Sara Asche Anderson reveals a shocking twist in Alison’s journey as a “recovering perfectionist”.
When busy attempting to do all of the things, it’s so easy to hit that tipping point into burnout for all of us, and sometimes hard to recognize. In this episode, listen to curated stories of recognizing burnout and also about practicing self kindness and creating a little balance from burnout in your life.
Also, to compliment the stories collected, read a deeper dive into theory behind optimal stress and the tipping point of burnout on medium.
It happens to the best of us. Sometimes its a sneaky gremlin surprising us in the night, and other times it hits us like a bus zooming along a downtown avenue, full of business people who clearly have their shit together. Regardless, it hits us. We teeter over an invisible arête thin tipping point and free fall into catastrophic burnout at worst or a bad head cold. At best, we slump exhausted onto the couch, desperate for a Netflix binge session to wipe the slate clean.
And yet, I keep careening past that tipping point. Even though I’m acutely aware of burnout, and have had some beautifully chaotic and raw implosions in my history, I just seem to sign up for more. I can’t help myself. I need to do all of the things, all of the time.
And it’s bizarrely fascinating.
My Over Functioning Lizard Brain
Getting shit done is what gets me out of bed in the morning. And I love it. Even on the weekends I find it hard to sit still and not have a game plan of action items that must be demolished, checking items of a mental list for constant gratification. And I’m constantly complimented on how much I am able to accomplish in a day. Great right? Most of the time.
And then I say “yes” to more things, or raise my hand, or jump in when I see something not getting done. Most of time—truly—this fuels me, brings me excitement and gets me out of bed in the morning. But sometimes it just royally pisses me off. And I’ve started to question why I feel the intense need to raise my hand, to say a wholehearted yes, to lean in to doing anything that in the moment brings me joy.
Why do I feel the need to do all of the freaking things?
In times of high stress or crisis I go into serious action mode. Nay, I thrive. My emotional lizard brain goes on lock down, I become numb, and I seriously GSD. And I have a really hard time coming down from the times of stress. In fact, I think I’ve become accustomed to functioning at a more constant slightly frantic place to where anything less feels like standing still, which in turn drives me slightly crazy. And yet the burnout associated with over functioning over time still sneaks up on me.
Lately, I’ve found myself feeling burnt out and frustrated by my surroundings, wondering why no one will step up to help me, even when I feel like I’m screaming for help at the top of my lungs. And then I realize that no sound is escaping in those screams. I rarely even actually whisper the words “I. Need. Help.”
“Over-functioners truly believe they are doing everything possible to be helpful to fix the situation They can see other people as either unwilling or unable to “shape up” to their standard. Rather than feel vulnerable they go into action mode. Unfortunately those around them may reinforce this attitude by under-functioning and just letting them get on with it.
Under-functioners, by contrast, in the face of an anxious situation, get caught up in their feelings and start showing up less, don’t get stuff done and get less competent. They especially slip back in the face of the over-functioners who are stepping in and vacuuming up all the jobs.” — Karyn Prentice, The Coaching Supervisory Academy
A commonly suggested solution I discovered as I read the depths of the internet on this subject (originally popularized by Harriet Lerner) was to have a couple trusted people around you who can call you out on over-functioning. Not by pointing out the immediate behavior of being the first to offer solutions, micro-managing or saying yes to too many things others could do themselves, but by saying “hey, watch out for your over-functioning lizard brain.” The over and under functioning way of being is an ingrained reaction and response to external or internal stressors. A difficult thing to change as it’s more deeply ingrained than habit. I’m really just grasping how this behavior plays out in every aspect of my life, from work-work to volunteer-work to co-parenting and even new romantic relationships. Especially since both over and under functioning are used as methods to run away from vulnerability and not address your own emotional needs. Ugh. Deep shit.
“For overfunctioners,” says Brené Brown, “it’s easier to do than to feel.”
Double Ugh. Quit it Brené. She also has stated that over-functioning is more common in first born girls. Nailed it.
Our Stress is Good, and Relative
How we all function as our best selves ebbs and flows situationally and in context of internal and external stressors. The Yerkes-Dodson law examines the relationship between stress stimuli and performance, with performance increasing to a peak with the “right” amount of stress, then declining into burnout (and even death in some renditions).
Image Source: http://scotsimcentre.blogspot.com/2014/07/michael-jamieson-and-yerkes-dodson.html
Just the right amount of stress stimuli causes us to function at an optimal performance, in an super charged get-all-the-things-done mode. And not all stress is distinctly bad. Even my ritualistic medium-skinny-hazelnut-latte-with-an-extra-shot in the morning is adding in an external stimulant and purposefully pushing me up the left side of the curve. Too little interest and we are not engaged, too much and we tip into anxiety and later, crash into burnout. In addition, even the optimal amount of stress for an individual at the same levels over an extended period of time becomes enough to tip over the hill into the danger zone.
