The Beauty of Life is in the Small Things

My cousin passed away recently and the grief offered me a wonderful gift. It helped me to realise that the beauty of life is in the small things. I went for a walk in my neighbourhood on the Monday morning after his funeral. The world looked different to me, and I was able to appreciate the smallest details that I often overlook.

the beauty of life is in the small things

I noticed the insects, scurrying around doing their very important work. I noticed the community workers cleaning up the bridge from debris after heavy rains the week before. People were mowing lawns, trimming their edges and driving to important meetings. These things may seem mundane, but it occurred to me that this is the very point of life. My cousin wouldn’t get to do any of these things again.

As much as I love routine, I often get very bored by the monotony of life. I get frustrated that I have to make the school lunches and sit through homework with my daughters. I tell them over and over again to lay out their school uniforms, set the table and pour their juice for supper. The same instructions again and again, every single night.

My cousin didn’t get married, or have children. He didn’t have a successful career. He didn’t get to sit in traffic in the gridlocked school parking lot. He didn’t get to argue over the method of solving a math problem. He didn’t get to negotiate later bedtimes or what his children spent their pocket money on.

We often spend our lives waiting for something big to happen. We know we will have made it in life when x happens. We dream about Nobel prizes, best-selling books and Oprah calling us up for an interview. We imagine that some big event will happen and that will show the world how truly valuable we are. Only then, we will have had a significant life.

Death and grief are great teachers. They give us perspective. They make us think about our legacy and how we want to be remembered. It often spurs us on to live a better life, to make changes and to reach for our dreams. When someone we love dies, we think about these things and hopefully take action on them.

It’s important to have big dreams and to reach for our goals. But life is really lived in the everyday monotony that we often grumble about. My recent grief offered me the gift of appreciating the mundane, irritating daily tasks that I usually complain about. Now, I’m grateful that I get to make the same sandwiches day after day. I’m grateful that I get to engage with these beautiful little people who live in my house. I’m grateful for the small things like cutting their toenails and washing their hair. It’s a true blessing to have other people to care for, people who need me and who want me around.

We need meaning for our lives to be worth living. We need a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes, that’s as simple as having a pet to feed. We often feel burdened by those who depend on us. Obligation feels heavy sometimes and we resist the responsibilities of parenting, caring for aging relatives and serving our clients. We moan about having to show up at work everyday to meet the expectations of our leaders or team members. But this is often the essence of life. It’s a privilege to have people depending on us, because it drives us to keep going.

Hugs are one of the best parts of parenting

I love my cousin and I’m sad he’s not here anymore. But I’m grateful that losing him offered me something. I’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of life and I’d like to continue to savour every moment. He has shown me that life is so precious and that I’m so very lucky to have the life I have, and the people who are in it.

The Consequence of Boundaries

Last week my cousin passed away. He was only 36 and it was traumatic for the whole family. He was very unhappy and had struggled with mental illness and addiction for a number of years. Finally, he committed suicide. That left a wake of reactions in our family and I’m sure for his friends.

Grief

My brother was very close to him and tried to help him to navigate the difficulties he was experiencing. They spent many nights together and had shopping adventures, sharing much along the way. My cousin’s death hit my brother hard.

My mother lives in another city and was making plans to come for the funeral, along with my grandmother and aunt and uncle. She started making all sorts of plans for who will do what on the day of the funeral. Finally, when the date and time were set, she told my cousin and my brother that I would take them to the funeral. That was not something I wanted or asked for and it created a bunch of challenges for me.

My husband travels a lot and the Friday afternoon of the funeral, he would be away. I have two little girls, aged seven and ten and I wasn’t sure what I would do about them. I didn’t want to take them to the funeral since it’s upsetting for them to be in an environment of such sadness and to see their relatives crying. I know many cultures include the children but I was concerned about exposing them to so much grief and having to explain suicide to them.

I’m a recovering people pleaser and in the past, I would have bent over backwards to accommodate a request like the one that my mother placed on me. But after my health collapse from stress, I am changed. I am aware of what I have to do and what I don’t have to do and this was one of those situations where I needed to push back. It’s really not my job to drive my family to the funeral.

