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Podcast Transcript: Burnout Cycles and Resilience

Listen to our latest podcast where Jayne is in conversation with John Fleming, an associate trainer, supervisor, and coach for Balanceology. He brings a wealth of experience to the team and is very well versed on the complexity of systems and culture. John's focus is on empowering individuals, teams, and organisations to learn, develop, and grow.




Here's the full transcript:

Jayne: Ah, John, I'm really excited for our conversation and I've moved myself into the coaching space so that I can sit on a chair and be really comfortable and relaxed.


And I don't know, this conversation feels like it's bit more of a sort of fire side chat, although I'm aware it's May at the time of recording this, and we've had quite good weather here in Clevedon so having a fire on at the moment doesn't actually feel like the thing, it would be more like a fan that would be going in the background, but.


John: Have a fan side chat.


Jayne: Fan side chat. So I'm really looking forward to covering today. Elements that relate to burnout and resilience. I know they're topics that you and I in different conversations that have come up over the last couple of years have, have touched on, and you've got lots of insight, experiences and wisdom.

But I'm excited for you to share. So where would you like to begin?


John: I, I guess it makes sense to begin with me because much like a lot of things that I become interested in professionally, it's because it in some way is interesting to me personally also.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I guess burnout for me personally has been something that has run through my entire life. I would say even from early childhood and I didn't know that until I was much, much older.


So a lot of what I initially learned about burnout was because of my own exploration of it. And I guess as well, it's important to say that for me, that predominantly focuses around burnout in relation to neurodiversity. Mm. Because of my own experiences of being neurodiverse and also the fact that I work predominantly with neuro diverse or diverse emergent identities.


And, and as a cohort or grouping the levels of burnout in, in that cohort are quite high. Yeah. For many reasons. So yeah, there's been a bit of personal exploration that's led to professional development, which has led to me probably working in a different way with my clients.


Jayne: When I'm curious about, you know, you identifying that there was a thread of burnout that was occurring even when you were a child can you speak a little bit to how that showed up?

 

When you reflect on the burnout being there, what were the signs and the symptoms? How is it manifesting itself?


John: So I think probably when I was a child it probably manifested in, in a lot of overwhelm. So not wanting to go to school, not wanting to participate in certain activities in school, namely sport, finding ways to avoid being in class. I became really good at that. And I think these were all tactics because of overwhelm.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I think that even in some circumstances, I probably was sick more often than other children. And this manifestation of physical sickness, you know, pains in my stomach, things like this could well have actually been psychosomatic.


Jayne: Yeah,


John: It was actually biological in nature. And I think that these were, again, periods in which I was inverted commas, burnt out and did respite.


Jayne: Yeah


John: It was like I can't do that today. I can't do the brightly lit, noisy environment. That's very overwhelming. You know, I didn't have the words.


So instead, you know, I'd have a sore throat or I'd have a pain in my stomach or whatever. So, so that was definitely present. The same thing happened in secondary school, really very much present in my early working life in my twenties was sick a lot, I had, I had an absence problem in, in work and that was compounded over the years and it got to a point in my mid twenties where I would get so burnt out, I'd have to take two to three weeks off sick on sick leave to recuperate.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: So I, I guess as time went on, not really having developed the right strategies or ways of taking care of myself meant that, that it was just building blocks of burnout on top of another building block of burnout and yes, sure, the respite would help.


And I would go back, but then I would go back in and I would repeat the same scenarios again, which would lead to another cycle of burnout. So, and I think that the older I got, the more severe the burnout got and the longer the cycle lasted.


Jayne: And you talk about that as though that cycle, with your awareness of it, that that's not something that now continues to perpetuate. Is there something that you've done or recognised so that, so that you're outside of that cycle now?


John: Yeah, that, that has been a tricky path to navigate. So I definitely don't want to kind of give off the impression of, Oh, you know, folks, it's really easy.


You just have to do X, Y, and Z and then you'll, you know, because I think there's so much pop psychology out there around these topics and being resilient, for example, that kind of almost give off the impression that, you know, why are you not doing it? It's just so easy, you know? And well, frankly, I think it's a load of bollocks because it's not that easy.


