I was recently nudged to reread a book I wrote ten years ago. From that experience I’m called to share my reflections and reframe the book through a lens that I hope will make it more valued and understood by more people. This is the first in a series of posts on those reflections.
In the past ten years, more and more influential women, and some men, are coming out of the woodwork and acknowledging that they have burnt out. An example is Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand who in January 2023, announced “I no longer have enough in the tank to do the job”, and declared that was why she was stepping down.
It is being acknowledged more widely that the traditional ways of doing business and being successful; of driving and striving, valuing competition over collaboration, and leading from our heads and egos rather than from our hearts, are no longer sustainable. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post and founder and CEO of Thrive Global, has shared her story of collapsing from overwork and why she created Thrive Global. It was as a result of her experience of “working day and night” and the negative impact it had, and her desire to share that there is a healthier way to be “successful”.
The experience of the pandemic caused many people to burn out. Working at home, many parents had to also look after their children which stretched them very thin. Others had difficulty creating boundaries between their work and home life. Still others felt isolated which led to depression and other mental health issues.
In 2014 I said that I “almost” burnt out and I didn’t acknowledge that I had, which I now do.
I now have heightened awareness of the importance for me of being in nature every day, and what happens when I don’t get my nature “hits”.
What remains the same since writing “Learning to Dance with Life”
Some things remain the same. For example, the seven keys in my book are still relevant. Seven keys to consciously cultivating improved health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life, and the powerful practices associated with each one, supporting us to heal from the inside out.
The proven strategies and powerful practices woven throughout the book are based on evidence from neuroscience, eastern psychology, and the health-promoting and healing benefits of the arts, and my own journey as well as that of women I have coached, all of which are being recognized more broadly as supporting healing and positive health and well-being.
The link between High Achieving Women and burnout. My work and the growing body of research related to burnout demonstrates that having qualities of a High Achieving Woman increase your risk of burning out.
When I was writing “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women” my editor wondered whether a more appropriate title might be “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for Driven Women”. Perhaps that is so, as many women who I would consider “high achieving” do not perceive themselves as such. While writing “Learning to Life” I interviewed women from three continents who I perceived as high achieving and some of them said things like, “I’m not a High Achieving Women or, I don’t have any great accomplishments to my name, or I’m not in the corporate world, or it sounds arrogant to call myself a High Achieving Woman.” I think that is still the case today.
I identified nineteen attributes of High Achieving Women that I validated in my interviews that still hold true today (in chapter 1). The majority of High Achieving Women tend to give more than they receive, and many are challenged to reach out for support. The also spend much more time doing than being.
Why I focused on women.
More and more women are becoming leaders, managers and entrepreneurs
Increasing numbers of women are primary breadwinners in their families
Women in all cultures transmit their values and wisdom to their families
Women have the power to change the world.
Why I wrote the book including that “I’m called to get the message out about the negative impacts on our bodies, minds and relationships that result from driving ourselves, not listening to our bodies, and living in our left brain (p. 4).”
I welcome your thoughts and comments below on what you believe has changed in the past 10 years related to burnout and how to prevent and heal from it.
I so needed this vacation. My mind was buzzing, and I wanted to escape from the day-to-day responsibilities, to be in the warmth, to speak Spanish, to have little or no structure in each day, to swim and do lengths in the pool.
When I glide through the water I feel such freedom, such strength, such focus on the rhythm of my breath as I do the front crawl for 50, 70 or more lengths. It feels so good! Perhaps I was part fish in a previous life!?
I sit outside in front of our casita in a pueblo magico in Mexico. It is a beautiful fishing village that has a special vibe. The beach is long and wide, and each evening people gather to watch the sun set. When the glowing orb drops into the sea everyone claps. It’s quite an experience. The locals are a mix of ex-pats and Mexicans. There are more and more young people visiting the town and there are also a number of older hippies from North America who live here half the year. It is indeed a special place. I feel like I belong here. My Spanish has come back after about 3 years of not speaking. It flows easily off my tongue until every now and again when I forget a word and have to ask what it is in Spanish.
I love Latin culture. I lived in Colombia in the late 1980s in a small town of 250 houses about 3.5 hours north of Bogota. When I arrived there, I felt like I’d come home. Curious! I gave myself three months to learn Spanish and I did it! Living in a pueblo where hardly anyone speaks English, if you are someone who loves to connect with and communicate with others, is an incentive to learn a language quickly. How fortunate I was to have had that experience!
Over to you, how do you recharge and rejuvenate? What is your favorite place/activity/type of vacation? I welcome your comments below.
Are there women in your life who are constantly giving to others and putting themselves at the bottom of the list? Women who are so busy serving others in their families, communities, workplaces … seemingly with boundless energy?
Women who seem to be strong and have it all together, and rarely if ever reach out for support from others; until they can’t.
Perhaps you are one of these women.
COVID has placed increased stress on women worldwide. They are burning out faster than before the pandemic. With the increased demands of working at home, home-schooling children, supporting others in their families, communities and workplaces, they are losing their passion, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, and experiencing feelings of cynicism and detachment.
International cross-cultural studiesshow that those in the helping professions (e.g. social workers, nurses, physicians, development professionals), and high achievers, are at higher risk for burnout than the general population. The curious thing about high or over-achievers is that we tend to work harder when we get closer and closer to burnout. It’s almost like we believe we are invincible!