I called my mother and told her to stop making commitments on my behalf. I told my cousin that it would not be suitable for me to take her to the funeral and I called my brother. I explained that it would be very difficult for me to lift him there and back and to navigate the logistics of picking up my children. He wanted to leave directly after placing the coffin in the hearse and my cousin wanted to stay and chat to the out-of-town relatives. It would have been impossible for me to meet two opposing needs at the same time.

I made arrangements for a friend at school to take my kids home after school and I could fetch them both from their house on the way home. Finally, I had managed to make plans and I assumed that my brother could take an Uber and my cousin’s husband could drive her there. I’m not sure why I became the person to drive everyone there when my husband was away and my children need to be taken care of.

But this was the pattern of my life for a long time. People expecting me to do all the hosting of family functions, to be there to prop everyone up. I’m the strong one but people forget that I have feelings too. I’m also grieving and I also struggle at times. I’m the one who experienced a monumental burnout that took three years of my life, and yet people are still pushing things on me that I didn’t want.

On the day of the funeral, my oldest daughter woke up sick. She had to stay off school and I couldn’t take a sick child into the home of people who were already doing us a favor. I had to take her along to the funeral, adding a last minute complication. At the funeral, my brother refused to greet me and embarrassed me in front of about 500 people. He was so angry that I refused to drive him to and from the funeral, something I didn’t volunteer for and something that was pushed on me by my mother.

Boundaries come with consequences
Boundaries come with consequences

It’s very clear to me that this was a case of implementing a boundary. The logistics of looking after a sick child, finding the church, dropping people off and fetching my other child were just too much for me on a day when I was grieving and struggling. Once home, I had to make food for my children, brush teeth and get them to bed before I could allow my grief to flow. I had to hold it together enough to make polite conversation with the family who looked after my child, to listen to my kids talk about things that didn’t feel important at a time when I was consumed my grief.

I’m clear that I’m responsible for my own life and the consequences of my decisions. I put up a boundary to protect myself and to be able to manage on the day. The people around me didn’t accept it. My brother is ending our relationship because I was not there for him. I know that I did the right thing for me and that I can’t be responsible for other people’s happiness. It’s just so frustrating that I can’t make it clear to people that I only have so much to give. Caring for myself has become perceived as selfishness.

I believe in having compassion and understanding. I know that my brother’s grief is clouding his judgement and behavior. But I also don’t deserve to be publicly humiliated and rejected like that. I’m able to separate out my emotions from my behavior. Do I just walk away from this relationship that is co-dependent until he learns how not to be a victim? Do I bring compassion and just let him treat me badly?

I’m hoping that my family has learnt not to push things on me anymore. We can only be responsible for our own behavior and we have to accept the consequences of what we do. Looking back, I don’t believe I acted selfishly in refusing what was forced on me. I would do that again. I can’t control the way other people see that situation and I can’t control their perception of me being selfish and unkind. I have to surrender to the knowledge that I did the best I could in that situation. What other people do or think is not within my control and is also not my responsibility.

Are your rules working for you?

Often without being aware of it, we have constructed a lot of rules for ourselves in our lives. Some of them were put in place to help us to make sense of the world, protect ourselves or be successful. At some point, however, we need to assess these rules to make sure that they are still working for us.

Rules
Rules, rules, rules…

Let me give you some examples. You might have decided that you can’t function without a cup of coffee to start each day. You might have a rule that says you need to read before going to sleep. Sometimes, these rules are challenged. For example, you develop a thyroid disease and need to take medication first thing on an empty stomach and that cup of coffee has to wait for at least thirty minutes.

When our rules are challenged, it can be a source of stress. We become unsettled and even panicked about how we will maintain the status quo. We know that change is a constant and as we get older, more and more of these rules will be challenged. Some of them are easy enough to change. Some, however send us off kilter for a while and we need to find a new way of being that fits into our new reality. That might mean making new or different rules in order to cope with what’s changing in our lives.

We have rules about so many things. We have rules about how work should look and what is work and what is not work. The world is changing and people are making money in completely unique and interesting ways that were unheard of twenty years ago. Maybe you have a rule about what your career needs to look like. Sometimes when we get attached to our expectations, it can lead to a lot of stress and disappointment when things don’t turn out as planned. Sometimes, the best things come from unexpected places, like retrenchment. Being open to possibilities and accepting something different from what we expect, helps to reduce stress.