Actually, these are entrenched ways of living that you've learned and to stop doing them and to change requires some resource.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Actually, often because you're in cycles of burnout, you don't have much resource.


Jayne: That's right. For many people, especially whenever it's prolonged. period that they've needed to take out because the cycle's repeated so often over multiple years.

It can result in them, then not being able to work. And then often there's, depending on the role and depending on the, the contracts with their work for some people, they'll be on full pay for a set amount of time, but then it'll start to reduce. And then eventually they're just on statutory sick pay, which often isn't enough to support the living standards that they've been accustomed to and the responsibilities they have. And, and so then to try and seek out support to actually get to the bottom of what's been these contributing factors that have resulted in burnout. It's really hard to get that kind of help because it costs money.


So it's, it's a real, a real issue. I think. Yeah, I see a lot of people taking the rest and then actually don't have the support to, to go to the depths of recognising what it is in their way of operating, that will otherwise result in a cycle again.


John: Yeah. And outside of the financial aspect, there's also cultural challenges here because depending on what culture you grew up in and now live in there can be real strong societal messaging around, you know, you just have to keep going, you, you just need to get through this week.


You need to, you know, get to the holiday dash, that, that, that is very present in many cultures. This, this idea of, of working hard and that being respected and, and what's needed. And I remember in my early twenties thinking, I don't want to work hard. I want to work smart. And in, in a way that was kind of like, a blessing, you know, I would always be thinking about how can I make this easier for myself?


So I do think that there was already the beginning of something else blossoming inside me, which was really recognising that maybe I have other options here about how I navigate this. But at the same time, I was still relatively lost in a world that didn't understand what I was going through, and I didn't really understand it myself either.

And that's a very lonely place, actually.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: You know, because then you begin to question, you know, what's wrong with me? Why am I not as resilient as other people? Why do I have to take so much time out? Why can't I do all the things that other people can do? And they seem to not get burnt out, and of course you know, comparison is a total thief of joy.


And then that begins to eat away, I think, at your self esteem and self confidence. So, like, obviously best not to compare yourself to others. But when you're in your early 20s, it's kind of hard not to, because you're so full of life and so vital. It's incredibly frustrating to see your peers being able to do all sorts of things that you feel like you can't do or are inaccessible.


Jayne: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

At what stage were you able to recognise that these experiences of overwhelm when you were younger were creating the experience of, of burnout, that it was actually, that it was that term felt like it fit for you.


John: I was, I was an older adult. Yeah. I really didn't understand this for a very long time, I don't think.


And I think that part of that is because burnout is not just it's not really talked about, you know, and that coupled with the lack of awareness around neurodiversity, one, identifying it, and two, when it's identified, really actually understanding what any individual needs, you know, I really like that term, you know, when you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person, you know, rather than these assumptions of, oh, we'll have a sensory room and it's like, well, I don't want to be in a fucking sensory room, actually.


You know, that's not what I need right now. Sensory rooms are not the be all and end all answers. So, I think that, it's very difficult when you're an individual that doesn't understand yourself and nobody else does either. Because where do you where do you go with that? So I went down the route that a lot of people go down when they do not understand what's going on, but they know something's wrong, which is mental health.


Yeah. Yeah. Thinking this must be depression, anxiety, something more serious, you know, so for, for a long time, I was engaged in therapy and then processes around that, that were there to try and help me figure out what is going on. And, you know, some of that was effective in some ways, but actually until I really realised that I was neurodiverse, nothing drastic really changed.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: You know, that was like the missing puzzle piece. And I have to say that the COVID lockdowns also had a huge impact on me in a positive way, because that sort of enforced slow down.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: That, you know, you can't leave your house, you know, you can't socialise made my life really simple.


I had a very, very, very, very simple life during lockdown, during COVID. And I got to see what life could be like. And how good I would feel. And that was you know, and I know for, for, for many, many people, COVID lockdowns were a horrible experience for, for lots of reasons. So I'm not trying to insinuate that or silver liner, but really just roll or say how it was for me.


Yeah. And I think the reality for me was that it gave me an experience of really slowing down for a long period. So it's not just like taking three weeks off work. This was, you know, very simple. Also, just to say, you know, I went from one extreme to another. Like I used to travel for work every week.


