Change, Perfectionism and Burnout

balance feather stone - dreamstime_xxl_9756264I am a psychotherapist, a teacher and supervisor. I have been most of those things for over ten years, some of them for closer to twenty. I know that every client, every class, every therapist is different. I also know that some things stay the same in principle and so I have taught some things repeatedly over the years:

  • Change is inevitable
  • The thing that makes change most difficult is our resistance to it
  • Perfect is impossible
  • If we try to be / do perfect we will burn out
  • Burnout can happen to anyone at anytime
  • The only way to deal with burnout is to create more change

Life is change. Nothing that is alive can remain unchanged and if we are afraid of change it often comes at the expense of truly feeling alive. On the other hand, a certain amount of stability is necessary to allow changes to take root, to have an impact on us and our environment, to create lasting growth and life.

In other words, life is a constant dance between times of change and times of stability.

Occasionally a period of stability lasts too long: we get bored, restless, maybe even feel depressed and listless. Life has lost some of its sparkle. At other times there simply is too much change to manage all at once. Like a mudslide, it takes everything in its way down and we are left with a barren field and the need to start over completely. We may become despondent, hopeless, overwhelmed.

As with so many things in life, dealing with change is a question of finding the right balance. The more I oppose change, the more difficult life becomes. If I am afraid of change and try to avoid it at all cost, every little adjustment becomes an avalanche. If I idolize change, I never stand still long enough to allow true growth to happen. In either case, I miss out on a good part of life’s opportunities.

Change happens: sometimes by choice, sometimes as a surprise. As most of you know, this past year my husband and I have seen our share of changes (in chronological order):

  • We moved home
  • I moved both offices
  • Our beloved cat Max joined the Great Cat
  • My husband returned to work after a sabbatical
  • My mother lived with us for five months
  • A close friend encountered serious health issues
  • My father-in-law got sick and passed away
  • We adopted a new cat, Stanton, to join our feline companion Spiky

Some of these changes where planned, others came as a complete surprise, and the biggest one (the move) was a strange hybrid: it was planned — just not for this year.

When change, especially big change, happens without being planned or expected, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. The mudslide hits us and we feel ourselves drawn into an abyss without escape. Even if the change is positive (like finding your dream home), it happening outside of one’s plans (a year ahead of budget) can create stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. Negative changes like a loss or illness almost always create feelings of distress and fear. There are, generally speaking, two reactions to fear and overwhelm: complete letting go and trying to get some control over the situation. Enter: perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a big term — or at least a term with many layers of meaning. There is an deepening discussion about perfectionism as a risk factor for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (see this interesting article for more details). On the other hand many people see perfectionism as a valuable way to achieve great things. The distinction that seems to gain ground is between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism.

Adaptive perfectionists may be able to rise to any occasion and master most change with seeming ease; but for maladaptive perfectionists — or those who are also facing other risk factors — high amounts of change can be truly devastating and dangerous. If it is impossible to be perfect in everyday life, trying to stay perfect while caught in a mudslide is beyond imaginable; and yet, many people may find their own perfectionist tendencies awakened in times of big change.

In the Wikipedia entry for Perfectionism (psychology) the following entries can be found:

“Perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles.”

“In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity as individuals lose time and energy on small irrelevant details of larger projects or mundane daily activities.” (1)

In other words, perfectionism can provide some needed energy to “keep going” even when things seem overwhelming and hopeless to others, and it can help us focus on details — something that can feel very reassuring in a world that has been turned upside down by life’s changes (“at least I can control this”).

So it is no wonder that our Inner Perfectionist gets active when we are swirling around in unpredictability and change. But there are dangers with this kind of coping:

For one, if we are focusing extensively on the details right in front of us in order to feel some kind of stability, we may very well overlook the larger issues that all the change around us has created — as well as some of the possible easy and natural gifts and opportunities that may have arisen because of changed circumstances.

Secondly, perfectionistic energy doesn’t just switch off when we feel more stabile. Once activated, especially if activated subconsciously, it may very well keep going well beyond our original goal of feeling safe; and that may result in an attempt to make the mudslide the perfect mudslide, or to create a perfect scenario out of the uncertainty and new environment created by the changes we have faced.

For example, when I decided to move my Newmarket office I quickly found myself in an inner discussion about all the “must haves” of a new office space: perfect light, privacy, space for workshops, space for my own personal touch, part-time rent that is affordable, good landlords who don’t interfere, close to the location of my old office, wheelchair access (which my old office didn’t have), great parking, etc. When after a short period of “I’ll never find anything” I realized that this was true mostly because perfect is impossible I could let go of all those expectations; and when I lifted my head off my impossible “must have” list, right there in front of me someone was handing me an amazing offer for a beautiful space with lots of support, some space for my personal touch, and at a very affordable rent with great landladies. My perfectionism which had been trying to keep me safe by focusing on the roots of comfort my old office had, almost cost me the opportunity to see the amazing new possibilities that now offer me the support and freedom I need.

But not all mobilization of the Inner Perfectionist ends this benevolent and in the past few weeks I have come to realize that mine, too, had found another way to gain ground. When I started to make booking mistakes or feel that I really didn’t want to work today, I began to look at burnout — and what had gotten me to this place. After all, as mentioned above, I have been aware of the dangers of burnout for a while, I am teaching about it and I am helping other deal with it on a regular basis. So how did I end up feeling burned out?

