Burnout was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to get real, raw, and vulnerable, so, here goes. In 2003, in my late twenties, I had what I think was some form of a nervous breakdown. I’m not really sure what to call it, but I know it didn’t feel good! I remember that day well. I was about to leave for a weekend conference, but instead, I fell down on the floor, curled up in a ball, and cried like a baby. I don’t know how long I was in the fetal position, but my guess is a couple of hours.
Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, all the signs of burnout were there: crippling anxiety, sleepless nights where I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin, and feeling down and depressed (which isn’t something I normally struggle with). It had been happening for months, but I wasn’t emotionally healthy enough to put the pieces together, so, I just kept powering through it…until I couldn’t anymore.
There were also signs of relational distress. I was fighting with my wife all the time, had a short fuse, and was just not a very pleasant person to be around. There is more to the relational piece but I will save that for another time.
On top of that, my physical health was far from optimal. I had a full-time job for the health department, but I was also a part-time youth pastor which meant I ate way too much crappy pizza and fast food, had no regular exercise regimen, and was lethargic, overweight, and generally out of shape. Just to give you an idea, I weighed thirty pounds more than I do right now (20 years later), and I had high triglycerides at age 27.
I was a poster child for burnout.
After the breakdown, it took me a while to crawl out of the hole. I didn’t dig the hole overnight, and I wasn’t going to get out overnight. Over the next few months, I began to crawl out of the hole. There were a lot of adjustments I needed to make, but it started with learning to say no. For one, I was doing way too many things that were outside of my “sweet spot.” Ken Coleman defines your “sweet spot” as the intersection of your Talents (what you do best), your Passion (what you love to do most), and your Mission (results that matter most, people you want to help, problem you want to solve).¹
Looking back, I realize there were some extremely good things that came out of my burnout. First, I learned I can’t do everything. I have to choose and choose well. I can be OK at many things or great at a few things. Second, I now have a built-in alarm system that goes off every time I start to move beyond my capacity or venture too far outside my sweet spot. It comes in the way of anxiety, and it’s a sign that something is off. When I feel that way, I immediately begin to make course corrections.
Getting to the End of Myself
My first burnout taught me some important things, but the lessons still hadn’t gone deep enough. And over the next ten years, I continued to dance near the edge of burnout on many occasions. until it all came to a head in 2014. At that time, I was the pastor of a new church I had founded, working part-time at an after-school program for urban youth for extra income, and most importantly trying to be an attentive husband and an engaged father. On top of that, our church was planning an ambitious launch or “grand opening”: a $35,000 endeavor that required a lot of focus, time, and energy. I was overwhelmed.
Needless to say, my built-in anxiety alarm started flashing, and I knew I was at a crossroads. If I didn’t pivot quickly, another breakdown was imminent.
Wednesday afternoons were set aside for prayer and reflection. Instead of a refreshing and peaceful time, I dwelt on a laundry list of problems that I needed answers to…yesterday. My anxiety grew until I felt like I was going to pop. Suddenly, this thought occurred to me:
Let go of control. You are not in charge. You don’t have to understand everything going on to have rest and peace.
Life will always have unknowns. We must change what we can and surrender what we can’t. If you need all the answers before you can be at peace, life is going to really hard.
You can have rest and peace in the midst of all the complications of life.
It happens when we come to the end of ourselves, realize we are not in control, and rely on someone or something greater than ourselves. For me, that happens to be God. If we learn to give him our burdens, he promised to give us rest.²
That day was the beginning of my learning to integrate the most essential parts of life into a cohesive and working whole.
In the next post in the series, I will begin to outline what this looks like and help you move toward wholeness and integrity in your own life.
Check Out the Series
- This Is Going to Be Messy (Series Prequel)
- Rhythms of Life 1: A State of Wholeness (next in the series)
- Rhythms of Life 2: To the Beat of A Different Drum
- Rhythms of Life 3: Relationships Are Rocketships…Or Submarines
- Rhythms of Life 4: Who Will Bleed with You?
- Rhythms of Life 5: Lean Into Your Limitations
² Matthew 11:28-30 NIV
³ From Henry Cloud’s book, Integrity an Oxford Languages