I would fly to London for work. I'd get the train to Dublin for work. I was living out of hotels, out of suitcases. I had a lot of responsibility in my work. I was stressed a lot. And to turn that on its head was just like, oh, my God, you know, this is like a different, this is like an alternate reality.


Jayne: Right.


John: So I think that really helped me gain perspective because I was thinking, well, actually maybe what I need to do is slow down. Maybe that's what really would help me.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Is that if I did less, and again, I do not want to suggest that that was an easy process for us. I am a busy, busy person and I like doing lots of things and being involved in lots of things and letting go of some of that was hard.


Yeah, it was hard and it was also hard interpersonally because here I now was saying to other people no.


Or stepping back, or I'm going to let go of that voluntary position, or I need to take time out for me. And it's so interesting how people respond to that.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: When you have been a certain type of way.

Because I guess for them, it's like, who is this person? It's totally different. And for me, I was just thinking, I don't care. I'm doing this for me. I have to do this for me. This is kind of like, if I don't do this, I'm not clear on what my health is going to be like in the future.


Jayne: Mm-Hmm. It sounds like it's quite an epiphany then for you to feel so resolute in yourself that you were going to maintain that, regardless of the pushback or the challenge that that would present for other people that were used to being, yeah.


John: And again, I wanna just be clear that was a process.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Yeah. You know, there was moments where I struggled with that. I struggled with other people's feedback. But for the most part, there was this core in me, you know, I'm putting my hand on, on my chest, as I say this right, right in behind my , kind of, I think is where I feel it, of just this, like, really clarity, I think.


Now I would get caught up in lots of different things, like what other people said, or, did or things that might catch my eye that I would find attractive and I'd want to do or get involved in. Then I would come back to this core piece and think, well, you could do it, but what would that mean then?


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Or, you know, what would that mean? And, you know, there might be people listening to this who just think, yeah, like that seems like how I've just always lived my life. And I'm like, great, good for you. I'm delighted that that is how you have lived your life. And I think the message I want to get across is that there's a whole cohort of us out there who haven't been living our lives that way and who are totally unaware of the alternate options, but also the impact of the life we are living is having on us.


And one of the things that I started to realise is that " present me" wouldn't always consider what "future me" needed. So I would make decisions about doing things or travelling or putting things back to back. And then I would get to the thing in the future and present me then in the future would be thinking, what the fuck did past me do? This was a terrible idea.

Like, you know, and I just began to really realise that I was totally time optimistic.


Jayne: Yeah,


John: I can do anything.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I think that became a real focus for me then as well of saying don't put things back to back. If you're going to travel to the UK for a week or for a weekend for training or for work, then put in two days off when you come back so that you can transition back in here, settle in. You know, don't come back and then have work at 9 a. m. the next morning. You know, like, you know, why do that when you're self employed, you have options, you can do other things. So, I went through a whole process then as well of actually just really going, what is future me going to think of this?


Yeah, put, put myself in four weeks or three months time when, that I'm now planning for. How am I going to feel when it comes to then? And I would have a completely different response and go, Oh no, I need to less slow down, put a gap in. No, that's, that's packing too much in. So yeah, it was, and still is to some extent an ongoing process that challenges me and my ways of thinking about how I could live my life and ultimately is quite satisfying actually. Because the more I prioritise my well being and my needs, the less burnt out I get. You know, I don't really think I've had a major burnout in a good while.


Jayne: So I love, I love this, this sort of idea of with everything that you allow in contemplating for a moment, what the impact of that would be on the future you and how's the future you going to feel about it when it comes to the day and there's things in there back to back or they've been on a plane and they're coming back and been expected to get straight back on the horse.

Yeah.


John: And I still don't always get it right. You know, I still sometimes go, Oh, that was a mistake. Yeah. Don't do that again.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: But that's really useful because I can, I keep those, you know, I have a memory of those and the next time I go to plan something, I go remember what happened last time.

So a lot more awareness. That's been really crucial for me, I think, in building awareness resilience.


Jayne: Hmm.

I'm curious, you said earlier, whenever you initially realised through the experience of the pandemic, that by slowing things down, your life would be different. And then as you kind of move back into relationships with others, there was a bit of a kind of kickback, I guess wasn't the word you used, but the, the, the feathers maybe get a bit ruffled because people are used to you being a certain way. How are things now that people have got used to your boundaries being different? Their expectations on you are different. Is there a difference in your relationships in general?