Whilst the shape of the Human Function Curve is the same for everyone, each individual has his or her own limits for coping with stressors (the ‘hump’). Different people respond to the same stressor in different ways, and not everyone will be stressed by the same things. It is not the stressor that makes people stressed, but their response to it, and that is a highly personal thing. — Sue Paterson, The Fear Free Organization
The danger zone is utter messy burnout. We’ve all been there in different ways, some small and some large. There is a connection between emotional stress and your immune system too – so in moments on the downhill side of the curve, your body sucker punches you with that cold, cos it just can’t do it all. It wants you to take a freaking nap.
Athletes use a similar curve in regards to increasing their body’s physical performance, and improving it’s abilities over time. By training and stretching beyond their comfort zone they can make their bodies able to do more, go farther, and increase stamina.
I would hypothesize that we can do the same thing with finding our optimal stress and burnout tipping point. By continuously stretching ourselves, we increase our capacity to handle anything — from larger projects at work, to unfamiliar situations, to heavier workloads. Maybe I’m an athlete in getting-shit-done and that’s why I find myself functioning in the relative extreme for extended periods. Let me know when it’s an Olympic sport.
Another note on the curve — tasks that may have been stressful the first time, but become easier through practice have less impact on your stress levels, therefore cannot be used to keep yourself at an optimal level. So if you’re a bit like me (I can’t be the only one… right?) then you seek a bit of that top of the curve thrill on the precipice by pushing yourself to learn new things constantly. The learning curve is challenging and enticing.
The connection here to preventing further catastrophic burnouts however, is a moment of self awareness to optimize stress levels and be continuously stretching oneself without tipping too far down the yerkes/dodson bell curve. We can learn by recognizing when we feel too much overly negative anxiety. For me I am learning that when my inner martyr-gremlin really starts to speak up, and I start noticing the over/under-functioner relationships in my life through a negative lens that’s when I really need to cool it. When that starts to happen I also chronically lose sleep over worrying about people and things, and also start feeling run down and exhausted. Netflix and actually chill time.
“to master stress, you must change. You have to figure out what you are doing that is contributing to your problem and change it. These changes fall into four categories: change your behavior, change your thinking, change your lifestyle choices and/or change the situations you are in. By getting to the root causes of your stress, you can not only relieve current problems and symptoms but you can also prevent recurrences.” —Beth of Not To Be Trusted With Knives
Leaning in to Recovery Time
Another thing that athletes do is build in recovery time. Even throughout our own mini-marathon workdays, we can be aware of things like Ultradian rhythms, where our peak performance and concentration can at most last 90 minutes before needing a 20 minute reset time. Taking a quick walk, a moment of deep, meditative breathing and changing your scenery help you maximize your productive energy.
In Lean In, the Lean the Fuck Out I explored the process of sprinting and then recovering. I’ve been experimenting with the process, sometimes through failure (aka burnout) and sometimes through iteration and launching an MVP Podcast. I’m realizing that I also need to embrace built in recovery time, which shouldn’t be rocket science, but it seems to be a lesson I need to keep learning.
Other ways to decrease unwanted stressors are not a surprise; decreased or eliminated Caffeine intake (I’ll buy you all a coffee if that ever happens on my end), regular exercise, more sleep and relaxation time help keep us on the non-burnout side of the curve. It’s a balancing act constantly.
Finding ways to be kind to yourself, and recognizing your own burnout triggers will help you optimize your own stress and performance curve, and perhaps even stretch yourself to be higher—or lower—functioning. In the All the Things podcast, I explored the topic of burnout and self-care with many viewpoints which brought me a sense of self realization and awareness that I need to change something up.
As with many things, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Hello World, I am an overfunctioner.
Originally posted on medium.
Last week, I launched the inaugural episode of what is most likely a podcast, which focused on my impostor syndrome around making a podcast. Can you tell I’m not sure where this is going? And I had given myself full permission to not know, and also the challenge to just do it. So I did. And in the week that followed I think my own impostor syndrome flared up to all high levels of anxiety and fear. Even as the overwhelmingly positive feedback came in — on facebook, twitter, the raw stats and also personal notes and emails—the story in my head was one of:
“I can’t believe all these people are remotely interested. They are going to be so judgemental when I fail in episode 2. Oh gawd what the fuck did I just put on the internet?!” — 4am Alison
It felt like that moment in Inception when they start waking from layers of dreams dragging with them the baggage from the previous dream. I had just woken up after feeling the reverberations of an explosion on a deeper level.
I was equal parts relieved to have finally done what I said I would do, and utterly spent and exhausted. I felt (I still feel) so vulnerable, and the aftershock of this huge step was felt in many aspects of my life.
My day job saw the impact of my loss of confidence, or at least I think it did. I had to turn down an amazing opportunity involving last minute travel at work at 9am on Monday morning. I’ve never had to do that before. And it sucked the last remaining “I’ve got this” attitude out of me faster than a dementor slurping on Harry Potter. From a life-work-parenting-other-work balance standpoint, I just could not swing it. And I’m scared they won’t ask me so quickly again in the future. I cried at work (about work) for the first time in over six months. If you’ve been keeping track that is an all time record.