We have rules about relationships. When I do this, my partner must do that. When I say this, my kids must do that. But people aren’t robots and expecting people to act and respond the way we want, also leads to stress and disappointment. Dropping those expectations and just loving the people in our lives leads to much more happiness. What would happen if you let go of those relationship rules you’ve been living by all this time?

We are often compelled to conform, to fit in to our environments, be it at work, or socially. Our families expect certain things from us and often we get trapped in a cycle of fulfilling the expectations of others while we suppress what we really want to do and who we really want to be. Mark Manson, the successful blogger writes about admiration for the ” willingness to be different, an outcast, a pariah, all for the sake of one’s own values.” Maybe we need to break the patterns we have set in motion and stop worrying about meeting the expectations and needs of others.

We also have rules for ourselves. You allow yourself to do some things and you don’t allow yourself to do other things. Do you allow yourself to have fun? To rest or to be silly? Do you allow yourself to spend time on creativity or things that don’t lead to income or ‘productive’ outcomes? Sometimes breaking the rules you made for yourself can be enormously liberating. I’m not in any way encouraging you to break the law. Just to be clear.

Some rules we have put in place are no longer useful or relevant and when we are inflexible and cannot adapt to the change, we suffer. When I developed my autoimmune disease, I had to give up gluten. That meant a cascade of changes in my life, starting with the daily rusk and tea. I had to start reading the ingredients in all the food I ate and bought. I had to notify hosts of any functions or meals I attended that I cannot eat gluten.

It was hard and I was really grumpy about it for a long time. But I adjusted and now I have a new normal. The more change we encounter, the better we get at adjusting and the easier it becomes when we need to take on a new challenge.

Perhaps I’m lucky in a way that my burnout was so severe that I really had to make a lot of changes. I changed my diet, relationships and career. I learnt to relax and to be kind to myself which was tricky to get right. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered anything but I had to let go of a lot of my rules I had in place.

I create rules for my children to guide them in terms of their behavior and our expectations of them. My youngest adheres to the rules so fastidiously that it can be harmful. She gets overwhelmed if a rule doesn’t work or she needs to bend it for a practical reason. I’m trying to figure out how to show her that some rules can be bent and others are non-negotiable. That’s a balance we all need to learn.

I’m wondering what rules exist in your life and your mind that are no longer serving you? Maybe it’s time to challenge some of those rules and ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t follow this rule that you made for yourself? Would it really be so bad? Do you need to upgrade some rules for your life to work better?

Accountability and Mindfulness

Who’s in charge of your life? Who’s responsible for your successes and who can you blame for your failures? Resilience researchers use the word self-efficacy for how much we believe we control our environment. The less we believe we are in control, the more stressed we are. So, gaining control over our day, our dreams and our time is an important method of stress management.

Who’s driving your life?

This time of year, many people set goals for the year or resolutions. We aim to be better: physically, emotionally and mentally. We want to gain new skills or acquire new knowledge and even own new stuff. It’s a good time to find ways in which we can gain more control of our lives.

We do that by owning what we think, do and say. Knowing that we are at the steering wheel of our lives is empowering. If you want a new career or to change something in your life, you can initiate that change by making plans, researching ways to do it and by incorporating new habits into your life. That may be by exercising in a new way, signing up for a course or getting a life coach to help you meet your goals. Whatever you choose, it’s important to know that you are in control, you’re taking accountability for your life.

What does it look like when we’re not accountable? We are whiny and we blame others for the way our life is, or the way things turn out. We don’t take ownership of the things that we are tasked with in our lives. We think it would be great to have no responsibilities in this world but I don’t really think life would be fulfilling. To achieve anything important, we need to push through some of the less-than-exciting aspects of the job. For example, raising children can be so rewarding but brushing their teeth every night isn’t exactly thrilling. It’s important to acknowledge that there is struggle in achieving anything of significance in life.

So how do you show up? Are you whining about the things that you have to do? Or do you simply take on what you committed to and do the best job possible? Are you present and focused on what it is you are busy with? We all feel pressed for time and we all wish we had more hours in the day to get things done. No-one can gain more time but we can gain the perception of time through mindfulness. Ironically, the more we slow down and really focus on what it is we are doing,the more time we feel we have available. Trying to juggle six things at once is not the way to feel on top of things. That’s a guaranteed way to lose self-efficacy.

