Richard Hogan: Saying no isn't selfish - it's self care

"The fact that everyone in modern society is not burnt out is a miracle. By the end of the day it can be difficult to wind the brain down after such activity."
Richard Hogan: Saying no isn't selfish - it's self care

Richard Hogan. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Working clinically gives you such insights into what people are struggling with from day to day. One of the biggest issues I see in modern therapy is that of burnout. I have experienced it myself. The endless juggling of so many things. Doing your job to a high standard, collecting and dropping kids, lunches, homework, meetings and running various projects. 

Add into that swirling mix, smartphones designed to keep you distracted and depleted of energy. The news also feeding such horror stories of war and imminent climate disaster. 

The fact that everyone in modern society is not burnt out is a miracle. By the end of the day it can be difficult to wind the brain down after such activity. But it is vitally important that we listen to ourselves, and take heed when we have taken on too much. 

In my experience, women can really struggle in their mid 40s with burnout. Particularly those who were the eldest in the family. 

When they were children they were positioned as ‘the good daughter’. Now, as adults, they are ‘the good wife’, ‘the good mother’, while also still playing the role of ‘the good daughter’ to their elderly parents. That can be a very tricky position to find yourself in, and one that can lead to emotional and psychological collapse. Saying ‘no’ is not selfish but rather self-care.

That old cliché of attending to your own oxygen before helping your children on a flight is a cliché for a reason. It’s true. Why do we struggle to say ‘no’ more often? We see someone in work that is all too comfortable saying ‘no’ and we envy them. Why is that? Because we have developed a belief that our only value is in service to others. Dismantling that belief and respecting yourself more and being authentic to how you are actually feeling, is a great starting point if you want to remove burnout from your life. 

The person who can say ‘no’ values themselves and has a clear boundary that protects them from saying ‘yes’ to everything. Remember, a people pleaser pleases no one, least of all themselves. 

In fact, someone motivated to please everyone, often finds that they resent the people that rely on them so heavily but also begin to resent themselves for not being authentic. It is hard to love yourself, when you know you are going against your true self.

I know I have taken on too much when my sleep becomes disturbed or I am lying in bed ruminating on all the work I have to accomplish over the course of a short period of time. It is easy to listen to thoughts and allow them to disrupt your feelings. But, quietly distancing yourself from your thoughts, by not reacting to them and simply allowing them to be, really helps to quieten a ruminating mind. Thoughts are not facts, they are simply thoughts. We do have power over how we react to them. 

So, just let them land, and don’t react. Also, knowing the signs of what causes you burnout is important if you are to protect yourself from it. It can be like a menacing fog that wraps itself around you. One of the more severe signs of burnout is depersonalisation. This can occur when we are overwhelmed by what is going on in our lives. It is the brains way of protecting you from the emotional pain of stress. 

Often clients describe feeling numb or ‘not being like themselves’. They know they have not lost their mind, but they are uneasy with how they are feeling. They often describe a sense of a dark fog having come over them. 

It can be very unsettling to experience depersonalisation. I always look at the clients life and see where they can pull back. I also recommend doing something sensory like swimming in the sea or exercising. The cold water of the sea can prise the fingers of that fog from around someone’s brain. Looking after your mental health isn’t what you do at the weekends or on holiday, it is what you do every day. Doing small things every day that allows you to slow down and reconnect with yourself, is so important to living a healthy life. Being in nature is incredibly therapeutic. The stillness in the tress can heal the swirling movement inside.

 I have noticed, over the years, that when someone becomes burnt out they can often develop a cynical internal voice. They view the world through this lens. Everything becomes a little less light, they look for the negative in everything. That kind of thinking can really envelope a person’s viewpoint. If you notice you are speaking about your colleagues in a more negative way than before, perhaps you are burnt out. Feelings of agitation and restlessness are symptoms of burnout, too.

In this world of instantaneous information, smartphones, clicks, followers and just the busyness of adult life, we can become overwhelmed. But listening to yourself, and finding moments every day to be still can help prevent burnout.

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