When I was working on my PhD, I wore myself out like a pair of cheap socks. After a few years of reflection, self-care, and therapy, I can look through the ol’ retrospect-o-scope and give you some ideas about how to avoid the same outcome.
Here are four ways to burn out, followed by tips for self-renewal.
How to Burn Out
1. Be a Martyr
This first problem is common to many of us in the helping professions: we feel good when we feel bad.
It is common for therapists to interpret their own discomfort, fatigue, and pain as indicators that they accomplished something worthwhile. In school it seemed like many people wore their baggy eyes and dysthymic personality as badges of dedication. This attitude can be disastrous for therapists. It was for me.
I was raised in a religious and family tradition that emphasized others before self. This is an exemplary virtue. At the time, however, my understanding of this virtue—service to others—was simplistic. I could not monitor my physical, emotional, and mental depletion and often found my tank empty.
As a former athlete, I understood that coaches would strategically rest their best players to preserve their health and energy. So too, do our best selves as therapists need to be strategically preserved for the sake of the work.
2. Work Unreasonably for Your CV
The year before I applied for internship, the national match rate was 74%. That meant that my cohort watched 26% of our colleagues delay graduating for a year. We also knew that we would compete with them for internships the next year – after their Time2Track accounts reflected an additional year of clinical experience. I was worried.
In response, I started applying for jobs and volunteering. Positions accumulated, and, in addition to being a student and clinical trainee, I worked six additional positions (one clinical, one research, one teaching, two editing, and one volunteer position with a local youth group). Including grad school, my expected workload each week hovered between 72-80 hours. In reality, I spent less time by working fast and cutting corners.
All this was for the sake of my CV. I would have loved to do any of those extra positions separately, but the whole was too much. I rarely felt good about my work, which limited how meaningful it felt. In addition, despite my frenzy of work, I worried that I would still not secure an internship. It all felt out of control.
3. Make Your Life Uncontrollable
With so much work to accomplish each week, I trimmed anything “unproductive.” Optional activities provide a sense of agency, remind us that we have choices, and connect us to something bigger than our own careers. But I stopped doing them.
I even stopped volunteering for the youth group, which at the time was my primary source of joy and purpose. I thought I did not have the luxury of choosing leisure. Tending to plants, building a bookshelf, having a pet hamster, or volunteering all sound like ineffective uses of time to a confused workaholic. Yet they can be lifesavers.
4. Relationships: Avoid the Good, Embrace the Bad
There may be times when you want to spend time with friends, but need to get work done. That’s being an adult. However, time with supportive friends is crucial to the health (and clinical effectiveness) of any therapist. Nothing signals burnout quite like patients functioning like one’s best friends.
Quite frankly, I was foolish with how I spent my time in the last years of grad school. Luckily, I had several good friends and roommates with whom I spent the occasional free evening (it didn’t hurt that one of them had a hilarious pug). However, some relationships drained me. Despite the efforts of my close friends, I often found myself wanting to go back to one of my six jobs, because I liked it better.
That’s really the trick to burning yourself out: eliminate anything in your personal life that would make you want to improve your professional one.
So, How Do You Avoid Burnout?
1. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
Self-care is not sloth – it is strategy. Sleep enough to feel rested, eat healthily, and exercise regularly. These should be non-negotiables, and other tasks should be scheduled around them. In the years following grad school, many of my colleagues and friends have agreed that, like myself, they also needed to learn the art of self-care. Learn it now.
2. Make your CV work for you – don’t work for your CV.
Do what you need to do to reach your goals – this may mean temporary sacrifices. But make them temporary, and prioritize according to your values. Take some time to articulate your values to yourself, and remember that you always have a choice: you can wait an extra year, you can quit a job, you can do just about anything – these things are choices. In contrast, overworking will eventually make a choice for you.
3. Control what you can.
One’s primary work can function as a source of agency, choice, and meaningful connection. Such an arrangement may be the ideal. However, graduate training often precedes choice, rather than including it. So, find ways to control your life.
Here are two ways I found nibbles of free will: first, when I was looking for internships, I avoided every site in Florida (sorry, gators). It was less about the state and more about free will. It made me feel that I could still influence my future and I still had plenty of options.
Second, I committed to doing no work on Saturdays. I spent one day a week sleeping in, mountain biking, and reading for fun. I did this even during my busiest times, and it remains the best decision I made in grad school . Find choice, agency, and meaning. Choose to do some things. Choose not to do some things. Eat ice cream for breakfast! Find something that reminds you that you aren’t a robot .
4. Grow your good relationships.
Monitor how you feel when you see someone. Were you happy? Did you resent it? Choose to be around those who make you feel better. If you realize that you never feel like spending time with anyone, remember that relationships alleviate depressive symptoms (ahem…like isolating), and force yourself to go spend time with someone who makes you feel good.
 Many will notice the common religious practice of Sabbath in this commitment – although it was a friend rather than a minister that led me to this discipline, religious traditions are fertile sources of wisdom regarding mental health.
 Even if we are predetermined biological machines, the illusion of choice makes our subjective experience much more enjoyable. If you won’t listen to me, go read some Viktor Frankl.
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Latest posts by Jon Reeves, PhD (see all)
- How to Burn Out in Grad School (or at Least How I Did) - January 1, 2018
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