Own your stuff

I can say with certainty that the people I engage with who are mindful and who take accountability for their lives, are the ones I respect the most. It’s hard to respect someone who’s blaming everyone else for their troubles and constantly trying to get out of their responsibilities. If you want to gain the respect of others, mindfulness and accountability will take you there. Imagine what would happen to your relationships if you owned your part in every failure and took ownership of your life.

Suspending Judgement

It’s so easy to judge others. We spot someone behaving badly, being impatient or shouting at their child in public. We jump to conclusions so quickly about what they should and shouldn’t be doing, all based on our point of view. The trouble is, they are not us and we can never know what’s happening in their life or inside their head.

judgement

This Christmas holiday was so different from the many that preceded it. I was calm, happy and I really enjoyed it. I forced myself to rest and I say forced because I love what I do and it’s hard for me not to do it in the holidays. But stepping away is a good thing and brings us some perspective and probably more enthusiasm than if we never took a break. I’m writing my second book and am very excited about the contents, the process and simply the writing itself.

The holiday was great because I had energy. I had enough energy to tidy cupboards that have been bothering me for years. I had enough energy to have fun with my kids – to swim in the pool with them, race them and all after a grueling 90 minutes of Bikram yoga. This is the first time I’ve had energy to really enjoy my family and my holiday since I can remember. I managed with all the usual holiday frustrations: my seven-year-old waking me up at dawn, the never-ending laundry and the housework that seemed to be undone as soon as I did it.

But it didn’t bother me. I had energy to bake and to try new things. The experimental macaroons were a disaster but it was still worth trying. I enjoyed the time away from homework and uniforms and school obligations. I connected with my children and spent some great time with them, laughing and playing. I built Lego. I raced them in the pool. I toppled off lilos and I even got my husband to throw me in the pool like he does the kids. Clearly, I didn’t go as far as they do, but it was still fun and I said ‘again, again!’ as soon as he let go.

So often, we don’t allow ourselves to have fun, to just let go and be free. We are so constrained by our own rules we impose, or worrying about what other people think. I’ve come to realize that I was so different this holiday because I’m happy and I’ve learnt how to re-frame stress. I’ve come to a place where it doesn’t matter what people think of me, I’m happy with who I am. There’s great power in feeling that way.

I’ve come to this place through a lot of personal development work and it has taken years. I know there is much  to still achieve and much growth ahead of me, but for the first time, I feel genuinely happy. I seek things that make me happy and I move away from things that don’t. Much of that work has been around self-compassion and learning to be kind to myself.

judgement

I remember the way I was years ago, before my burnout. I was grumpy and I shouted at my kids a lot. I shouted at them for just doing the things that kids do. I just wasn’t managing with life. I was stressed out of my mind with the burden of a business I had no passion for. I felt obligated on so many fronts to be holding it all together. I had no respite, no chance to just relax and do the things I wanted to do. And worst of all, it was me who put me there. I didn’t give myself permission to have fun, to chase my dreams and to do what I wanted to do.

Of course, after my diagnosis and during recovery, I was frustrated. I was angry that I got sick and that I had to change my life so much. I wanted to live like everyone else did – eat what they want and do exercise without having to recover. It took a long time to grapple with what happened and to build a new life, a new career and a new me. It was difficult and frustrating and that showed in my behavior.

There is no possibility that we can understand or know what’s happening for someone. We can’t live their childhoods and know what thoughts are bouncing around in their heads. We can’t feel their burdens or understand their frustrations. I’m asking you to reserve judgement when you see someone doing something you feel is wrong. Maybe they are in the midst of a severe health collapse, intense grief or something you just can’t understand. Instead, send them love and treat them with kindness as they probably need it more than you do.

2018: Opportunities, Lessons and Achievements

My life changed dramatically when my health collapsed from burnout at the end of 2014. I had to work very hard to understand how it happened and to transform my life into a happy one. It’s important to me to live on purpose, to actively make sure my life is happy and to share what I’ve learnt with others.

It took me years to recover and I can truly say that I am at the other side of burnout. The journey was an interesting one and at first I was intensely frustrated at the long process of recovery. We are often so busy looking forward and directing ourselves towards our goals. It’s important to look back and to acknowledge the progress we have made. This post is about my progress this year, particularly in terms of forging my new career.