As someone who loves feedback and collaboration, I was shocked to feel myself bristle at small edits from a peer ensuring quality of a research study. No big deal on a regular week, but in this week where my self belief plummeted all I could think about was her realizing that I have no idea what I’m doing and finding out that I should really be an intern.
“You want me to change the word “the” to “or”. OMG why do you think I suck. I should just quit.”— Alison with only 5 hours of sleep
A close friend then asked me if I would be interested in pursuing speaking at TEDx, to which I ran away into my cave of never-gonna-be-good-enough. When I was given an idea about evolving my Lean In, Then Lean the Fuck Out article I thought—dared to think—that I may just be up for it. She innocently tried to critique the idea to make it better and I imploded… nay I exploded all over her face vomiting my fears and sobbed like my threenage son when we run out of goldfish crackers.
“OMG stop I can’t even.” — Alison after 4 days of <5 hours of sleep
Then I (astutely) decided to try to juggle a crazy day of working offsite, a lunch meeting and big presentation at work with downtown meter parking. As I ran to my car 3 minutes after my meter expired I found not only a ticket, but a delightful tow truck driver readying to tow me who then kindly shook his head and flipped me off. Guess he didn’t notice I suck at everything this week, so why would parking in my familiar area of downtown by any different?
This week was absolute #winning.
And after I slept for 8 hours straight I woke up and I realized that this was all about the podcast. All of this fumbling, failing and emotion vomiting was my imposter syndrome flaring up about my very public admission of my imposter syndrome.
That got awkward.
I hid for an afternoon, and I dug into reading Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, which brought up some familiar themes.
Impostorism causes us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us (in these fixations, we’re usually wrong), then fixate some more on how those judgments might poison our interactions. We’re scattered — worrying that we underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for us tomorrow.—Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
I heard from so many of you out there in the vast world of the internet about your own struggles with feeling like an Impostor. This really helped me feel not-quite-so-insane. And I can’t decide if it’s ironic or fitting for the story to end with the submission of my nomination as a lady in business (If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, listen to the audio).
One thing I’ve learned somehow over the years is to not let these feelings stand in my way. I bury my head in the sand and keep doing whatever the fuck it was I was doing anyway. Sometimes to my detriment. Perhaps it’s the alternative that scares me. If I didn’t follow my creative urges and dreams… what would the point be?
And after a delightful weekend of enforced early bedtimes, playing legos with my kiddo and going for walks to the park I feel much more ready to face the world again.
So I submitted the podcast to iTunes.
Originally posted on medium.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but I’ve taken some big leaps and bounds very recently in exploring a new way of capturing amazing nuggets of inspiration, wisdom and joy. And as terrifying as this is to put my literal voice, my bizarre accent, and my amateur recording and editing skills out there early — that’s the point right? In Lean In, then Lean the Fuck Out I preached about iterating and trying things to learn.
Well shit. I had to take my own advice.
This is sprint zero.
And it’s a messy, transparent, multi-faceted revelation about my own impostor syndrome woes, and how fears can hold us back from doing amazing things. All the things.
The past few years of my life have been centered around striving for equality. Equal numbers of women in leadership in the Ad industry. (We’ve recently reached 10% of women in creative leadership… #winning?!) Equal household responsibilities so it was theoretically possible to successfully function as a working mum. Equal “me-time” with my now ex-husband for a quick yoga class and beers with the lads. Equal ratios of women in development roles. Equal handouts of promotions and raises. Equal pay. Equal. Equal. Equal.
Recently, I’ve been frustrated with the movement of Lean In. I feel like I’ve been Leaning In for years upon years, and now I’m just burnt out, and not sure that all this Leaning In is effective. Leaning In seems to be tough on women like myself, right as we’re trying to be kind to ourselves. And in my case, I’m a glutton for punishment and just like to do all the things. This winter, I’ve been leaning the heck out of everything and hiding in my basement playing Fallout4. For days.
Everything in our lives is grounded in comparison to our experiences that foreshadowed it. Everything. We’re the sum of our decisions, interactions, experiences and relationships and we behave accordingly – both in the spur of the moment, and as we slowly evolve. We evaluate and judge ourselves and others on these comparisons to what we’ve known, what we’ve experienced, where we’ve been. For both good and bad.
On Hogmanay (Scottish for New Years Eve) I’m hosting a party that I entitled “Screw You 2015” which includes the seductive description of “there will be booze, there will be Cards Against Humanity, and there will likely be tears — and that’s okay!”. The majority of the invitees didn’t even respond. Dat’s cool. I promise.
2015 was not pretty. Yet it was miraculous. It was hard, and it was the light at the end of a tunnel. It was the worst year of my life, and yet somehow the best too — I learned the hard way. I met myself again. I grew. I conquered.