This week, the Feminist Survival Project podcast is going to end, and they asked their listeners share what they learned, and so I thought I’d get bloggy with it as a way to express my gratitude for their podcast and their book. I also wrote this in the final days of my little dog’s life. He lived to 15 1/2 years old, and towards the end his mind started go. Dementia and senility took hold of my best friend, and I slogged up and down hills of intense emotions for over six weeks. He and I went from climbing mountains together to him barely making it to the backyard. Outliving a creature who brought me so much joy is one of the hardest things I have yet to experience. I see no other way to survive this current moment in my life other than to see it through. To face it and all the rituals of life that now seem so strange without him.
For the first time in my life, however, I feel a deep visceral understanding of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
So there. Now you know. I’m not the best version of myself right now though I’ve tried to hold it together as best as I can. And that’s just what I’ve been doing for months. Holding it together.
I’m also going to write this blog as a simple wish I’m sending into the universe. I want to understand “burnout” as a state of being and feeling a bit more, and thus I’m really thankful for the Nagoski sisters–I’m going to refer to them as Sestre. Before reading their work, I used to believe you burned out, suffered, made some change in your life, and then you moved on to the next thing. That it was all a cycle, a state of being, and I was so wise because I had figured it all out. You have a problem, you live through it, and then you find The Next Thing. May the bridges I burn, light the way, I thought.
Not this year.
We aren’t just burning the candle at both ends; we are nothing but flame or ash. And when I say We, I mean me and anyone who might feel this way. If you don’t feel this way, please feel free to move on. I don’t need to hear from you that you’re doing fine. Good for you. The Internet is a wide wonderful place, carry on, and I’ll give you twenty minutes back in your life if you don’t need these words.
But maybe you do. So I will write. From syllable to sound.
I work in the space of higher education, educational technology, and professional development, and somewhere in the overlap of these three worlds, I see a lot of references to the word burnout lately. During my last journey through graduate school, I wrote extensively about teacher burnout, and I hypothesized that adopting/adapting/implementing open educational resources into one’s teaching could save people from Teacher Burnout. Capital T. Capital B.
Since that time, I’ve been more involved with the leadership side of adopting/adapting/implementing said resources and practices and this causes another form of burnout I’m not quite ready to name. But it’s a thing. Lowercase A. Lowercase T.
I’ve lived through two pretty substantial periods of career burnout, and I’m not here to share with you how amazing I am nor am I here to make you feel that hair shirt of shame that is already so much a part of your 2020 skin. I’m not going to try to tell you what works, what you need, or what the best method is for saving yourself may be. Only you know. I have no tips or tricks. No cautionary tales. No words of wisdom.
I’m just going to write about what I learned from the Nagoski Sestre and it was a one ton bell clanging in the universe for me. The brain is wider than the sky.
So let me start there.
The phrase “self-care” makes my skin crawl. It smacks of what I think is disastrous about neo-liberalism, and every time I hear “self-care” as some solution, I find myself saying “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I first learned this phrase from studying Audre Lorde who, in my mind, taught us this phrase because, in short, if you are going to burn down The Man, you need to take care of your own shit in order to sustain the work. Self-care, in the way that I was lucky to learn about it as undergraduate from my feminist professors, is about making sure you have enough energy to sustain the action that will bring about change. What Ghandi called being the change that you want to see in the world.
It’s not getting your nails done or going to spa, or some product that you buy, it’s what you do to preserve your sanity so you have the power to take down The Man. Whatever your particular corner of The Struggle is, your first responsibility is to make sure you–the person involved in fighting an injustice–is rested and ready for what’s next. The notion of self-care that I learned from Lorde was about the long-game and how to sustain unsustainable action and passion for justice and truth that you believe in. That I believe in.
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Her message to me as an idealistic adult-returning student willing to get into debt for a college education was to prepare myself for the long-game. Beyond the mountains there are mountains. I wanted to be an educator who helped people like me, and I’m still doing that work, just in another setting than I originally thought. I’m not sure when this happened, but the phrase “self-care” started appearing everywhere in commercials, from Influencers (God help us) and from people who use phrases like “personal brand” and “my followers” without any irony. I feel a combination of disgust and despair when I see advice about “self-care” as an antidote to any stress.
Honestly, I could not really put a pin on what bugged me about this new focus and commercialization of “self-care” and I kept my inner Inigo Montoya words to myself when people gave me advice about taking care of myself.
When I listened to the Nagoski twins, and they shared that what we need isn’t taking care of ourselves, it’s taking care of one another, something clicked for me. I was mid-run and I stopped to rewind it (sorry, I don’t remember which podcast since this entire year has felt like one long Tuesday). Then the way one of them snarked “self-care” in the podcast made me see ten thousand rainbows.
In other words, what we need as a society is not a product you can buy, it’s an action where you turn to yourself and to others with kindness and compassion. They preach this phrase quite a bit, and I honestly I needed to hear it every week in 2020.
