Over the years, I’ve found myself nearing emotional burnout on several occasions. I adore my work and am so grateful that a beautiful community of wellness curious folks have gatherers around my work. But with the horrific bushfire season, the pandemic, a full clinical caseload, teaching and transitioning my business entirely online…there were many moving pieces!
I’ve had many interesting conversations with friends and colleagues who are also in caring professions, and it’s been a collective theme we’ve been navigating. Often we gravitate to the helping professions because we’re naturally wired to be givers.
“Helping others” is then profoundly ingrained in our training and in the way we show up for our livelihoods. But what happens when that deep wiring starts pushing you to the edge of burnout? How can you renegotiate the way you show up and serve that allows you to refill your inner wellspring?
I’ve spent a couple of seasons doing some deep soul work and rethinking how I structure how I show up for my community, and I’ve been feeling so much better. One paper that helped me transform my thinking around boundaries and showing up was “Beat Generosity Burnout” by Adam Grant & Reb Rebel from Wharton University. It’s helped me create a structure that allows me to think about how I can make the most impact with the love and care that I have.
If you’ve been feeling a little crispy around the edges from caregiving, I hope this summary and reflections may help give you some ideas of how you can begin to renegotiate this for yourself too.
Attuning to The Generosity Spectrum to Prevent Burnout
Grant and Rebels created the Generosity Spectrum for four broad categories of folks and how they interact. Understanding where you sit on the spectrum (or what your default mode is) is helpful, bringing awareness to how you share your energy. You may find that you straddle a couple or move between different ways depending on who you’re interacting with.
Takers – these folks see every interaction as an opportunity to serves their own needs, interests and desires. They’ll wring you dry if you don’t protect yourself. Some red flags you’re dealing with a taker: they assume they deserve your help…they may even demand it. They don’t think twice about imposing their needs on your time.
Matchers – these folks dance to the motto “quid pro quo”. All interactions are to be matched, and favours are traded evenly. They expect reciprocity. In some cases, especially when dealing with takers, this is a helpful strategy. But it can also be a defensive reflex if you’ve been burned.
Self-protective Givers – the type of generosity that knows its limits. Instead of saying “yes” to all requests for help, these folks look for ways to give that will have the most significant impact for the lowest cost of their energy. They choose ways to help that match their strengths and passions so that it’s enjoyable for them to give. This is the generosity sweet spot!
Selfless Givers – these folks chronically prioritise the needs of others over their own. Boundaries are often weak, or when put in place, poorly upheld. They are especially vulnerable to takers. By forgoing tending to their own needs and refilling their tanks, they exhaust and overload themselves and ironically are less able to help others.
My Burnout Prevention Mantra: “Effective Giving is the Sweet Spot”
It’s bloody hard to rewire one’s immediate response from “yes” to “no” (or “let me take a look at my schedule”). The guilt, shame and deep opposition to traits that are so greatly praised are hard. BUT, the freedom and extra energy you receive in reward make it 1000% worth it.
“Choose discomfort over resentment.” – Brené Brown, PhD
I found that I was straddling the “self-protective” and “selfless” line. So I’ve spent the past 6 months getting super clear on:
- How I help
- Who I help
- When I help
I have created firm time boundaries on when I’m in giving mode. As a natural giver, it feels so good to open my heart and mindfully for that 25–60 minutes and know that my work is done when the timer is up.
I also found this blog from writer Alex Franzen. It’s like a crisp tonic for defining my work and life boundaries: “How to Write Loving Policies for Your Business and Life”. You can read mine over here, and I’ve got a calendar reminder to revisit them every quarter to make sure they still feel right. Alex also has a hugely helpful resource on ways to “say no”.
Adam Grant & Reb Rebele’s 7 Habits of Highly Productive Giving (aka your emotional burnout prevention plan)
1. Focus on the help requests that come your way — say yes when it matters most and no when you need to.
Work out precisely what kinds of requests you respond to. Have some prepared answers for requests that you say no to.
2. Give in ways that play to your interests and strengths to preserve your energy and provide greater value.
Feeling a little fuzzy on what these are? I’m a massive fan of the Gallup strengths finder test. The insights from this test helped me understand how I can build my work, life and giving to the qualities that come most naturally to me.
An example, in my case, is that “Input” and “Learning” are two of my core strengths. This means I love taking in lots of different knowledge sources and then working out ways to teach and communicate this clearly. I adore this kind of work, so I have decided to write a regular blog, share my findings freely and offer workshops and courses that allow people to learn from me.
3. Distribute the giving load more evenly — refer requests to others when you don’t have the time or skills.
I have a list of people I refer people to when it comes to questions and requests that fall outside my practice or interests. It feels good being able to connect people to others more effectively.
4. Secure your oxygen mask first — you’ll help others more effectively if you don’t neglect your own needs.
Come back to basics; how is your sleep? Are you eating 3 nourishing meals a day? Do you have some time each day that’s just for you? If these basic needs are being usurped, you’ve got some reprioritising to do!
5. Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity.
In my case, instead of answering every health-related question that pops up in my inbox, I let people know that I’ll add it to my questions bank and answer it in an upcoming post or blog.
6. Chunk your giving into dedicated days or blocks of time rather than sprinkling it throughout the week. You’ll be more effective — and more focused.
I spend 25 minutes on Instagram a day, Monday to Friday, and respond to as many questions and comments as I can in that time. I spend a lot longer with my students and clients – yet again, I have a time boundary on what I can do for the day. What doesn’t get done is then left for the next day.
7. Learn to spot takers and steer clear of them. They’re a drain on your energy.
Need I say more?
Define and Streamline Your Giving to Prevent Burnout
I hope this gives some questions and new perspectives to ponder. If you’re an over-giver and feel that you’re on the cusp of/or in emotional burnout, I invite you to take some time to take a macro look and how who and where your generosity is flowing to. Are they the people, tasks and ways in which you feel you can give freely? If not, how can you start to realign your loving output while taking some time to refill your internal tanks?
If you would like to dive deeper, make yourself a pot of tea and have a read of the full 6-part paper “Beat Generosity Burnout”. Consider investing in the Gallup Strength’s test to identify your strengths. And write some policies for your life and work and have some scripts at the ready for saying no.
And if you feel generosity burnout is affecting your mental health, last week’s post took a dive into anxiety you may like to explore. I also have a free quiz available, “Are you Burning Bright or Burning Out?” Which comes with some love letters from me with gentle recommendations on how to nourish yourself.
Setting boundaries and saying no will feel clunky at the beginning; you’ll likely feel a whole lot less altruistic. But remember, you’ll end up being able to give more, have a greater impact and feel much happier in the long run! And if you like this way of reframing your giving and self-care, you may also like my 21-day holistic stress recovery course, The Peace Protocol, learn more over here.
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