Burnout and Taking Control of Your Life

Many years ago, I had an associate dean in our college say to me, “When you can’t walk away from something, it controls you. You don’t control it.” I’ve thought about these words through the decades since many times. These words came resonating out of my past recently as I was facing a bad case of terminal burnout.

I was well aware that the burnout had been building for the last several years and had tried to “manage” it with my meditation, spiritual practice, exercise, self-talks, etc. Each year, however, the burnout pressure had increased. I was having greater and greater difficulty to keep from just throwing down the towel and saying, “I QUIT! I’m not doing this anymore!!” It had also gotten to the point that I was concerned it would affect my clients.

My burnout is with my mental health counseling, which I had been doing for the last 25 years or so. I had already closed my private office practice and had not seen any clients for almost three years now, hoping this move would be enough. But, alas, it wasn’t. Big Sad. Big Sigh. As I still needed the income. All I had been doing for the last three years was my equine-assisted counseling, aka, horse therapy.

We would take the horses and go out to our boys school four days a month to do horse therapy. Add another half-day of paperwork, scheduling, occasional calls to parents, and misc, and that is 4.5 days per month let’s say. One would think, well, gees, it is only 4.5 days per month! How hard could that be? I mean, for that 4.5 days per month, I made more than I ever made as a college professor, and that was often working 60-80 hours per week back then! Quit your whining, old man. So went my self-talk. Nonetheless, the pressure to walk away grew and grew.

I felt close to the point of explosion. I was walking on egg shells, biting my tongue, keeping the lid on it, …. It was draining my energy, keeping me feeling depleted, my creativity was stifled, depression sometimes creeping in. I mean, I really needed the income. It was 60% of my income. And then there was my business partner. I had to think of him too.

In this regard, COVID has actually been a help. Our services were furloughed for two months at the beginning of the pandemic. I had time and to step back and evaluate. Although my anxiety came up, my energy did too, and there was a big sigh of relief at not having to go out and do our horse therapy. But through that two months, the specter of returning to the boys school still hung over my head; the dread.

What was I waiting for? Why didn’t I quit? I was trying to come up with an alternative way to supplement my income. One that used the things that bring me passion in now and where I am now in my life. I’m in the setting years of my life. I don’t want to waste it doing something I don’t want to do, if I can help it. Etc.

Something happened recently that pushed me over the edge. Actually, it was probably several somethings. I’m unclear. But, I awoke the other day thinking about that Dean’s words, and asked myself, what can I do to regain a sense of control of my life over this? The answer came to me. It was so simple. That answer was, “Just Quit! Walk away. It is long past time!”

To put this decision in better perspective, I’ve been here before, that is the burnout and realizing I just needed to let go, to walk away. That was back in the 1990’s when I walked into my Department Heads office for my annual evaluation: I had walked in and threw the keys to my lab on his desk, and just announced, “I’m not doing this anymore–the research. You can have my lab back.” This was a traumatic, agonizing moment for me. So, how did that turn out?

Eventually, it turned out to be a wise decision. For the next two years I sort of drifted around the department doing things that needed to be done for the department. I took a lot of grief from my department head as he tried to increase the pressure for me to quit, to give up my tenured position, etc. I talk about this in my book WindWalker some. When I walked away that day in his office, I didn’t know where I was going but was looking for a different path. A couple of synchronicity events occurred that lead me to my new path, but it took a couple of years. When I turned down that new path, things begin to come together for me–but it wasn’t easy or smooth.

So, here I am again. Sometimes, maybe often times, you just have to walk away. To throw in the towel, and just say, I Quit. To have faith that if you don’t give up, something will work out. To trust your gut, and keep peddling the old bicycle.

I have now entered a period of discernment for a new path. I will let you know how it goes. Say some prayers for me. Wish me well and blessings. Gassho