“Burnout is a sign that something needs to change.” ~Sarah Forgrave
Fifteen years ago, my doctor informed me I was in the early stages of adrenal exhaustion. In no uncertain terms, she warned that if I failed to address the stress I was under, my adrenals might not recover. This was hard to hear, but it forced me to face the fact that eating well, exercising religiously, and keeping up with the latest research on wellness was not enough.
I had to ask myself a defining question that day: Am I ready to go down with the ship?
At the time, I was teaching an average of fourteen classes a week at my wellness studio. I had been exceeding my threshold for so long that I had pain in every joint and muscle in my body. I was completely exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but slowing down or cutting back was just not an option.
Or so I believed.
The problem was that every time I would even begin to consider addressing the reality of my situation, my head would instantly fill with all the reasons I couldn’t possibly stop.
There was the dream for a business I couldn’t imagine giving up. The huge amounts of time and money I had invested in realizing that dream. And most of all, there were the clients I was serving, a community of amazing women I loved working with and didn’t want to let go.
Meanwhile, my thirty-year marriage to a man struggling with an opioid addiction was falling apart. My kids were distressed. My body was completely breaking down, and my life had become a tangled mess of fears, conflicted feelings, and obligations I just didn’t have the heart for anymore.
As the growing pressure to do something about my situation increased, my anxiety increased right along with it. Talk about a pressure cooker!
I couldn’t even imagine the courage I would need to tell my husband I wanted a divorce. And whenever I got anywhere close to that courage, my mind would flood with anxiety over the uncertainty.
How would he react?
How would it affect my children?
Where would I live?
How would I ever rebuild my life?
It felt as if I was being buried alive under a growing mountain of complexity with no way out. So, the pain continued to get worse, and I kept trudging forward, blindly hoping against hope that somehow it would all work itself out (without changing anything about the way I was living).
Growing up I had learned to take the offensive and power through obstacles. I had always seen myself as someone who could do anything she put her mind to. Now I found myself stuck between the person who thought she was responsible for everyone’s experience but her own, and the person I might actually become if I started making self-valuing, authentic choices.
Then one morning, the dam broke.
I was walking up to the door of my studio to teach the 6:00 a.m. class, asking myself (like I did every morning) how I was going to get through the day with all the pain I was in.
As I turned the key in the lock of the business I had dreamed of creating for over a decade—the business I had built out of everything I believed in and everything I knew I wanted to offer to the world—I could see the consequences of my resistance to change about to swallow me whole. I could see that my fear of change was completely blocking my ability to see anything past that.
And suddenly… everything went quiet. All the reasons for not stopping that typically flooded my mind just fell away.
The only thought I had in that moment was: The way you stop… is you stop.
I didn’t just hear these words; I felt an absolute acceptance of them. One minute it was impossible to stop, the next it felt like the simplest thing in the world.
In the quiet of this moment, I became so aware of my own breath that I felt it everywhere in my body. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I stopped. And when I did, I found the courage to listen to my aching heart.
I felt a depth of longing for peace I had never allowed myself to experience before. I stood there breathing and felt an acceptance of the reality of everything that was happening wash over me. The pressure to control it all was gone!
My mind was clear, and my body felt relaxed even as I faced the same facts of my situation, but without all the usual stories and justifications overwhelming me. It felt like a miracle.
Suddenly the door to my studio, that I had been walking through for years, felt like the door to an entirely new way. Standing there with my key in my hand, in the profound quiet of that moment, I was flooded with a new sense of possibility.
As I set up for the 6:00 a.m. class, I stayed focused on my breathing and continued to listen to my body. It became clear to me that when I wasn’t being honest with myself, my body responded by restricting my breath. And I was able to see how all the years of unaddressed tension were expressing themselves as escalating physical pain.
A New Direction
That morning, I didn’t just take a first step toward interrupting the old way. I began heading in a new direction.
But it still took me a year and a half to wind down my commitments and extricate myself from the studio. This was a massive transformation involving every aspect of my life, but it began with just one step—accepting that the old way was broken. Once I accepted this whole heartedly, I moved to the next step.
