My journey from burnout to wholeheartedness

In the not too distant past, I would wake up most mornings with rocks in my stomach.

As I thought about facing the day ahead, the rocks would grow wings and thump about like gargoyles, wreaking havoc with my nerves.

Although I did not recognise it at the time, I was suffering from burnout.*

Are you suffering from burnout? The Leader's Digest

Are you suffering from burnout? Photo source: iStockphoto

Stressed out, freaking out, and utterly exhausted, I was constantly in ‘autopilot’ mode – from school drop-offs, to work, and the myriad of other responsibilities I had loaded upon myself in the grand pursuit of the ‘me’ I thought I was supposed to be.

I was good at my job, but I somehow felt unfulfilled, with a disconcerting sense I was not doing what I was meant to be doing.

I ignored that sense, and all the other warning signs as well.  My inner voice, my body (six bouts of strep throat in as many months), my concerned friends, and even my executive coach all voiced their concern – but still, I kept on marching through the fog.

On the outside, being ‘superwoman’ was a cloak I wore proudly.  On the inside, I was terrified of dropping all the balls I was juggling.  But I felt tired…so very, very tired, and in the end, something had to give.

Then I learned one of the most important lessons in my life:

“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.  The reason you are so exhausted is that much of what you are doing you have no affection for.  You’re doing it because you have an abstract idea that this is what you should be doing.” – David Whyte.

It took a lot of courage, but I finally made the necessary changes in order to create a life that enables wholehearted living.

In hindsight, being more aware of the signs of burnout would have prevented the pendulum swinging so far, before I acted.

So, in the hope it might help someone else identify burnout (either in yourself or one of your team), here are some common sign posts – if you identify with these, seek help from your doctor or medical professional:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work? Do you feel out of control all the time?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Increased absenteeism?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints? Source: Mayo Clinic

The good news is, nowadays I wake up with butterflies in my stomach instead of rocks – light, anticipatory butterflies, as I think about what my day of being a coach will bring.

In my next blog, I will talk about what you can do if you think you are suffering from burnout.

Have you experienced burnout (either yourself, or a team member)? If so, what were the warning signs? 

*Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.


  1. […] ← My journey from burnout to wholeheartedness […]

  2. Alesandra Blakeston on March 1, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Been there! Thank you for such an honest post.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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