There is an interesting parallel between how we feel in a relationship with another person and how we feel in our relationship with our job. It is curious to see if the same patterns emerge cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Let's delve in to understand how patterns are established, how they play out at work, and what we can do to break those patterns so we can live more freely.
When Early Patterns Are Established
John Bowlby was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who specialized in child development. As infants, we are vulnerable and rely on our caretakers for survival. Beyond survival, we depend on our caretakers for physical and emotional nurturing which helps us develop our brain. The way in which our parents interact with us has a strong effect on our ability to relate to others when we grow up.
Bowlby was particularly interested in what happens when we are separated from our caregiver. He came up with a three phase model of #abandonment:
Phase 1: The infant experience #anxiety. They worry the parent won't come back and has abandoned them for good. They might be asking themselves "where is mommy?"
Phase 2: The anxiety turns into #anger. They start off by asking themselves "how can dad just leave me like this?"
Phase 3: Over time, the infant's anger turns into #despair. They become depressed, apathetic, and withdrawn. They resign to the fact that dad's not coming back. Even when the parent does come back, the infant won't attach him or herself to the parent in the same way. Over time, though, this detachment may turn back into anxiety because the infant starts to worry that the parent will leave again.
In essence, the cycle of abandonment plays out over and over in this way:
ANXIETY --> ANGER --> DETACHMENT
If you've experienced abandonment as a child, chances are you have a fear of abandonment. Situations of childhood abandonment include the death of a parent, a parent leaving the household and cutting off communication, a divorce that interrupts contact, or even a parent who was under the influence or drugs or alcohol and wasn't there emotionally even when they were there physically.
When our job is very #demanding of our time, energy, and focus and when we feel like we don't have enough resources to stay afloat, we are likely to push ourselves harder and harder. At first, we might be successful and get some projects completed. But over time, we recognize how unsustainable this pattern is and we start to feel anxious about how we are going to manage. This anxiety is especially pronounced when we feel we're running out of steam.
You might feel angry about being put in this position. You try to fight for more support, more resources, for getting tasks off your plate, but if you're met with resistance your anger will, over time, turn into a sense of detachment. This is you feeling deflated. You're a lone soldier in the battlefield trying to fight a war that is way over your head. You know it's Mission Impossible, but you stick it out and think "I have to keep going."
So What Happens When We Burn Out?
You know you're burned out when you're tired all the time. You put in a long work day, commute home, and then work from home. Your work responsibilities are never done and you feel like you are living to work. There is no time for anything else. When the weekend finally arrives, if you aren't working then too, you might find that you don't have the energy to do anything fun. You just want to catch up on sleep or veg out in front of the television. This might be even more pronounced if you are an #introvert.
Introverts need time to recover from being around other people. While extroverts feel energized by their interactions with others, the introvert's battery can only go so far before he or she needs time alone. If you work in a team or even around others and you are an introvert, you will need some dedicated alone time. But if you continue working from home at the end of that long work day, you may not feel reenergized even though you are on your own.
Researchers have narrowed down the burnout cycle to three stages:
Stage 1: You feel emotionally #exhausted. You've frantically put all your energy into trying to get your work done, but because there is more for you to do than is feasible in the time you have and often there are too few resources for you to work with, your energy expires.
Stage 2: You become #cynical about the job. If you're working with customers, you might stop seeing them as people with needs and start to think of them as "just another part of my day I have to get through." This leads to decreased customer service, increased errors, and as you might imagine - this can negatively affect how you feel about yourself, especially if you typically take pride in your work. You might feel angry at your organization for putting you in this situation. You might feel stuck in a job that brings you no joy or sense of purpose.
Stage 3: Given the exhaustion and cynicism you've developed by now, you'll likely start to notice an effect on your performance. You stop feeling like work provides you an opportunity for #accomplishment. You're dragging your feet and stop believing in your ability to be productive. You might blame yourself for not being able to keep up. When your mind is filled with negative self-talk, you stop taking risks, thereby accomplishing less, which only reinforces your belief that you CAN'T do this job.
Let's Think Of Your Job As Your Significant Other
If we were to consider a parallel between your job AND how you expect to be treated in a relationship with someone who deeply cares about you, we can start to look for patterns.
Imagine you're starting a new job. Chances are, you get some training and have regular check-ins with your manager or supervisor. Maybe you're working as part of a team and feel like "we're all in this together." But over time, you're assigned more responsibilities or tasks and you have less feedback, less reward, or less resources with which to do your work.
When your expectation to be supported by your superiors is not met, you might feel a sense of abandonment by your job. Your response to this abandonment will somewhat depend on whether this is a new experience or something familiar from childhood. If you experienced abandonment as a child, you may put up with it longer than most. That means you'll tend to stick it out which puts you at greater risk for #burnout. Just like in relationships, if you give everything to your job, it will be devastating to lose that job. This keeps the perpetual cycle going.
If you aren't used to being abandoned, you may experience more confusion and rage, thinking to yourself, "why are they dumping all of this on me?" and be more likely to seek out resources or advocate for yourself.
Changing the Abandonment Paradigm
If the abandonment cycle is a familiar experience for you, if you recognize a deep fear of abandonment in your relationships, your paradigm shift will require additional steps beyond just burnout recovery.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
What at work triggers my sense of abandonment?
What do I need to remember to stay balanced even with this trigger?
What have I done in the past that was reactive?
What should I do to be proactive rather than reactive?
1. Part of overcoming the fear of abandonment, as with any fear, is to remind yourself you can tolerate your feelings which are fleeting. When that fear gets triggered in you, sit with it and observe it rather than running away from it, ignoring it, or becoming reactive.
2. Spend time grounding yourself. This will help establish a greater sense of stability and safety which are crucial to overcoming your anxiety and fear. You can go into nature for a walk, sit and meditate for 10 minutes, listen to calming music, do some deep breathing, or find another way to focus inward knowing you're supported by the earth beneath you.
3. Get support. If you are stuck in this abandonment cycle and can't get out yourself, hire a therapist who is trained in schema or trauma work to help you.
Changing the Burnout Paradigm
While there are organizational changes that would significantly change your experience on the job, let's focus on what you can do.
1. Be aware of your energy level. When your energy drops, ensure you are recharging with 7-9 hours of sleep per night, eating healthily, and taking time to relax and unwind from the day.
2. Have self-compassion. Rather than being hard on yourself for not meeting the job's expectations, recognize that you are doing everything you can. If expectations are not realistic, it's not your fault for not being able to meet them.
3. Advocate for yourself. Let your manager know that you are at capacity and that the amount of responsibility on your plate is insurmountable. Negotiate to remove tasks from your to-do list that you don't enjoy doing. By focusing your time at work on the tasks you enjoy most, you can increase your energy level. Also, if you need additional resources, let your manage know what you need and re-set the expectation based on your lack of resources. Take back your power.
Our relationship patterns are often established in infancy and early childhood. A pattern of abandonment in childhood can trigger fear of abandonment in adulthood. When your job doesn't providing you with the support and understanding you need, not only are you at risk for burnout, you may find that your fear of abandonment gets triggered. And when you are triggered by abandonment, you may be more prone to burnout.
It is important to know yourself. This includes knowing how your environment is impacting your energy, your emotions, and your behaviors. Knowing yourself is also about understanding your patterns and triggers. This self-awareness is the fundamental key to help you make the changes you desire to meet the needs you have.
If you've experienced abandonment in childhood, how has that shaped your experience of burnout at work?