I'm just curious.


John: Yeah, I think there is. I mean, I do think that it was challenging for others. And I think maybe some people more than others, I know that one person said to me at one point, "your boundaries are very rigid". And I just laughed and said, "well, that's just because you don't like them, you know, but tough, they don't suit you. So you don't like them, you know, and it's so easy to project that onto me then". And I just thought, well, you know, that's for you to resolve. It's not my problem that you don't like them.

So there was a bit of argy bargy at times with different people, both professionally and personally.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I get that because I changed. And I think when anybody changes, it does test relationships. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I think ultimately, my relationships are stronger than they were. And I think that me being clear on my needs has really helped me to have more intimacy in my relationships.


Jayne: Yeah


John: Because part of the process of "Masking" for me anyway, at least I can't speak for everybody was about pleasing other people. You know, if I just keep everybody else happy, because I would have been very hypervigilant. If I just keep everybody else happy, then everything will be great. So, of course, me having needs totally goes against that process. So, it was very uncomfortable for me as well, I think. You know, it's kind of this   that I would please myself. That I would say no.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: That I would change my mind about things. All of this has been a process and is ongoing. Yeah, I really don't want to give off this idea that I have it perfected or anything like that.


Jayne: I don't know how anyone ever really can get to that. You know, life is, it's just kind of constantly challenging us with different, different things at different times.


John: This is this chapter, this chapter. And I think if you speak to me in 10 years time, I will have a whole different perspective on it again, probably. But yeah, I think ultimately, for the majority of my relationships, me changing has strengthened them because people understand me, what I need, and are willing to include my needs.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: It's a very new phenomenon for me. I mean, it's, it's lovely, you know, when somebody thinks about you, you know, and I recently took a trip with somebody and they, they had thought about what my needs might be on that trip. And I, I just thought, Oh, cool. For the most part, I think other people are willing to be supportive. But there's also a period of transition for them in the relationship, I think. And that will go at different speeds for different people.


Jayne: That makes a lot of sense.


John: I will name it. There was resistance at times. Definitely, you know.

But I think for the most part that was unconscious on other people's parts, rather than full on intentional resistance. I think it was just more like I'm, you know, I'm very used to you being a certain way and now you're not being that way.


Jayne: Yeah. Yeah. And I think sometimes when we change something in ourselves and there's an aspect of that part in ourselves that we're changing, that exists in the other person and is present in, in them and by us also approaching things in a similar way, responding to things in a similar way, it kind of confirms that for them. So when we then change that in ourselves, it provokes that person's kind of, whoa wait a minute, who am I then in this relation to this, if you're doing it a different way to me .


John: I mean, the one thing that I would say that has happened as well is that, you know, a lot of my friends have, have realised their own neurodivergence, which has also been an interesting process because, you know, I've had friends kind of go, "Oh, I think I'm, I think I might have ADHD". I think that an interesting process as well is that what happens in a family or a friend group or a system of people when one person declares, you know, actually, this is what's going on for me. And this is what I've realised. And my needs are different to what I thought and other people thought they were. And I'm making some changes. I mean, it's not just about me. And it has an impact on the whole system.

And you were saying the impact will be for some people is that they go, "Oh, me too". So I was the catalyst, I think, for a lot of people in my life, recognising their own neurodivergence and patterns of burnout.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: So yeah, it's, it's interconnected.


Jayne: I'm wondering how, how does this connect from your perspective to the theme of resilience?


John: I don't have a very good relationship with positive psychology. And that's not to say that it's not useful, because I really do think that it is useful. But when I say positive psychology in inverted commas, I'm talking about the kind of turn of the century, positive psychology that occurred when people started writing Sunday newspaper columns on, you know, be positive and that sort of crap.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Yeah. Positive psychology as a discipline is, is separate and, and, and different. But I, I grew up in the nineties and noughties. So that, that had an impact on me because I very clearly remember when positive psychology first started showing up in newspapers and my parents talking about it. And there has been a real trend as a result of that, I think around resilience to be seen as this bounce back thing, you know. You just have to bounce back. That's what resilience is about. It's just like, get up and go. And actually, I think that promotes burnout.


