In 1974, a man named Herbert Freudenberger published a journal article about “occupational burnout.” Initially focused on burnout in the workplace, it has since spawned a body of research spanning 40 years examining why some people succeed in stressful job situations and others “burn out” quickly. Why some people can cope with difficulties and others fall apart.
Whether it’s in the workplace or your home life, there are a number of factors that can lead to burnout. All of them can impact us, but one theme I consistently see in people who are struggling is a sense of “emotional exhaustion.” Researchers have determined that emotional exhaustion often results from too many job or personal demands and a constant level of stress.
It leaves people feeling “drained,” easily overwhelmed, fatigued and they have difficulty finding pleasure in the successes they do have.
How many of us does that describe right now?
Although emotional exhaustion is often examined through the lens of the job performance, emotional exhaustion permeates every area of our lives. In a society where there is pressure to do well at your job, be the perfect parent and have a showroom-worthy home (all while maintaining friendships and your social media), it is easy to slip into a state of emotional exhaustion where you consistently feel like you aren’t doing a good enough job.
Just look at memes and articles online. There are so many cartoons and posts about people feeling wiped out, struggling to get through the day, and feeling overwhelmed by their children / responsibilities / lives. It’s no wonder so many Americans hide in their phones, video games, and pornography. We need something to take the edge off, to numb ourselves, to isolate ourselves because life just feels hard.
The beauty is that emotional exhaustion is not inevitable. Research of employees found that, overall, using positive coping skills such as seeking advice from others and maintaining a healthy sense of internal control (“I’ve got this”) was associated with lower levels of exhaustion, and using coping skills such as avoidance led to higher levels. Using this research, companies have been able to use several techniques to help their workers go from feeling burnt out to positive and in control, and I believe we can use this information to help all of us, regardless of your job title or role. The best part? These concepts are also biblically-based.
So how do we decrease our feelings of emotional exhaustion?
Learn to prioritize. There are so many demands for our time, and we only have a limited number of hours per day. Learn to prioritize what you say yes to and find ways to simplify your day. It is okay to buy your family pizza instead of creating Pinterest-worthy recipes daily. Don’t beat yourself up if you need to buy pre-made cupcakes for your child’s party. You don’t need to organize every social event at your job. It is okay to say no and cut corners occasionally if it gives you a moment to breathe.
Luke 10:38-42 tells us the familiar story of Mary and Martha:
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’
‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha’s priorities not only kept her from time with Jesus, but it made her resentful and frustrated. Emotional exhaustion results from feeling like you have little control over your life and eventually leads to bitterness and resentment. Learning to prioritize and define your schedule can help you regain a stronger sense of control (which reduces emotional exhaustion).
Adjust your expectations. There is a difference between standards and overly high expectations. It is reasonable to have a good work ethic and be an involved, caring parent. However, many of the clients I see with emotional exhaustion have unreasonably high expectations for themselves to be “perfect,” so when they make a mistake (they forgot to sign their child’s permission slip, missed an appointment, or didn’t attend a lunch meeting), they beat themselves up emotionally (“I’m a failure as a parent / worker / spouse”).
Striving to be a “perfect parent” can be detrimental to your mental health and will contribute to a sense of emotional exhaustion, so tempering your expectations and reminding yourself that it is okay to make mistakes can be helpful.
Find your tribe. We often view seeking help as “weakness” or that being honest about our struggles will reflect badly on our abilities. However, researchers found that seeking advice from others was one of the most important ways workers could reduce emotional exhaustion.
So surround yourself with a community of people who can support you and give you advice. Struggling to get everything done? Start a babysitting co-op. Swap pre-made dinners with a friend. Delegate appropriately at work. Learn to ask for advice from people who love you but will also be honest when you are doing too much or holding yourself to ridiculously high standards. People you listen to when they tell you that you are stretched too thin and need to take a step back.
One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 15:22: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed” (NLT). If you find yourself feeling emotionally exhausted or burnt out, build up or reach out to your support network.
These are only a few techniques. Interestingly, they are not anything new; many of us have heard these at one point or another. However, too many people struggle with actually implementing them and find themselves on the verge of burnout.
If you find that even with taking these steps, you are still worn out, edgy and irritable, please seek help. Find a solid counselor, consult your pastor, meet with a mentor, spend time in prayer.
In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus tells us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Don’t let the popular culture tell you that we were made to barely make it through the day. God wants us to rest, and He gives us the tools to do so. We just have to use them.
Hilary Cobb is the owner of Still Waters Behavioral Health in Middleton, Idaho and blogs about God, marriage and parenting at Blessed By His Love. Find her at www.blessedbyhislove.com.