In July 2010 I was facilitating a 2-Day “Training for Transition” course in London with my wise and wonderful colleague Teen Ross. I hadn’t been sleeping well for months and by the end of this particular course had barely slept for 3 days. I was a shambling zombie, unable to function properly, forgetful and lacklustre. On relating my insomniac troubles to Teen she responded firmly: “You can’t go on like this Mandy. You need to do something about it!” This proved to be a turning point for me. Honest feedback from another human allowed me to admit to myself that my life and the way that I was managing it at the time, had become unmanageable. After years of driving myself beyond my own limits in a desire to achieve something worthwhile, whilst fate presented me with a series of extreme challenges, tragedies and difficulties, I finally allowed myself to surrender to exhaustion.
A visit to the doctors the following week, evoking a suggestion that: “Perhaps sleeping tablets and anti-depressants might help?” shocked me into further action. I wasn’t depressed was I? Surely I was just worn out? Burnt out? But what could I do about it? The next stop was an appointment with a therapist whose innocent sounding first question: “So what do you do?”, revealed an ridiculously enormous and unsustainable list of the different balls I was trying to juggle and provided the first clue as to how I had come to be in this sorry state. In effect I had created a perfect emotional storm for myself over the years; a childhood in which I had been encouraged towards perfectionism and always trying harder; a pattern of being “fixer” or “rescuer” in all kinds of situations; a deep care for the earth and all her creatures in the face of environmental catastrophe; a work and home life that put me in a position of great responsibility but with very little support and backup. And the final straw? Transition! Becoming aware of the peak oil / climate change double whammy heading straight for us and the promise of the Transition “fix”. A mega “fix”. The most humungous rescue of all time. Like Flash Gordon, we only had 24 hours to save the earth – or in this case 100 months.
Warning signs of approaching burnout:
- Loss of enthusiasm
- Feeling resentful or hostile to others
- Forgetting things
- Muscle aches
- Waking up feeling tired
- Frequent illness
- Losing the joy in life
From Chris Johnstone in Permaculture Magazine “10 Strategies for Avoiding Burnout”
I threw myself into the task with 100% commitment. There were wonderful compensations of course. Running successful events, meeting lots of new people, using my knowledge and abilities to do something that felt worthwhile and important. But as time went on the enormity of the task overwhelmed me. I felt personally responsible for the Transitioning of our entire neighbourhood. As I had started the group I thought I must be responsible for ensuring its success. But we hadn’t made plans for succession and I was running out of energy to hand over to someone new - the rest of the steering group likewise.
After a herculean effort to organise a wonderful and inspiring unleashing in the spring of 2010 our group entered a dormant phase from which it has still not emerged. Our hope that willing successors would come forward to take on the mantle of continuing the work did not come to fruition. We had achieved some success - numerous projects emerged locally that I like to think were inspired or influenced by our awareness raising programme. Many people who had been involved in the Transition Initiative made changes in their lives and homes based on a new understanding of the world and where we are collectively heading. But the dream of large scale transformation, that somehow had seemed possible, if only we could keep our superhuman efforts going, melted away like a mirage in the desert. Clearly we weren’t superhuman after all. But what could we do now? How could we contain all this knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, that being involved in Transition had brought to and developed in us, and still hold ourselves together emotionally? How could we keep on working with hope, in a way that nourished and sustained us? How could we develop and maintain our emotional resilience in times of such radical uncertainty? For me an inner transition had become necessary. If resilience can be defined as the ability of a system to deal with change without collapsing, then building our emotional resilience might include putting into place the connections, habits and ways of thinking that will nourish, sustain and energise us. Then, perhaps, in times of difficulty, change and stress we will be able to ride the waves rather drown beneath them.
In the early days of burnout, on those nights when sleep eluded me, I would get up and find something useful to do. One night I was watching Joanna Macy’s DVD “The Work that Re-Connects” when she said something that was pivotal to my recovery. She explained:
“There are no guarantees in life”. “When we fall in love there is no guarantee that we will have a lasting relationship. When we go into labour there is no guarantee that we will have a healthy baby. That uncertainty is the nature of life.”