Public Speaking Opportunities

I did a number of speeches at my Toastmaster’s club to earn my advanced certificate. I delivered many speeches to various groups of people and was paid for the first time to speak. These were as follows:

  • A talk to business owners on lessons learnt in my business
  • A speech to 150 nurses in the Fourways Life hospital on how to avoid burnout
  • I was a speaker at the first Global Wellness Day in Johannesburg
  • Talks at networking events on positive psychology and burnout
  • A talk to executive personal assistants on self-care
  • Three restaurant talks where I was able to sell my book, Avoiding Burnout

Speaking is a great way for me to promote my book and to get my message to a greater group of people. I like to engage with people on topics like self-care, stress management and happiness.

I held a workshop but struggled to get enough people to attend. I realized that building credibility with my readers and followers was a necessary first step before I do another one. I held a mini-workshop for a client on happiness, including exercises I picked up while researching for my first book. It was a success and I really enjoyed it.

Promoting my Book

I hired a public relations expert with a wealth of knowledge and connections in the literary arena. This led to some wonderful PR opportunities:

I sold my book at two book fairs which didn’t offer much in terms of sales but it gave me a chance to engage with readers and to build more awareness about my book and the things I’m passionate about.

I paid for some beautiful electronic images for advertising and I got a banner made for when I speak and sell my book at events. I got my website running and now sell my book on it. I ordered branded aromadough as well as a handcream/lipbalm combination as giveaways at events and speeches. Branding was something I loved in my previous business and I learnt a lot and practiced what I learnt on my brand.

Business and Networking

I registered a company and an accounting system so that I can professionally invoice my clients and start formalising my offering. My next step is to set up a business bank account.

When I was sick, I lost much of my business and informal networks. It’s difficult to maintain them when suffering from chronic fatigue. At the end of last year, I joined an international networking organisation and attended almost every week, including other chapters. I also attended women’s networking events and met some wonderful people. I gained so much from meeting people, crystallizing my offering in my own mind and benefited from their offerings too. I was also able to sell my book to the new contacts in my network, accounting for almost a third of my sales this year.

Avoiding Burnout

Reviews are very important when it comes to books. Readers are influenced by what others think of the book. A few of my readers wrote wonderful reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I decided to offer a giveaway to South African readers, in the hope of more reviews. It didn’t work very well since I didn’t get many reviews and the South African postal system is barely functioning so the delivery was not optimal.

I hired a distributor to distribute my book to all good stores nationwide. This was done mostly, with the exception of online sites. The distributor sadly failed to pay me and effectively stole the revenue for 100 books. This was a disappointment but a learning and it offered me the chance to do better due diligence to find a more reliable and professional distributor, which should be established early next year.

I created a second edition of my book where I fixed the two known typos and included some reader quotes on the back cover. I printed 500 copies. Shortly afterwards, a reader alerted me to another error. There’s a challenge for anyone who hasn’t read my book yet.

I converted my book from one Amazon platform to another (from CreateSpace to KDP) which was painful but necessary. I received a lot of wonderful feedback during the year and so enjoyed engaging with people on the material of my book and how I can be of service to them.

Writing Books and Articles

I got the opportunity to write a monthly blog post for Future Females, an incredible organisation promoting female entrepreneurs. They love my content and it’s a great opportunity for me to reach a new audience.

My first paid writing opportunity came in the form of my self-preservation tips for Fair Lady. It was amazing to be paid to write about my story and it was a great opportunity to promote my book.

I started ghost writing a book for a friend which also earned me some income. It offered me the chance to write which feeds me and I learnt a great deal from the contents of the book. It will be finished next year and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

I wrote for an online human capital publication until they fired me for the free content I was delivering. It hit me hard but it did offer me an important catalyst, however, to shift my focus and to start engaging with other people on their stories of stress and burnout.

Mastering Stress

This led to a series of events that initiated my second book, Mastering Stress.  I decided to do an exciting experiment where I launch one chapter of my new book a month to an audience of beta readers. I  now have 23 people signed up to provide me with feedback so that I can enhance the quality of my book and deliver a product that is useful and meaningful to my readers.

I interviewed 31 people about stress in their lives. I was deeply affected by their stories and their willingness to share their life struggles. I also conducted a survey reaching almost 200 people on stress. It’s still open so if you’d like to offer your input, please do so before 15 January 2019.

I started a Udemy course on mastering stress which will feed my  second book. I’m hoping it will be of benefit to a lot of people and it is fun to experiment with a different format of spreading my message.

