When you’re getting weary and burning out

A few weeks ago, I presented a continuing education workshop for mental health professionals on burnout and compassion fatigue. I didn’t share it with y’all because those particular words feel so stale and overused these days. What are we really talking about here?

  • Feeling inwardly irritable or cranky towards clients, children, elderly parents, or other people you serve, though you keep showing up for them
  • Getting scattered and flitting from thought to thought as you respond to multiple demands
  • Intellectually knowing you care about people or issues but not *feeling* that care in your body
  • Trying to do too much and feeling drained and tired hours before it’s time to sleep
  • Being unable to do much beyond what is expected, with every day feeling like more of the same
  • Ruminating on other people’s trauma and trying to fix things out of your control
  • Frequent contemplation of changing careers or what life would be like without your current caregiving role(s)

If you’ve experienced one or more of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or an impostor. You’re a person who is trying to meet a lot of outer expectations and doing the best you can. The balance of what’s coming in and out just isn’t working. 

Moving from burnout to reigniting the flame within

I often think of burnout as the passionate and loving heart burning down to a low flame, maybe even just the hot coals, with no one feeding or tending the fire. If it extinguishes itself, you’re left out in the cold. If the right wind blows, you might flare up again, but the heat and energy will likely be scattered, maybe even perilous with no one there to support or contain it.

To find enthusiasm for life and the service we do, we must tend the inner fires of compassion and inspiration. But what does that mean?

Here’s my three cents: 

(1) Regularly clearing out what doesn’t burn to make more space for the good wood. In addition to good “emotional hygiene”, this means paying honest attention to what is wearing you out and being willing to make courageous choices about what you give and don’t give your precious life energy towards.

(2) Creating a good container to protect the fire. No one else is going to track what you’re doing all day long and insist you prioritize your own needs in real, tangible ways. Only you can carve out and protect the space you need.

(3) Feeding the fire with new experiences, authentic expression of what you really feel, and creativity that nourishes the inner wild one. When you feel like you’ve lost your mojo, it may be time to mix things up.

Gathering around the collective fire

Changes like this can be hard work, especially when you’re already weary! Sometimes the burnout has gone on too long and to truly warm up and burn bright again, we first need deep quiet and rest. Then it’s time to rebuild with some dedicated time, support, and a much bigger blaze. That’s why I’m so passionate about community healing work (and what the Release & Empower Women’s Circle* is all about). When individually, you have only a little light left to share, you can offer it up to a larger fire. In surrendering over and over again, you may find yourself slowly rising from the ashes, finding passion and compassion bit by bit, energized by the fuel of being amongst fellow humans doing the same.

I hope one way or another, you always find a little light nearby and know there is one within you too. You are doing good work out there! May all that you give come back to you tenfold, even in unexpected ways.

With kindness,

Julia Aziz

*In the past few years of facilitating the Release & Empower Women’s Circle, I’ve witnessed women making brave changes in their work, relationships, health, and lives, not to mention those inner changes in freedom, confidence, and authenticity. These changes are theirs to claim, not mine. This is just what happens when women come together to re-ignite their inner fire. Registration is now open for the winter groups, if you’d like to save a space. Details here.

**If you’d like to receive more reflections like this (once in a while, not all the time!), just sign up for my mailing list.

Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay 

Podcast Interview for Therapists and Other Helping Professionals

How are you supposed to help other people when you’re struggling yourself? 

I hear this question all the time in my work with helping professionals and moms. You’re not immune to personal and collective stress, yet somehow you need to keep showing up with a clear mind and full heart for the people you serve. You may have days when you feel overwhelmed by the world, unsure about everything, and barely making it through, but you can’t just phone it in. So when you have a big life stressor or three to deal with, what’s a caring person to do? 

Well, let’s first look at the assumptions we’re starting with in asking this question. Many individuals in helping roles learned early on that their value depended on what they could do for other people. When a sense of self-worth gets attached to other people’s needs, a belief begins to develop that may remain subconscious for years, namely: “Other people can struggle, but I’m supposed to be strong.” I call this the hidden ego of helpers, this idea that we somehow should be Zen masters in all areas of life and above the pain and suffering that affects everyone else.

