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SaraEllen Hutchison, law practice consultant, lawyer mindfulness coach, financial independence early retirement, FIRE

Healing from Burnout

You're burned out now, or you suspect you may be headed there. However you define it, you know you can't go on quite like you have been. It is time to soothe the burnout, so you can then work on healing it.

What do you do to heal from burnout?

Suppose you realize you're burned out, and haven't been living or working in alignment with your values, but you don't have the luxury of taking a sabbatical, telling everyone off, or selling your house in the suburbs to move to the beach (at least not in the immediate future). What do you do?

The journey to healing from burnout is not easily broken down into neat and tidy steps. So, I offer you some slightly messy steps, as a place to start. My intention here is to help you find your own way.

Steps to Heal from Lawyer Burnout

1. Get a journal.

Get a journal and list out all the bad stuff. A convenient way to be ready for the next step is to open up a journal flat, and write all the unpleasant circumstances on the left of the gutter, leaving the page on the right side of the gutter clean and ready for the next step. Each sucky thing gets a couple sentences. Go for the main things that come to mind.

It is cathartic to write it all down.

There is no need to completely fill the page (but you probably will). I suggest stopping if you start to feel worse, and moving onto the positive reframes portion of this exercise.

Then, on the right side, attempt to reframe each circumstance into something positive, or at least less not quite as terrible. For example, let's say you wrote down, "My commute is killing me and I hate my job." Your positive reframe could be something like, "I am glad I have a car," or "the bus is warm and people didn't smell too bad or yell today" or "isn't it good that I have a job to go to."

These are oversimplified, but you get the idea. I suggest you do this a few times per week as a way to get yourself off of the mental stock ticker of how miserable you are. (We all know what that's like, right?)

Once you get the hang of this, you might start freestyling on things like, "in 5 years, I want to be early retired, and what is it going to take to get there?" Or, "in two months, I want to be done with XYZ case, and what steps can I take to get a great result in short time?" You will gradually shift to a more constructive and less reactive thinking style.

Don't expect to get there overnight. You didn't get burned out overnight. Focus on the small, incremental improvements.

2. Quit something.

Yes, quit something -- anything of your choice! Quit Facebook. Quit the volunteer commitment. Quit coffee. Quit TV. Just pick something, and quit it.

Quitting something superficially unrelated to your burnout will help you focus on something else other than your big stressors. By committing some willpower to an arbitrary discipline, you're teaching yourself to compartmentalize (in a good way). And, you're not setting yourself up for unrealistic expectations of your entire life getting better overnight.

It should be something with some positive benefit (do I have to tell you NOT to quit flossing?) and require a teeny bit of sacrifice.

You're giving yourself a small win, in an area that keeps you from dwelling on the things that are burning you out. It can be a very tasty act of defiance, or a Zenlike act of self-care, but it starts helping you change your automatic habits and reactions to life. That will make your brain more flexible to change in other positive ways. 

It will also help you scratch that itch to quit EVERYTHING and tell everyone to go pound sand. That would be reactive and you might regret burning a bridge. 

You'll start getting a sense of control and efficacy in your life again, which will, bit by bit, soften the harshness of your circumstances and your thoughts about them.

3. Start looking at your money.

Only you will know when you're ready for this step, but I suggest about 4 to 6 weeks after starting a journaling practice and quitting something. You'll sense a shift toward calmness and hope from the first two steps, where it won't scare the bejeezus out of you to think about being more mindful about where your money goes. 

Since I am a consumer protection lawyer, and personal finance, class consciousness and the American Dream are always at least somewhat the subject of my posts, I assume that all you cool readers have some issue with money that you're working on. I've worked on these issues extensively in my life, too, otherwise I wouldn't see money and consumerism and the American Dream at the heart of all burnout.

So, let's look at money. Scan your house, your closet, your refrigerator, your garage. Do you see anything that brings up a twinge of guilt? Anything on your bank statement, credit card bill, or credit report cause you to feel shame or regret? 

I'm not asking you to get in a time machine to go give your younger self a thump on the head, or even stop anything you're doing now. (You might have decided to quit Facebook instead of your daily drive-through coffee fix. That's totally fine.) This is about observing without judgment. If you see something or think of something that is uncomfortable, take a deep breath and try to regard it with curiosity. 

It's easier to get to a state of curiosity instead of judgment if you soothe yourself by saying to yourself, "I don't have to change today. I am ok just as I am. I'm only going to look."

Get out a piece of paper and jot down a few things that you spent a lot of money on, or spend money on every month without fail. It might be restaurants, or gasoline, or the car payment, or childcare, or...?

When you sense you can take a look without mentally berating yourself, ask, "Why do I buy ____?"

Get out your journal and write it down. You might have a lot of positive and necessary reasons why you spend $X amount on something every month. You might also have a number of very resentful things to say about it. 

Keep asking "why," like a child, until you have some clear, simple words that sound like values. If it starts to sound corny, you're on the right track. Safety, ease, pleasure, love, family -- these are all good motivations behind even our disordered consumption.

4. Begin to live with these values in mind.

So you've made yourself aware that certain values are more important to you than others. You've also given yourself a confidence boost by quitting something. Now you'll see where you do things -- yell? worry? overeat? overspend? overwork? -- that are not in alignment with your values, and you'll be more likely to make a different choice. You might still do these things, but you'll do them less. You'll catch yourself and ask, "is this what I really want to do here?"

This is the time to clear out your closet, your garage, your fridge, or the pile on your desk. Wherever the "excess" lives, wherever the clutter lies, that's where you go. Clean it up, get rid of crap you don't need, ask for help if you need it.

It won't be perfect, and you'll probably have to do it again. But you will feel better, and know you are regaining control and peace.

5. Acceptance

The next step is the most vague, but the sweetest. If you had an uncontrollable urge to throw up your hands and quit everything when you were in the throes of burnout, you'll find that even if everything around you has not changed much, it did not have to. You'll soften into acceptance of your circumstances. Not resignation -- genuine acceptance. 

You may have decided to quit your job and travel for a year, or pursue early retirement, or change practice areas. But you'll be able to plan for it financially and psychologically from an empowered, less reactive place. You'll be moving TO something rather than running away from something.

In the beginning of this process, you were taking advantage of the momentum of your pain, anger, anxiety -- that's good! If "away from" energy is the only energy you have, roll with it! Harness it for good. It will keep you marching until you've spent some time in the first few steps and reached relative stillness and peace with your situation. From there, a glimmer of a new way peeks over the horizon and you'll get forward momentum again.

"Peace is the realization that there is nothing in particular to prove or strive for. And nothing to convince anyone else the truth or rightness of." -- Frances Vaughan, Gifts from A Course In Miracles

Please let me know how these steps work for you!


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