Health and Personal Life

My family is a key source of happiness and love. I relish the chance to spend time with my children, watching them thrive at their new school and develop into wonderful people. My husband continues to offer me support in my work and provides me with honest feedback.

My health is  the best it has been in many years. I have even started reducing medication for my adrenal glands which was a significant sign of recovery. It’s hard to explain how important feeling well is, and I am so thrilled that I can accomplish everything others can do. I try not to take it for granted.

My life is not perfect and I still experience disappointments, frustrations and setbacks. But overall I am so grateful for the life I live and I feel blessed. I am so excited for the year to come and I’m overwhelmed with the support from people for my new book. I’m so excited to work on it and I really hope it offers something meaningful to the world.

Aligning with your Values

I usually try to blog twice a month but I always find November to be a frantic month. This is my first entry this month and I’m sorry to let you down. There are a lot of school commitments in November and I am very busy focusing on my second book.

values

My calendar is full of appointments where I interview people about stress in their lives. I am finding it so rewarding and I love the process. People open up about very personal things in their lives and I am humbled by many of their experiences. Talking to a lot of people shows me that people are struggling with many things. They are carrying around heavy burdens and my life doesn’t appear to be that hard in comparison. It gives me perspective and helps me to appreciate all that I have.

Last week I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to a Dr John Demartini talk. It was the first time I got to see him live and it was so interesting for me. As a speaker myself, I wanted to experience a talk from someone as accomplished as him in this space. The topic was also very pertinent: how to transform adversity. As someone who has experienced great adversity in the past few years with my burnout, it was a wonderful topic for me.

He spoke about aligning with your values, a topic I briefly cover in my book, Avoiding Burnout. What I realized during his talk is that my days are a lot better when I’m working towards things that I care about. I love my kids and I do want to be there for them but sometimes my days are completely dominated by their activities,  needs and demands. I spend hours in the car each week getting them to their various commitments and I often end the day feeling resentful that I could not tackle my stuff.

I feel torn in the late afternoons between doing the obligatory cooking and evening routine, and trying to squeeze in a hour or so of my work. It sometimes feels like my work gets pushed to the end of the list of priorities and gets abandoned. This leaves me feeling defeated and wondering how I can ever accomplish my dreams. A defeated person is not an inspiring person. On the other hand, someone who has focused on their dreams and spent some of their day achieving things, feels happy and ready to give.

Just as Demartini spoke about, it doesn’t feel tiring and I’m not exhausted at the end of the day. I have recovered fully from my burnout and I’m able to tackle a lot in a day. I’m able to operate like a normal person – squeezing in trips to the shops at short notice and rushing the kids around to multiple things on the weekend. I love my work and I want to keep doing this as long as I can. I am excited about my next book and when I’m excited, those around me are lifted too.

I also started seeing a coach lately to have a third party to account to. I wanted to get my book going a long time ago but it tends to slip down the busy to do list. Having a coach is working so well for me as I am pushing hard to deliver on what I promised and I am accomplishing a lot more. I am working harder than I have in months and I’m really enjoying it.

Doing the interviews for my second book, Healing Burnout, is fascinating. I enjoy it so much more than I thought I would. I love engaging with people, hearing their stories and learning from them. I’m seeing new perspectives on how we manage stress and what we put in place to avoid harmful stress. On these days, I don’t feel a pull towards my sanctuary to write and work. I feel content and I’m in a good mood. I feel empowered and that I’m working towards my goals.

It’s interesting for me that we know things and we know what’s good for us but we fail to do it. I knew that I needed an external person to account to in order to move forward with my goals. Yet I hesitated in getting a coach. Now that she’s working with me, I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. Knowing yourself is really important and is the first of my principles of self-preservation in my book. I knew what I needed, yet I didn’t give myself permission to do it. I also knew that aligning with my values was important and that we are much happier when our work aligns with our values.

I also knew that taking care of everyone else’s needs first was one of the ways I ended up burnt out. I’m feeling so much happier and in control of my life now that I”m working on something I’m passionate about. I’m nicer to be around and I can inspire others when I’m in this place. I just need to keep it up so that I don’t slip into bad habits again, ignoring my needs and my values and not giving myself permission to do what I want and need to do.

Are your values aligned to your work? Do you give yourself permission to do the things you want to do?