I think it promoted burnout in me, actually, because I think I thought that that's what I have to do. I have to bounce back. And, you know, I didn't have any I didn't have any resource for bouncing.


So if I was, you know, attempting to bounce, I was pulling all of my adaptive and masking behaviours together to present an idea of bouncing. But I mean, I wasn't bouncing. I was like a very, very, very, very flat tyre. You know what I mean? Yeah, yeah. It wasn't bouncing anywhere like , but I was projecting this idea of, of being a basketball, you know. And it's taken me a long time to figure out this whole idea of resilience for me on what it is about and what I truly think it's about. And my current thinking around it is that it's about the learning that you can extract from adversity that you've faced.


Jayne: Hmm.


John: And I think that's what we've been talking about so far here is like, I have learned about this and about myself and about others and, you know, the awareness that I now have in comparison to what I did have. And I think that's what I'm talking about when I'm talking about learning.

I've learned a lot. And I've learned it through my own experience. And it's the learning and awareness that makes me more resilient.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Because what that does is it helps me make changes, do things in a different way so that I'm less likely to get burnt out. But if I do get burnt out, I get burnt out.

There's no bouncing back from it. But there is an opportunity to reflect and say, "OK, well, what have I learned from this burn out?"

How did this happen?


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I think that's building resilience, because for me, at least anyway, the hope is that the more awareness I get and the more I learn, the less likely I am to burn out. Therego the more resilient I am.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Rather than this kind of pop psychology idea of resilience being, "Oh, I'm burnt out. I need to bounce back."


Jayne: Yeah. Yeah. It's, it's often I find with clients, there's a really strong temptation to want to go back to where they were just before they burned out because they have a perception until they've really sat with the full experience and taken the learnings as a perception that "well everything was fine until I collapsed. And I want to be back to that person that was going a million miles per hour, doing it all." And, and it's not until kind of there's a mirror held to that, but that's the reason why he collapsed.


And naturally there's a version of performing or being in this sort of optimum potential that happens in, in glimpses. Like we just had that solar shower, right? That doesn't happen every week or every day. It's like every so often that that happens and it's not sustainable for it to be all the time firework party, you know. So finding the place in themselves, there's more of a sustainable, maintainable, slow, but still allowing for bursts and energy and enthusiasm and a bit of a bounce now and then, but just not this basketball on the court every day.


John: Yeah. Yeah. So there in those circumstances, I think the temptation for people is to think that the burnout is the problem.


Jayne: Yes. Yeah.


John: And that's such a misconception. Yeah. Because the burnout's not the problem. It's whatever you were doing in your life before the burnout for the number of weeks, days, months, whatever, is actually what the problem probably was.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: The, the burnout in, in essence. Is a gift because it's saying, "okay, you haven't recognised that you're not okay. So I'm going to come in and make you recognise. I'm like going to press, you know, the red button on the train that brings it to a stop. Yeah. Because if you don't, something might happen".

So burnout is a gift I think. It's a psycho biological function to protect you.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: And I think to frame it in that way is really important, actually, because much like with emotions, I really have a disdain for any sort of emotion or burnout to be framed as negative.


Jayne: Yes.


John: They're just not negative. To put a judgment on them is so unhelpful. You know, if you're feeling sadness or you're feeling anger or you're feeling fear, you're feeling it for a reason. It's trying to tell you something, you know. Sadness is probably because there's been a loss of some sort, anger because there's been a boundary violation, fear because there's a threat.


Well, you experience burnout because of a number of factors and it's your psyches and your body's way of saying, "Hey, hey, look at me, there's something going on over here. I'm not okay". So it's actually a very clever function.


Jayne: Yeah.


John: Now, the impact of burnout, on the other hand, that's not so nice. Yeah. We all recognise that, but I think, you know, fighting the burnout is another way that you're going to get burnt out.


Jayne: Absolutely. Yeah.


John: So don't see it as your enemy. See it as your friend.


Jayne: I really love that. What an amazing note to end on as well, I think. John, thank you. It's been really great getting to have this chat, this fan side chat with you. Thank you so much.


John: You're very welcome.

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