Likewise, with the work we do in Transition, there is no guarantee that what we are doing will be enough or even in time to achieve the outcomes we hope for, but somehow we do it anyway. The idea of letting go of an attachment to a particular outcome was an epiphany for me and seemed crucial to re-building my emotional resilience. Starting to understand that complex systems like economies and ecosystems work in mysterious ways that are impossible to control or predict with any certainty was a revelation. Anything could happen! All I could possibly do was play my own small part, like an ant, bee or termite, individually insignificant, but as part of a much larger movement for change with incredible potential. I no longer had to drive myself beyond my own limits. Content in my own insignificance I was able at last to choose to do what brought me joy and satisfaction.
While starting to let go of things I can’t control has been crucial, setting and achieving more manageable goals and getting the feeling of success that comes from that has been very important to maintaining and building my pool of personal resilience. Recently I was talking to a friend about his work tackling deliberate climate change misinformation online. He said he knows he’s been successful when the people, whose writing he is challenging, publish personal and hateful things about him. It struck me as significant that his criteria for success were achievable. Rather than hoping to convert the “deniers” to acceptance of his own perspective he was content with being noticed. He felt successful and energised and able to carry on. Clarifying in my own mind my success criteria and goals has also been of vital importance. I have realised that often I am not conscious of my criteria for success and that when I become more mindful of my beliefs and expectations it is possible to adjust them to something more realistic that recognises my limits. Setting realistic goals, like helping with the tea and coffee at our local community shop event, is more realistic and manageable for me at the moment than facilitating the transition of the whole Dyfi Valley to a post carbon economy! Having big goals is fine, I guess, but making sure there are lots of small wins along the way ensures that there will be energy and enthusiasm to keep going. In fact it has been pointed out to me that perhaps choosing these small and slow solutions may add up to something unexpectedly big in a mysterious and unpredictable way!
But probably the most valuable and ever present lesson that I have learnt through all of this is to value myself as my most precious resource. My internal reserves of energy and enthusiasm are renewable resources and need to be managed sustainably, like the most precious sparkling deep green ocean. I have learnt that I must allow and encourage these waters to replenish themselves or they will run dry. I have learnt to be much more mindful of my own needs, my energy and my limits. I have learnt to say “no”, knowing that if the job needs to be done, someone will do it and if no-one does then maybe the time is not right for that thing to happen. I have learnt to stop regularly and ask myself: “How do I feel right now, what do I need, what can I put in place to make sure that need is met?” I’ve learnt that it’s OK to ask for support and to receive as well as give, even when you’re not giving much right now. I’ve learnt that its OK for someone to say no to me and that I can find the support I need elsewhere. I’ve learnt to take stock of what nourishes and sustains me, what gives me energy and feeds my enthusiasm and to value and pursue those things. I have looked at what drains and demoralises me and decided to let go of some of those things or see if I can at least do them differently. I’m learning to take steps to make sure my basic physical and emotional needs are being met – whole food, sunshine, movement, rest, fun, friendship....even when things are difficult and it doesn’t seem like there is time.
And finally I am starting to create or join networks of support. For those areas of life where I felt overstretched and unsupported, I now have supportive others with whom I can tackle difficulties and where we can support each other’s growth and development. I’ve finally started my Permaculture Diploma, something I wanted to do for nearly 2 decades but “didn’t have time” for and I am now part of a fantastic “action learning guild” that meets regularly as well as a large on-line community of support.
I don’t think my experience is unique. The challenges that we face in this time of planetary crisis call for our best effort. For many of us this will lay bare our selves in ways that mean we cannot continue as we were before and that an inner transition will have to occur for us to continue putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep acting from hope. I hope that sharing this story will help. One more ant’s worth of movement towards the future we hope for. I thought I would end with the serenity prayer:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference”.
Amanda Dean is a Transition Trainer and Medical Herbalist and is mum to two great kids. She helped initiate Transition Bro Ddyfi Trawsnewid in 2007.