From their book:
Wellness, once again, is not a state of mind, but a state of action; it is the freedom to move through the cycles of being human, and this ongoing, mutual exchange of support is the essential action of wellness. It is the flow of givers giving and accepting support, in all its many forms.
The cure for burnout is not “self-care;” it all of us caring for another (p. 214).
I must have read that last sentence 50 times.
And let me tell you, I wasn’t a fan of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle when I first read it three months before I decided to that I needed to take a break from drinking alcohol. I read this book, and I was like, “Fuck. You. Ladies. You. Don’t. Know. Me.” I read the book quickly, and I slammed them with some snarky review on GoodReads (which I have since deleted), and I closed the cover of their book thinking I had it all figured out. I was good. Solid. Fine. Together. Totally good. Totally fine. This is fine.
On the outside, I was holding everything together. I was working for a growing company and I was helping to create a viable 501(3)(c) during my free time (ha ha) while trying be a writer and a recreational bike racer.
In other words, I had two start-ups in my life and I was trying to do All The Things. On the inside, I was starting to get very worried about my health, my happiness, and my ability to sustain the life I had created. I made a list of the things I could control and the things I could not control. And surprise–the columns were unbalanced.
One column was way longer than the other, so I committed to changing the things that I knew I could control, and I researched, read, and spent a lot of time sorting out what I could do to improve my life. A dry January or a Sober October wasn’t exactly what I needed; I haven’t drank alcohol since January 2019. But that’s a story for another day.
Every time I shared some of the things I’ve learned about neuroplasticity and my own habits and what I was doing to change them, somebody inevitably called it self-care.
Sigh. No, that wasn’t it. You keep using that word…
And let me be clear, if this phrase works for you, then please use it. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. Self-care it up, my friends. You do you.
What I’ve learned from the Nagoski Sestre is the following:
Caring just for yourself is not a cure for burn out.
Having a hard time understanding what burnout is? Me too. Let’s start with something really small. Like let’s say you bought twenty pounds of black beans in March. Bet you’re sick of those black beans right about now. Bet you feel guilty complaining about those black beans because there is so much food insecurity in the world. Bet you then feel helpless. Then you probably want to take a nap, but you have four hours of Zoom meetings where you have to not only deal with the faces of others, you have to constantly stare at your own. And your to-do list never ends. And so it goes. And you just keep thinking about the next thing. Anxiety. Worry. It’s not really cycle at this point, as I understand it, burnout becomes part of the way you’re living until your body takes over and makes you ill and/or depressed.
Here’s the thing.
I’ve become really interested in neuroscience and what it is telling us about learning, and I’ve started to read up on Trauma. I’m grateful to my friend who shared this incredible library guide, and she also taught me that we have to stop asking “What’s wrong with you?” and instead we have to ask “What happened to you?”
Suggesting there is something wrong feeds the flames of burnout while inquiring about what happened to you is that kindness and compassion that the Nagoski Sestre preach.
This subtle shift in the way that we interact with others may help. Especially if you are somebody like me who likes to fix things, act, get shit done. This moment is not for people like us, and all we can do is try to take care of another. We all know somebody who is struggling right now, and I think being able to listen to ourselves and others is crucial to seeing this time through. Kindness and compassion–a tone of voice that we need to hear in our minds. It’s the voice I’m trying to hear when I look in the mirror.
As somebody who likes to feel like I’m fixing things and contributing to something greater than myself, I’m at a complete loss of what to do right now. Sure, I still believe in my work, and I support people and causes that I believe in, but there is so much I cannot fix. Over the last ten months of this hellscape we call America, I have stepped away from my volunteer efforts, I’ve distanced myself from several friends, and I dove straight into working as much as could. I’ve worked on learning how watercolor, I’ve researched, I’ve written, I’ve gone on long walks and runs. I’ve kept a pretty consistent pace as any of you have who are lucky to have a job. You’re either working twice as hard or not all in this country.
This has all, I now realize, been a coping mechanism for me, and I’ve been fine up until six weeks ago when my sweet dog got sick.
And now I have to see this time of grief through.
I’m incredibly grateful for Nagoski podcast, their book, and the joyful experience of me not knowing which one is speaking until they mentioned music (Amelia) or sex (Emily). Thank you for your work, dear ones. I love the Nagoski Sestre for quoting David Bowie as the best advice for a time like this: “Turn and face the strange.”
This I can do. I have no choice.
Maybe you don’t either.
As I was thinking about how to end this post, so I can meet my self-imposed goal of blogging monthly, I looked out the window and got annoyed that I have somehow missed the changing color of the leaves near my house. Autumn has somehow happened and I feel like I’ve missed it. I started to cry thinking about my sweet best friend, and then I realized now that the leaves are gone, I can once again see the hills in the distance.