life. This is because I'm the type of person who has never had a sick day. That's not because I've never been sick, I've just never been able to say 'I can't come in today/do this thing that I ought to do/be the person you expect me to be' because all I hear is 'I have somehow failed and I'm not good enough and I have let you, and much worse myself, down.'

As such I heave-sobbed writing the email to say 'I won't be able to make this deadline that you've given me' and that 'due to Covid I am not able to [give of myself in the way I did before] ' – and although it completely made sense logically, all I could read and feel was an overwhelming sense of embarrassment and shame that somehow I had not risen to the challenge and therefore I had failed, and it was utterly my fault because deep-down I am somehow not quite good enough.

I even did that horrible self-effacing flagellation of 'I understand if it's a problem' which we all know is British for 'I am ever so sorry that I have failed you and I completely understand that I deserve to be let go.' And as I was wet-faced weeping, re-reading it before I sent it, I decided to add a caveat: 'I understand if it's a problem but I am really struggling.' Sent.

It's because I had remembered something I'd read recently about shame by Eve Sedgwick on the work of Silvan Tomkins from Shame in the Cybernetic Fold, which said:

"[to combat shame] a potentially terrifying or terrified idea or image is taken up and held for as many paragraphs are necessary to 'burn out the fear response,' then for as many more until that idea or image can recur in the text without initially evoking terror.”

I had the choice it seemed to either bury my shame, feel guilty and apologise and sweep it away like it was a one-time thing, or I could own it. I am struggling. I won't be able to do what you've asked of me, AKA I am not whole, and I'm working on putting myself back together. And I immediately felt better. And so I also decided that, in order to not-fake things or try and hide from this decision, I would tell as many as it took to 'burn out' all my feelings of fear and shame.

So that's what I did. I told my close friends (I also told some of my not-so-close friends) and I told my work colleagues. And each time I said it, I could feel myself owning my decision more and more. It's okay to not be okay. It's okay to not feel like you're going to make it. It's okay to ask for help.

A close friend on my Master's course summed it up beautifully. She said that right now she had a full tank, and therefore if I needed anything at all I could count on her. I said it was wonderful to think this way, and think that I too at some point will have a full tank again. And maybe she'll need it, or someone else, but either way I'll be ready to give and top up those who are running low, just as they topped up mine when I was almost on empty.

Because real life isn't customer service, and you can say no. And you can also say, 'I'm not okay.’

That’s self-care.


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