I had a friend who had moved back to town to take care of her aging mother. She was looking for a place to establish her yoga school and had already been teaching a couple classes a week at my studio while she looked for a more permanent place. On that pivotal morning, after I taught the 6:00 a.m. class, I called my friend and told her that I was stepping down, and that she could hold all her classes there.
I continued to pull back, one step at a time, constantly asking myself, “What can I let go of today?” (One day, the answer to this question was “my hair”!) Eventually my friend bought out my lease and took over completely.
This is not to say I did not continue to wrestle with self-doubt. But my intention to slow down, and to stop ignoring my tension, became my guiding compass point.
In the years that followed I relied on this compass to dive more deeply into the mind-body connection and what it truly means to take care of myself and be happy. My primary tool was the simple mindfulness practice of paying attention to my posture (whether it was tense or at ease) and my breath (restricted or free). I found strong community for this priority in the study and practice of Qigong, Tai Chi, and Continuum.
In the process, it became clear to me that to access the wisdom within, the first thing I had to do was slow down and calm down. This priority allowed me to be honest about the pressure I was putting on myself to keep doing things I no longer had the heart for, and to recognize the emotional reasons I was hanging onto them.
We all come to thresholds in our lives, times when we’re faced with tremendous pressure to change (or go down with the ship). When we refuse to change, the only other option is to increase our tolerance for suffering while convincing ourselves that it’s not affecting us as much as it really is. In this fantasy we tell ourselves we’ll make it (somehow) if we just keep powering through.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not about avoiding stress. It’s about increasing your ability to remain present and functional while stressful events are happening. The calmer you can be in the face of stress, the more resilient you’ll be and the less likely you’ll be to end up teetering on the edge of complete burnout like I was.
When we practice being present, we’re able to make more accurate moment-to-moment choices. We’re able to slow down and take an honest look at what needs to change. Which isn’t to say that it’s going to change in a minute, or a day, or a week, or even a year. The truth is that lasting change can often be a very gradual process.
How to Stop
I was able to stop by establishing new priorities. I made it a point to slow down, calm down, and really be honest about what I could eliminate. My process was essentially as follows:
1. Stop. (For the moment, anyway.) Acknowledge that before a new way can show itself, you have to find a way to stop the old way.
2. Acknowledge the pain you are in—emotional and physical.
3. Ask what you can let go of now and in the near future. (If the answer is “nothing,” then ask again.)
4. With “something has to give” as your mantra, what can you let go of next?
- Consider what you are physically and mentally capable of doing right now. (If the answer is “everything, if I push myself” then ask again.)
- Consider your life priorities and what you need to make room for.
- Consider what you no longer have a heart for.
- Consider that what you are holding on to tightest might be what really needs to go. Letting go of smaller things first often helps to relax your grip on even your strongest (and often unhealthy) attachments.
5. When the “yes, but…” voice shows up, be aware of it and do your best not to listen or take action based on what this voice says. This is the voice of your attachment to keeping an unsustainable system on life support. It’s fueled by your fear of uncertainty because if you stop what you’re doing, you’re not sure what will happen (and your “yes, but…” voice is certain it will be awful!).
6. Gather tools to help yourself detach enough from this voice to move toward accepting reality and make the changes needed to live a more authentic and satisfying life. (The Serenity Prayer is a good one.)
7. Remember that change is a process, not a single event. Start small, then graduate to bigger things that need to go.
I hope you’ll continue to play with the concept of stopping (the old way) to start (a better way). Every meaningful change hinges on your ability to interrupt the old pattern. You’ll learn to rely on this ability the more you practice using it.
Also keep in mind that you won’t necessarily know anything about the new way when you stop the old one. Change usually happens very slowly, and patience can be the hardest thing.
Good luck and feel free to reach out with questions or comments!
About Meg Coyle
Meg Coyle is a pioneer in the field of body-centered mindfulness, offering wisdom, tools, and practices that help midlife women reclaim their confidence and restore inner peace. Her signature system, the Inner Peace Blueprint, changes the way the mind and emotions work, offering women a new set of responses to stress that truly support mental clarity and emotional calm, no matter what is happening in their lives. Access her free stress-mastery class here.