Exciting Experiment Ahead: Agile Book Writing

I am writing my second book, Healing Burnout. My first book, Avoiding Burnout, focused on how I got sick and principles to prevent such a significant health collapse. I can’t write two books exclusively on my own experience as I want my books to be applicable to a broad audience and to add value to people’s lives. It is also clear to me that burnout looks different from one person to the next.

experiment

In the past few weeks I have been interviewing people about their stress and how they respond to it. I have enjoyed this process far more than I anticipated. Setting up the interviews is a little scary and takes me back to the cold calling of my previous business. But people are surprisingly wiling to give of their time and to share their experiences of stress and burnout. I’m learning things that I had not considered before and I’m observing patterns developing. I’m gaining valuable insights that I can include in my book and share with my readers.

My husband is a coach in agile software development and we both have software roots. Being the rock star coach that he is, he reads up on methods of achieving efficient product delivery. I’m reading one of these books and I’ve decided that I would like to apply this approach to my next book. I’m going to experiment with releasing draft chapters to an audience and obtain feedback.

Agile software development has a core premise of absorbing customer feedback early in the product life cycle and including it into the ultimate product. Writing a book traditionally is like developing a software product. You spend months and sometimes years working on something that you are not sure people actually want or need. The first feedback an author receives might be from beta readers or the first reviews. By then, much money and time has been spent and there might be a lot of waste. It’s risky and costly.

My plan is to release one chapter at a time to an audience that signs up via my website. I hope to receive feedback from these beta readers so as to refine and ultimately deliver a useful product that adds value. I think that this will drive a higher quality product and I can build a following of readers in the process.

experiment

This is an experiment and there is a chance that it wont work well. But it feels a lot less risky than spending the next year on a book that might not be of interest to anyone. I’m excited about the process and the leanings along the way. And I’m engaging a coach to keep me on track and to have that external accountability that I know I need.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea and whether you’d sign up to receive a chapter a month.

Stress’ Benefits Vanquished my Quest

I usually wait until I’ve finished a book to blog about it but this couldn’t wait. I’m reading Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress and it has shaken my very foundation. I’ve spent a few years telling people about the dangers of stress and warning them that they could get as sick as I did. And I’ve realized that it was the wrong thing to do.

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McGonigal’s book explains research from many studies that show how believing stress is harmful is what’s really bad for your health. She shows that the combination of high stress and believing it will make you sick actually does. It has disturbed me a lot in terms of my quest over the past few years to help others avoid getting as sick as I did.

She writes about the many types of stress response we experience and the benefits of these. She talks about the tend-and-befriend response where we release the love hormone, oxytocin in order to build social connection when we need support. She also talks about the challenge response which drives us to perform when we have goals or deadlines. Telling yourself you are excited rather than anxious before public speaking actually improves your performance.

How do I reconcile this new knowledge with what happened to me? I burnt out from severe work stress primarily. I developed a lifelong illness and as much as I acknowledge the gifts that burnout offered, I’m still a little confused. When completing online surveys, I rated my stress as moderate before I got sick. Of course, that was not an accurate assessment. I experienced very high levels of stress but I didn’t realize it was affecting my health.

Benefits

It took me a long time to place the label of burnout onto what happened. I struggled for years with chronic fatigue and to get my health back on track. I didn’t see that stress was the trigger for a long time. How do we know when we are stressed? I can say that I’m much more in tune with my stressometer now than I was before I got sick. I know that I start feeling overwhelmed and that I’m not coping.

I think it’s very important for us to identify what kind of stress we are experiencing. There’s the stress that comes with preparing for a speech. That’s the stress that shows me I care about doing a good job and I want to be able to remember everything and to make a difference to the people I’m addressing.

There’s also the too-much-to-do stress which I’m feeling at the moment. My youngest is turning seven on Sunday and we are having a huge party this weekend. My car stopped working, the oven broke and I’m running around ordering ice cream cakes and buying prizes for party games. This stress can be managed by writing lists, putting reminders in my calendar and outsourcing where I can.

Last year I experienced the stress of my child being in distress. I didn’t manage the stress well and it affected my health negatively. I know the stress came from wanting to help my child and wanting to take away her suffering. I need to find a way to offer my children support and guidance, without letting it affect my health.

