How To Avoid The Exhaustion Funnel As A Working Mother


Something strange and unexpected happened when I became a mum.

I’d watched my own mum thrive in motherhood.  She gave up her career to raise her children and seemed to relish and delight in the role. Motherhood seemed to sustain her. I thought I was going to be the same.  

Quite quickly into my motherhood journey I began to notice that I felt drained rather than sustained.   

Cue the guilt and shame.  Being a mum was one of the most wonderful blessings you could have right?  How could I be so ungrateful?!   

Because I found the experience so draining I assumed that I was doing it wrong.  I also assumed that I was somehow week and incapable.  Being a mum is one of the most natural things in the world, right!?  Our bodies are literally designed to give birth and sustain life?!  Other women seem to thrive in motherhood so obviously I was not only doing it wrong, I was also wrong.   I was a bad mum and person.

I was showing up in my life in a way that I thought I was meant to, if I was a ‘good’ mum and a ‘good’ wife.  I sidelined my physical, emotional and mental health to support my family.  

I did what I was ‘supposed’ to do, or at least what I thought I was supposed to do, without complaining.  I believed that wanting more or doing things for myself made me selfish, made me needy and made me a bad mum.

I found myself being sucked into the exhaustion funnel.  A downward spiral of exhaustion and burnout.  Professor Marie Asberg, an expert on burnout from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, developed the concept of the Exhaustion Funnel. 

The Exhaustion Funnel

The Exhaustion Funnel shows how the demands of everyday life can lead us down a path of exhaustion and possibly burnout.

At the top of the funnel is a balanced and fulfilled life.  But as you enter the funnel you may start to focus on your immediate problems and demands.  

What we’re talking about here is the domestic load of being a mum and also juggling your career.  

To cope with these demands, the funnel shows that we narrow our circle of life to focus on solving the immediate problems and demands.  As we spiral down the funnel we progressively give up more of the enjoyable things in life (which we believe to be optional) to make way for more of the ‘important’ things like work and the domestic load.  

The problem is that this funnel is like a vortex that sucks you in.  The more exhausted you become the more you have to let go of things.  The things that you believe need to be let go of are often the exact things that will help you get out of the funnel.

My experience was that the further down I slid into the funnel, the more I gave up the things that nourished me.  Leaving me feeling exhausted and unhappy.

I emerged from the bottom of the funnel after finally getting a diagnosis of adrenal burnout, a  shadow of my former self.  Not realising at the time how the hell I had got there. Until I realised an important truth.  I couldn’t be a good mum or good wife or good person unless I nourished and sustained myself.  And I’m not just talking self-care here.  I’m also talking about following my dreams.  Having a purpose outside of just supporting other people.  Doing stuff that made me become fully alive.

As the brilliant Sarah Jenks says, until I realised I was born to be the star of my own life, not the stage crew for everyone else.

Drainers and Sustainers

One of the key things to focus on if you find yourself getting sucked into the Exhaustion Funnel is the balance of drainers and sustainers in your life.  This is particularly important in 2020 when life has changed for many of us during the pandemic.

Drainers are the things, situations, habits or people in your life that deplete you and your energy. Drainers are likely to pull you deeper into the Exhaustion Funnel.

Sustainers are the things, situations, habits or people that energise and nourish you.  They contribute to your wellbeing and vitality – physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually.  They help you feel grounded, connected and whole.  They bring you peace, joy and literally sustain you.

Here are five steps you can take to help keep you out of the Exhaustion Funnel and, if you find yourself falling into it, to stop yourself being sucked deeper.

1. Identify your drainers

Without judgement, start to notice what or who steals your energy.  What things trigger you into unhelpful emotions?  What makes you feel anxious?  What makes you feel resentful? This could be social media. The news. The morning routine in your household. The messy draw in your kitchen.  It could be staying up late to binge watch a new series on Netflix.

2. Identify your sustainers

Start to notice what makes you feel more energised.  It will probably include the obvious things of nutrition, sleep, exercise (or movement because some intense exercise when we’re already feeling exhausted can leave us more depleted) and mindfulness.  But it may also include some very unique things for you.  Try and identify them without judgement – what makes you feel alive and fully you could be very different to others.

3. Take an honest assessment

Start to do an audit of your typical day or week.  Reflect on your routine, habits and ways of working.  How many drainers do you have across a typical day or week?  How many sustainers do you have?  What’s the balance between them?

4. Limit your drainers

Looking at your drainers start to consider which ones are within your control.  What could you do to reduce or eliminate them?  What could you do to change the way you interact with them to reduce their impact?

5. Increase your sustainers

Reflect on your daily routine and think about ways you can add or increase the stuff that sustains you.  This doesn’t need to be big or bold changes.  It could just be putting on some music as you get out of bed in the morning rather than lying in bed scrolling through your phone.  It could be wearing clothes in a particular colour that make you feel happy.  It could be lighting candles that make you feel uplifted.  What are some of the micro shifts you could make to your daily routine that sustain you?

I hope this helps you to make small changes in your life that support, sustain and nourish you.  To adjust the balance between your drainers and sustainers to prevent being sucked into that Exhaustion Funnel.

If you feel you need some help to identify your drainers and sustainers, or to come up with ways to support yourself in rebalancing them you can book a free virtual chat with me here.


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