My health has suffered greatly over these last 18 months. I’m not as patient or understanding as I’d like to be, I’m quick to judge harshly, and I’m less likely to engage in conversations when I sense misalignment. I’ve found myself thinking and feeling much more negatively. Lately, I’ve been building a toolbox to tackle burnout and related problems, and I’d like to share one practice I’ve been reaching for. It’s essentially perspective-taking but focused on myself rather than others. “Self-distancing” is what I’ve been calling it.
When to Use This Practice
I typically use this approach when I feel that I’m overreacting. Things may not be going as I’d like. Perhaps a decision is made that I disagree with, or someone speaks to me in a tone I don’t appreciate. My emotional reaction feels like an 11 when it logically should be a four or a five. I feel strongly angry, hurt, or disrespected, to an extent that just doesn’t match the circumstances.
How It Works
I start by describing exactly what happened and how I’m feeling, with as much detail as I can. Specifics are really important.
Did someone say a mean thing to me? Was it a 5-year old? Or a manager at work? Exactly what words were said? What context was it said in? How frequently does this happen? Who else was in the room?
Then I do my best to describe exactly how I’m reacting. Is it anger? Fear? Am I feeling disrespected? Contempt? Do I want to fight? Get even? Yell something back?
Next, I put the two side by side and ask myself: “Is this emotional reaction a productive way to get more of what I want, or less of what I don’t? How can I best move forward in alignment with my values?” I know going into the exercise that the reaction is probably not reasonable. But, it’s valuable to spend real time with the specific details and study how I’m responding to the situation. Even if I don’t do anything else, I find this to be calming.
But there is a last, critical step. I need to decide what action I want to take moving forward. We’ve developed our emotions largely to protect ourselves, so it’s generally not a great idea to ignore them. When I feel strong emotions and have no plan for action, I often feel a mix of hopelessness and helplessness. I’m doing nothing to protect myself from being in the same situation in the future. It’s important for me to create agency by building a plan to create better outcomes going forward.
If you’re feeling burnout or exhaustion, there’s no quick fix. The action plan you put together to remedy the situation will take time. I find it helpful to create a second, emergency bailout plan for the re-triggering that will likely happen in the meantime. How will I notice when I’ve been triggered? What will allow me to gracefully step out of that situation? How will I get back on track for my longer-term plan? Things go much better for me if I’ve thought those things through.
For more thoughts on this idea and other great tools to manage burnout, check out How to Be Happy article from the New York Times. I’ve also found the book Emotional Agility to be really helpful when I’m feeling this type of emotional exhaustion.