It’s a nice thought, aside from being an impossible ideal not fit for a complex and genuine human being. So let’s chuck that one in the recycling bin for a moment, and release any pretense about who and what you are supposed to be. When it comes to supporting other people, rather than be a not-good-enough expert, how about showing up instead as a curious student of life? If we get out of trying to be the all-knowing, we can get into being the all-learning.

There’s a lot more nuance to discuss here, which is why I did this recent podcast interview on The Integrity Challenge of Being A Person & Being A Therapist. If you’re a helping professional of any kind or an empathic person often tending to other people’s needs, it was created for you.

Thank you for all the care you offer and for just being here and human,

Julia Aziz


***This podcast interview can be listened to for free on Spotify and all the usual podcast platforms. Mental health professionals can also earn CEU credit if they take the post-test through Clearly Clinical.***

It takes a special kind of persistence to keep showing up when we’re knocked down so often by a world falling to pieces. We need the practice of getting re-centered more than ever, and we need each other to keep us honest in it. That’s why I believe so strongly in the model of self-healing in community and the Release & Empower Women’s CircleIn addition to our beloved Tuesday evening group, a new Thursday morning circle is forming too. Both start late September and are a quarter full as of this writing. Details here.

When you need a real refresh to keep going

The summer intensity has been calling me back toward waterfalls again. This year, I’ve been playing with shifting my listening from one spot to the next, noticing how water bouncing off small rocks makes a tinkling sound under the noisy rush from heights above. The cascade’s separate sprays are like a crowd of different voices all talking at once, reminding me of the input overload so many of us feel these days. I try to hear one stream or another until I give up, listen to the whole chorus of voices together, and let it become one current, one being, one song. 

Sounds lovely, right, but how on earth do we let the current of our modern times sing us a song rather than slip us off the edge and take us down with it? “Go with the flow” won’t cut it. If we go with the flow of the collective, we are going down a dark vortex of strife and fear. So let’s pause for a moment from the many streams of deep grief, trauma, injustice, and tyranny and see if we can shift how we’re listening.

One of the aspects of waterfalls that strikes me this year is that the water only makes sound because of the rock. The flow is not separate from the hard places. I, like many, would usually prefer things progress forward in a direct line. But that’s not the way water, or life, moves. It curves over, under, and around the hard places, finding any way it can to keep flowing. We, too, must make contact with the rocky edges in ourselves and meander the curves to follow the course. The music is in keeping on.

I recently visited the waterfall I fell down a few years ago, and it, like many things, has changed. Time and weather has rearranged it. I’m a bit rearranged too, and maybe so are you. The way I see it, my Number One Job right now is to release negative thoughts and emotional tension as frequently as possible, so the waters don’t get muddied and stagnant, stuck in a puddle of doom. Letting go makes way for the flow to continue, showing the next right move at the next right time. We may want to get ahead of ourselves and hurry a plan, but like the water, the nature of life here on earth is that we move through what’s current before knowing what’s next

Releasing and renewing sounds easier than it is to remember and do. But I believe in you because if you can take a moment out of your busy day to read this, it means you can take a moment to refresh your mind, body, and precious heart too. If that sounds improbable or impossible, it’s time for more support. Support from people, the water, the birds, the ground, the breath, the body–much is available when we ask and open to it.

May the chorus of the world sound to you like perennial permission to pause and re-source yourself, so you can get back up stronger again and again and again.

With kindness,
Julia Aziz

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When all your “stuff” is up and you need to keep going anyway

Feel like you’re being tested? Maybe you’re backtracking in something you thought you had healed or grown from. Or perhaps you’re moving forward, but trudging through deep mud to get there. When all your “stuff” is up, and you have responsibilities you can’t just drop, well… first thing I want to say is you’re in good company. Sometimes those in helping or leadership roles feel a pressure to have it together super consistently, in pretty much all areas of life. Let’s throw that trash into the recycling bin and start with the premise that:

It’s OK to be in the middle of a process and not at the end of it.

