As high achieving busy working mums, we’re good at coping.
We have a high tolerance for stress.
This means we can be in denial about how much load we are carrying.
What I’ve learnt about my experience of burnout is that denial is a prime underlying factor. It’s a mechanism that allows you to avoid looking at reality and continue the status quo because, if you don’t, it becomes a threat to your achievement and ambition.
As a result, you place unrealistic burdens on your body’s capacity to function.
This sets you up as a perfect candidate for burnout.
Your sense of self is subtly lost.
You start to become estranged from yourself.
You have a nagging feeling that something is off, but you miss the critical connection between the symptoms and the cause.
Denial is a process which can start so subtly that it becomes insidious.
In terms of burnout, it usually starts with an unconscious need to shut out a specific thought or feeling regarding overextending your energy.
When initially confronted with a situation where you’re pushing yourself past your limits, your mind resists it, and it says ‘no!’ which then acts as a barrier between you and your perception of the reality of the situation.
Over time, the resistance has a cumulative effect and is transformed into a habit of denial.
This then develops into more sophisticated and acceptable techniques for denying reality.
Here are some key denial habits identified by Dr Herbert J Freudenberger (a psychologist and grandfather of burnout syndrome) that can stop you from seeing how near to burnout you could be:
Concealing or suppressing information from yourself and from others. Maybe you don’t reveal the exact extent of your load.
Your uncomfortable feelings are transferred to something else. It’s easier to be angry with a child than admit that your career is overwhelming. Or it’s easier to lose yourself in work than acknowledge your marriage isn’t working.
Another denial technique that can be used is humour to cover and deny a severe situation. By making a joke out of your fatigue or anger, you diminish it. You can throw concerned family and friends off the track of the seriousness of the situation by making light of it.
This technique is used to transfer responsibility onto something or someone else. “If my industry wasn’t so demanding, I could work fewer hours”, or “that headache – I just need to drink more water, I’m just dehydrated”, or “if he was more helpful around the house, then I wouldn’t have to do the work of two.” This removes your power to change the situation and keeps you stuck.
5. Fantasy and daydreaming
This habit allows you to put off doing anything about the actual reality by engaging instead with how you would like things to be but without actually taking steps to make it happen.
6. Selective memory
This technique allows you to conveniently forget about the past. You may forget what happened yesterday, last week or last year. You can detach from your memories so you’re unable to recall how depleted you have been feeling.
This habit of denying not only gets concerned family, friends and colleagues off your back, but it also allows you to momentarily fool yourself into thinking you’re invincible and in control.
This technique is a way to explain or excuse your exhaustion and irritability. “I’m just a perfectionist”, “I’m a type-A”, or “I can’t help being achievement driven”. Or you tie your symptoms to your character by telling others, “I’m the restless type – I can’t sit down and relax”.
9. Selective incomprehension
This technique is a way that allows you to deny what others are telling you by resisting to “understand”. You might find yourself saying, “I don’t understand what you mean when you say I’m not myself.” Or “What do you mean I need to relax?”. By clinging to a lack of understanding, you can continue to deny your self-defeating burnout behaviours.
The habit of denial means that you begin to believe you’re stronger than others, more resilient, more resistant to stress-related illness and more capable of enduring. You basically become superwoman.
I know superwoman really well. I’m familiar with her. Are you?
She’s my go-to friend when I feel under pressure, and she helps me to dig deep and get on with the demands.
But she masks the reality and doesn’t allow me to make conscious and intentional choices about how I deal with the demands.
She’s like a well-developed muscle that picks up the load without considering if I’ve got the correct form and my body is in integrity. Which leads to injury!
Sometimes the only way to end denial is a breakdown in your physical functioning.
You then are left with not only dealing with the physical impact but also coming to terms with how you’ve lied to yourself. That one was a painful one for me – realising how I’d denied myself to the point of burnout.
My hope is that if you think you’re burning out, you catch it and its momentum before it reaches that critical stage.
Here’s to seeing clearly in our lives – with or without glasses!
We’re genuine, like-minded women, just like you!
We’re a community, reinventing how we combine work and motherhood without sacrificing our sanity and wellbeing.