Michael is working all the time. For the past three years, he says, it’s all that he does.
He isn’t an obvious candidate for workaholism. Michael knows what’s important to him. He’s actively built a career around doing what he enjoys, roles that feel meaningful, employers that value him. But as time has progressed and pressures shifted, he’s found himself pulled more and more into long hours and a greater workload.
It’s taking a toll. His humour still glimmers through our conversation, but his zest for life has dissipated. He’s been having down periods. Pondering, he says with a rueful laugh: “What is this? Is this life?”
“I’m still functioning. I’m still strong and it all kind of works, but the general motivation when I’m off work is so low because I’m just kind of tired all the time.”
He’s not functioning though, not really. Besides the emotional drain, it turns out he also crashes periodically. When he gets a holiday, about every six months, he invariably loses the first few days to recovery, retreating to bed and sleeping 13, 14, 15 hours a day.
There might be phoenixes out there, but unless someone is positively flourishing, a cycle of burn and crash like this signals dysfunction. With every cycle things are wearing down and the system is growing weaker. The problem is, as long as it keeps going, we can tell ourselves that things are ok. Until something actually breaks and the whole thing grinds to a halt, that is. By then though, the overall system is so weak that repair and recovery is a major endeavour.
Michael knows this, none of it is news. The problem is, even though he knows he’s burning out, he finds it hard to step back when there’s more to be done. His values for life - do good, don’t do bad – while beautiful in their simplicity, without boundaries have become bottomless pits.
Something's getting in the way. We go hunting.
There’s an exercise I use sometimes to find out and explore what's been emotionally walled off, labelled unacceptable or terrifying. As a visualisation it’s surprisingly powerful. For Michael it comes easily: a field, vast and lonely. From a distance it seems unpleasant, endless, isolated. Somehow it signifies total separation, an end to interactions with anyone.
Entering it creates a shift though. Aspects that seemed overwhelmingly negative, turn out not to be. Loneliness becomes peace. Isolation a relief. These things that have been labelled as bad, that have been accessed only when imposed at breaking point, turn out to be positive, beneficial, renewing.
Michael laughs again. "It's crazy, I’ve not been letting myself have that,” he says.
When there's something we need but feel we shouldn't, it can get incorrectly labelled as bad, in an attempt to stop ourselves from wanting it. Our brains are smart: over time, the tactic works. When our recovery strategies get labelled like that, it's easy to get stuck. Take a look at what you're scared of - what's hidden in there that actually you need? Time to let yourself have it.
Produced with full client permission.
Most professionals work too much and live too little. I help people to reset, reenergise and take action, so they reach the goals and fulfilment they really want, personally and professionally.
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