Last fall, my daughter and I stumbled into a huge gathering of turkey vultures, but one of those birds was not like the others. A ranger later told us it was called the crested caracara, otherwise known as the Mexican eagle. This fascinating winged one looks like a hawk, flies like an eagle, and acts and eats much like a vulture. This kind of versatility is certainly called for these days.

From the Hawk

It’s good to keep a keen eye on one’s prey, focusing only on the priority of this particular moment. Tuning in acutely to what is needed here and now brings the relief of one-pointed attention. Over time, it also becomes the perseverance we need in action.

From the Eagle

Sometimes soaring above it all provides a better view. A little mental distance brings much needed perspective. We are just bitty things on this vast earth after all. The bigger pattern can’t be seen from our little corners of it. Also, let’s be real about our world context here. Is it not hubris to think we should be able to surf every rushing wave while watching others be pulled under the current? Like Krishnamurti said, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” 

Now wait, hold up! Isn’t it paradoxical, saying we need to keep a wide view and also a narrow one? Yes. I can’t think of a better time to embrace complexity, adapting as we go.

And from the Vulture

It’s important to digest the losses we’ve incurred, and find some kind of nourishment in doing so together. These losses continue to accumulate relentlessly, yet the soul food of grief is assimilated slowly, piece by piece, moment by moment. With our wingmates nearer, we may find more resources in sharing. 

I learned that the crested caracara, though a falcon, often walks on the ground and even collects material to build a nest. Bringing this all down to earth, it’s easy to spout wise words, not as easy to live them on a daily basis. This is especially true if you’re used to being the one supporting others, not needing support yourself. Yet all beings have something to offer, and all have blindspots and vulnerabilities too. If you’re faltering, please tell the truth to yourself about this, ask out loud for help, and be willing to receive it. Support may or may not come from the sources you expect it from, but a nest can be made from all sorts of material that shows up. May we make good use of what we find and create safe spaces to care for all the young, dear parts of ourselves that still need some holding. 

With love and respect for the unique creature you are,

Julia Aziz

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**Crested caracara image by Denis Doukhan at Pixabay

When you’re over-giving and doing too much

I’ve never liked the saying, “if you need something done, give it to a busy person.” To me, it sounds like, “pass the work to the person already overloaded with responsibility, and let everyone else chill.” The intention may be to get something done, but the effect is to ask more of someone who may have trouble saying no. Of course, it’s up to each one of us to maintain healthy boundaries and turn down requests we don’t have the bandwidth for. The problem is, busyness is like a force of nature–once you’re rolling fast, it’s easier to keep rolling than to slow down

If you’ve ever had a pattern of over-fuctioning, you know what I’m talking about. You can put your head down and push through busy times, but you can also end up exhausted and depleted from the effort. When there’s finally time to rest, rather than celebrate a job well done, you may just need to recover. It’s not sustainable or even efficient to be on “give” mode all the time. 

What if there were another way though?

What if when you took on more responsibility, you also received more of what replenishes you?

Here’s the new deal: the more we take on, the more we need to take in. That means rather than overdoing it, we “over-give” to ourselves so we can continue to give to others. What does this look like?

  • Blocking out self-care and renewal time during prolonged periods of high stress. Doing this on purpose, even though at first it may seem inconvenient and impossible. This means you actually schedule in time where no one is asking anything of you, including yourself! 
  • Treating yourself to more support than you’ve ever had before, in new and different ways that refresh your spirit and bring vital energy and inspiration into your life.
  • Releasing the idea that there’s not enough time or resources, and opening to the possibility of doing things differently, making room for your capacity to expand. Changing old patterns may be scary, but it’s a worthy risk if it means you can enjoy giving again.