Research and statistics all come to similar conclusions: burnout is a form of continued, accumulated stress.(2)

Some signs of burn out are:

  • Extreme tiredness and exhaustion, mentally, emotionally and physically
  • Lack of interest in life and fun things
  • Lack of pride in accomplishments
  • Doubting one’s competence and ability
  • Decline of efficacy, real or perceived
  • Change in appetite (or drink or TV or other addictive habits)
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Unexplained health issues (aching body, colds, headaches, etc.)
  • Making more mistakes / difficulties focusing
  • Becoming judgemental and / or cynical
  • Becoming narrow minded
  • Repeating oneself / becoming forgetful
  • Feeling unmotivated and / or anxious

Some of those symptoms are also reflected, interestingly enough, in some of the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder (adapted from the DSM IV):

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities
  • Significant weight change change in appetite
  • Change in sleep
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or more indecisiveness

There seems to be a connection of sorts between feeling depressed and feeling burned out — in energy if not in intensity. Often the very first signs of approaching burnout are feelings of sadness, depressed moods, and “just wanting to sleep” at the end of a work day (or at the beginning of it).

When we take a closer look, though, there is a small but important difference in the energetic realm: where depressive moods are often about suppressed energy and self, burnout seems to be more about an excessive outpouring of energy and self.

Here are some of the risk factors given for job burnout:

  • You identify so strongly with work that you lack a reasonable balance between your work life and your personal life
  • You try to be everything to everyone
  • Energy drain due to a need to focus extensively on details (as in chaotic work environments or with many different client details)
  • Feeling bored or feeling that work is repetitive
  • Feeling that we have little control over our work (or lives)
  • Feeling pressured to complete high amounts of work (2) (3)
  • Lack of support

Research agrees that there is a definite correlation between personal life and work life and the stress levels accumulate over both areas. Main stressors vary for each person: one person may feel more stress over money issues while another is more concerned with lack of personal time, health issues, family issues, or work related decision making. (4)

However, in times of extreme (and unplanned) change, many of those stressors can combine into a perfect storm. In our case there were financial concerns (we were t a year ahead of budget), work-related decisions to be made (office moves, how to transfer the home office). There were family and personal issues to deal with (illness and death in the family), and issues of personal time (renovating a new home). I had additional stressors trying to balance the needs of my visiting mother and my desire to be available for friends who were going through difficult times. The interesting thing is, that I was fully aware of all of this. I knew that we were stretching ourselves and I was keeping an eye on not stretching too far — or so I thought.

I turns out that the Inner Perfectionist is a tricky companion: mine managed to tell me that I was, in fact, doing amazingly, wonderfully, perfectly. I was looking out for mine and myself and wasn’t I doing a great job? So why not add just this one little thing? Of course I could handle it. Why not? After all, that is what I do, what I’m good at. I have deep roots, I can take this on, it’s easy…. You get the picture. It was, of course, my attempt of keeping things under control in the mudslide: I didn’t focus on details. I was trying to choreograph the mudslide.

Joking aside, I did feel good for the longest time. I was relatively conscious of my decisions and our particular mudslide was one that, for the most part, was happy and joyous. Every accomplishment was celebrated and we could find true joy in all we had and all we did. Energy was spent but it also was returned. However, predictably my Perfectionist didn’t sign off when things calmed down.

So, here I was, beginning to feel burned out. What to do about it?

General wisdom has it that the only way to deal with burnout is to create more change… and usually change in oneself:

  • Develop better coping mechanisms
  • Create better work-life balance
  • Implement a healthier life style
  • Do something to reignite your interest in your work (e.g., further education)
  • Introduce relaxation techniques and / or downtime into your life

I do believe that all those are good suggestions. It can’t be wrong to look at one’s work-life balance or to create and implement healthier life style habits. However, especially in the context of burnout due to big changes, there is something else I would like to add:

  • review common practices and existing routines and change what needs to be changed

Change happens. Big change brings with it changes well beyond the visible and known. It changes to a degree who we are; or at least it changes how we are. After a landslide the terrain is changed forever. New growth will appear and it may look similar to what was before — but there will be new paths, new relationships, new heights and valleys. Dealing with burnout due to big change requires us to bring our energies back into ourselves; and that may require a close look at how old habits and routines may actually be depleting our energy in the new setting. Something as easy as a shopping routine may create a tremendous amount of stress if all the old and familiar stores are miles away. Letting go of yet another familiar thread, e.g. that special brand of cereals one is used to, may be the first step to starting to restore energy.

As for me, I have taken a few days off, I have painted and started to eat better again. I’m sleeping more and I am enjoying cuddle and play time with our cats; and I am also reflecting on routines and “best practices” not only for our lives but also for my business.

  • I am doing more online work with clients and supervisees and find it works quite well.
  • Because of that I am now considering doing some online workshops, too; and that is quite exciting.
  • I am adding some services to my supervision practice in acknowledgement of the changes that are happening in the
    regulation of the field: I am offering an adjusted supervision service for students and trainees to support their application requirements and I have added dyads to my list of services.
  • I am slowly phasing out the Newmarket office, hoping to bring my practice back home completely by the end of the year.
  • And I am working towards restructuring my fee schedule for psychotherapy for it to better reflect the differences in available income of my clients.

I know that there is more that will be adjusted over time. Things will fall in place as we are settling in more. We have mastered a fall and a winter in our new home. Spring is around the corner and as things are starting to bloom in the yard we will find more that needs to be adjusted. Life continues to change and flow. We are flowing with it — and having a new, young feline added to the mix promises more excitement and hopefully also a lot of laughter and love.