There is also the stress of a trauma. I wrote about this in my book, Avoiding Burnout, where I experienced a stressful event that ultimately triggered my autoimmune disease. Amy Myers writes in her book, The Autoimmune Solution, that on average it takes about five years for an autoimmune disease to surface after a stressful event. This could be the death of a loved one, being a victim of a violent crime or a divorce.

My health deteriorated for years after this event and finally led to a lifelong illness.  It wasn’t the only factor of course. The work I was doing was the opposite of my strengths, I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I was pushing myself physically and mentally beyond breaking point. I have been reading a lot about burnout lately and I know that the standard warning signs were there: an increasing cynicism and a sense of hopelessness. My thoughts were spiraling negatively and I couldn’t see a way out of the misery.

It’s hard for me to see how I could have prevented getting sick and if I could have been educated to see stress in a different way. If that’s not possible, then I have no quest. If I’m not able to steer people away from the type of illness and suffering I endured in my three years of recovery, then I’m doing the wrong thing.

How we think about stress matters. Believing it is harmful and is to be avoided does not serve us. I accept the  notion that there are positive responses that help us to live in modern times where stress is unavoidable. But we do still want to avoid burnout. I’m wondering how viable it is for me to influence people to change their lives in order to avoid burnout. Would you listen? I know I would not have.

All the Effort has been Worth it!

At the end of 2014, my health started to collapse. I experienced a range of symptoms that I finally labelled as burnout. It took some time to get the right medical diagnosis and medical care but I was treated eventually for two things. Firstly, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland causing fatigue, weight gain and a range of unpleasant symptoms. This illness is for life and requires monitoring by an endocrinologist. I am also more likely to develop other autoimmune conditions.

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Secondly, my adrenal glands malfunctioned and were not releasing enough of a hormone known as DHEA which is responsible for energy and is used in generating a number of other hormones. This imbalance was not originally picked up by the doctors I approached and was only treated a year into my illness after finding the right practitioner. After spending a full year at home, not working, my blood tests revealed the lowest possible score in the range, indicating the chronic fatigue I was experiencing.

My thyroid function was chaotic at first. At the end of 2014, my thyroid became overactive, causing troubling symptoms such as tremors, heart palpitations, sweating, overheating, fatigue, weight gain and many more. It is hard to describe how terrible I felt but I thought I was dying. During 2015 my doctor slowed down my thyroid with medication. Since then, it is working and all my efforts have been on making sure it doesn’t collapse.

With my immune system attacking my thyroid gland, tissue is destroyed and I am at very high risk of becoming hypothyroid. For this reason, I have been working very hard in the past few years to calm down the attack. This is done by managing stress which is  not so easy, as well as cutting gluten out of my diet.

I sought a lot of medical care from a range of practitioners. The most valuable ones were my endocrinologist, homeopath and integrative (or functional) practitioner. The costs have been enormous, including consultations, medication, blood tests and supplements. I healed many aspects of my health that were contributing to fatigue. This includes eliminating viruses, improving the function of  lymphatic and digestive systems as well as reducing inflammation.

I have made many difficult life changes. I changed the work I do, relationships and many aspects of my lifestyle including sleep patterns, diet and exercise. It was a struggle to make these alterations and I kept wondering if it was worth it. I also spent a lot of time and money on alternative healing, addressing emotional and spiritual aspects of recovery. I sought the help of a psychologist for a few years to help me in unpacking how I got sick and to build my resilience.

I did my best to alter my life and direct it towards a happier existence but it is impossible to avoid stress completely. In times of high stress, for example at the end of last year when we had to change schools for our girls, my health deteriorated. I felt demoralized at times like this when I went to the endocrinologist and he increased my medication. I felt like I was on a downward spiral, despite all the hard work I put into healing and recovery.

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This week I had blood tests and my DHEA levels are as high as someone in their twenties. Of course, this is not ideal for a 43 year old but what it means is that my body is making enough such that I don’t need as much supplementation any longer. For the first time in four years, I can reduce my medication for the adrenal glands. My endocrinologist said that the adrenals are the key to thyroid recovery so this bodes well.

I finally feel that all of my efforts in the past four years are worth it. All the struggles to eat well, to get enough sleep, to make myself meditate. It’s worth it and it actually works. I felt like a failure after burning out and on top of that I just couldn’t seem to make headway with my health. This week’s news has given me such a boost in knowing that I have been doing the right things and all that effort was indeed worth it.