Does this sound good? Impossible? It is certainly a lot harder to make these changes within the same cultural context that tells us we are only worthy if we are doing something productive, income-producing, and/or for someone else. Balance would be easier in a community that supports slowing down, respecting cycles, and stopping when there’s enough. Rather than repeating the unhealthy patterns of what Mark Silver aptly terms “late stage capitalism,” why not be part of a cultural shift? If you tend towards having a lot on your plate, and you’d like some support changing the way you hold all of it, check out the New Year Release & Empower Women’s Circle. It’s women who give a lot to others empowering themselves to set boundaries, receive more, and prioritize their well-being. It’s time to balance these cycles of giving and receiving and co-create the world we want to live in. It’s time to keep commitments to ourselves the way we keep them to our loved ones. We heal these patterns together.

Sending big love to you in your holidays, your family dynamics, your grief, your gratitude, and all the other challenges and blessings this end-of-year brings,

Julia Aziz

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When you’re giving out more than is coming in

Have you ever heard a fox cry? A week or so ago, I was in the hill country and heard what sounded like a child screaming, “Help!” in the night. It was a little disconcerting until we realized it was a fox. My friend and I responded by sounding out a similar cry. The more we called back, the closer the fox seemed to approach us. She came near but never all the way to where we stood. We continued to stay in conversation for a while though, until she moved on.

If this fox actually was crying for help, the help she needed was not for someone to go and rescue her. She seemed to find her own way eventually. Maybe she just needed to be heard, to know someone else was out there crying too. I feel a similar dynamic evolving in this next phase of the pandemic together. In the old paradigm, there were damsels in distress and rescuers. There were people in need and people who helped. This dichotomy was always false though. We carry both of these archetypes within us; we are each vulnerable and strong. Pretending there are some who have it all together and others who only fall apart has led to situations like the current mental health crisis for therapists and real burnout for healthcare professionals in general. 

These are intense times, so if you’re not always doing so well, that seems about right to me. We’re not meant to feel always cozy and well in a sick and troubled society. We are meant to be uncomfortable as much as we are meant to be brave. Who says we have to be stoic about any of it? One of my favorite memories of last year was when I stepped outside one morning in Colorado and heard my dear friend and neighbor screaming at the top of her lungs on her front porch. I immediately responded with a loud roar of my own. We laughed about it when we saw each other later, but in the moment it just felt good to be in our own messiness and know we were not alone.

Being heard feels risky, I know. As a therapist, I’ve been well-trained to not show too much of myself, good or bad. Helping professionals are taught to be clear mirrors for others. We’re not supposed to fog up those mirrors with our own personhood. We hold space for other people, not take up space ourselves. I don’t buy it as a way to live a whole life though. I can express what’s within me in contexts I feel safe in, and also show up with presence, compassion, and my full attention for someone else. We all have gifts, and we all have burdens. There is room in this world for the humanity in us all. I’d like to shed all pretenses of “helpers” and “helped” and instead sing out loud with you the music that arises from our dashed dreams, our triumphs, our sorrows, and most of all, our love.  

When we cry out like the fox and hear another’s cry too, it’s not just about venting. It’s about remembering: this life on earth didn’t come with a promise of feeling happy most of the time or everything working out a certain way. You’re not failing at that game. This life is an adventure of growth and change, an opportunity to feel and experience everything. Our stories are heroic tales of resilience. You’re here, and you’re doing it. We all are! 

Please share your voice, and know I am rooting for you. 

With love,

Julia Aziz

PS: If you are helping other beings through this pandemic, and you feel like more is going out than coming in for you, please check out the women’s Release & Empower Group. We have a few spaces open this month, with either month-to-month subscriptions or a nice discount if you make a three-month commitment to yourself. Also new, 10% of the group’s profits are being donated to grassroots community healing work led by BIPOC women. Current recipients include SanArte Healing & Cultura Clinic and Black Women’s Health Imperative. Help others and help yourself too. 

“I feel so much permission to just be however I am in this group. The journaling, the movement, the breathing, the sharing–it’s all what I’ve been needing to do more of for myself and now I feel like I’m making room for it again. I feel so thankful for the women here, and know that as I am going through some changes in my life, this is just where I need to be.”