I recall when I burnt out in late 2012; how I kept pushing through fatigue and NOT listening to my body. I had pushed through fatigue to finish that one last thing for many years, and was healthy (or so I thought), with no noticeable side effects. Until all that changed.
I’d been working on contract for an NGO that promotes women’s and children’s rights around the world for almost a year. Initially I was passionate about the opportunity and felt so aligned with their mission, vision and values. It was exciting to head off to a number of African countries for project start up and to meet the teams in the 7 countries I was working with! In the coming months, the project scope increased, and I was being asked to do more and more. Then, about 6 months in, I started to lose my passion. I felt like there was so much to do and so little time. Yet I kept pushing through.
Near the end of the year, I was invited to renew my contract in a reduced role. I was this close to signing and asked to sleep on the decision. When I awoke, I felt like a lemon that had been squeezed dry; and realized in that moment, that I had to finally listen to my body, I had to take a break. I got in touch with the Director and VP I’d been working with, thanked them, and turned down the opportunity. They said “Why?” and I said I wanted to create more balance in my life. At that time, I had no idea what that meant or how much time I would take off, but I started the new year with no work on my plate. A scary place for someone who has their own business! I took the time to reconnect with family and friends as I’d been travelling so much the past couple of years. I studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield; and spent a lot of time in nature.
After sleeping 10, 12, 13 hours a night for about 4 months and still awakening feeling fatigued, I went to see a naturopath who put me on some homeopathic meds; and within about a month I started to feel more like myself; my energy started to come back.
What I learned from that experience, and from doing in-depth interviews with high-achieving women from three continents is captured in the book “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women”. In this book, I introduce the concept of “Creative Living, “the conscious cultivation of increased health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life.” There are 7 keys to what I call Creative Living, and powerful strategies and practices to prevent and heal from burnout. I’ve distilled some of these in the strategies below.
Strategies You can Use to Prevent and Heal from Burnout
Integrate mindfulness practices into your life daily (e.g. body scanning & mindfulness walking meditation); these help you focus on the present moment, and get you out of the chatter in your head
Start listening to your body. When you feel tired take a short nap (e.g. 15 to 30 minutes if you can) or go for a short walk (15 to 30 minutes)
When you’re feeling stressed take 3 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth exhaling on each out breath. Notice how that makes you feel. This releases the hormone oxytocin which makes you feel more relaxed, grounded and at peace
Focus on one thing at a time
Sleep at least 8 hours a night and go to sleep before 11 pm
Set firm boundaries; learn to say “no”; being clear on your top 5 core values helps with this
Spend regular time in nature – The Japanese have done longitudinal studies to show that when we walk in nature, particularly among trees, it reduces our heartrate, reduces our blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our body produces (i.e. strengthens our immune system)
Nurture yourself daily (e.g. have a bubble bath, listen to relaxing music, do something you love)
Try yoga. Experiment with different styles. Find one that works for you and do it 3 times a week or more for 30 to 60 minutes each time
Celebrate your achievements – both big and small
Unplug from technology 60 to 90 minutes before going to bed; and Unplug one day a week (if possible) e.g. on the weekend.
Schedule blocks of time in your calendar for you (e.g. work out at the gym, yoga, lunch with a friend, date night with your partner) and commit to doing them
If symptoms persist and if you are continually fatigued even though you sleep 8 or more hours a night, and have lost your zest for life, go to a recommended naturopath or a physician who is open to complementary therapies.
What strategies have you found helpful to reduce stress in your life and to prevent and/or heal from burnout? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.
 Scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes noticing where there is any tension or discomfort. Breathe into those places and set the intention to release the pain and discomfort. This is helpful to do first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. It helps you become more aware of your body and the messages it sends you.
 When doing mindfulness walking meditation, it is most beneficial to do it outside. When you begin to walk, instead of thinking about the argument you had with your partner that morning or worrying about the performance review you’re going to give to a team member who is underperforming; instead focus on all of your senses. Feel the breeze on your cheeks, smell the salt sea air, hear the birds chirping, see the beautiful vistas that surround you … . When thoughts come to mind as they will, imagine putting them in a cloud and watching them float away and then return to focusing on your senses. Do this 3 times a week to start for 20 to 30 minutes a time and notice how you feel during, immediately after and after a week or so of doing this.
I encourage you to take a moment to sit down, close your eyes and reflect on the leaders you have experienced in your life. Think about your first boss at your first “real” job. How was she or he? Were they kind, open, approachable, understanding?What were the dominant traits they possessed that you recall?
Now reflect on other leaders you have had in your life. Were they people you looked up to, who made you feel good about yourself, and provided opportunities for you to stretch yourself?
I’ve spoken and worked with a number of women who have accomplished much in their lives and yet did not regard themselves as leaders. Part of the reason why, was because the leaders they had experienced to date had not been people they wanted to emulate. They did not have positive memories associated with many of them. Perhaps you relate?
I’d like to share an example from my own life. Years ago, I worked in government at the federal level. One of my colleagues who worked on the same floor but in a different division was an articulate, creative and intelligent black woman. She had a vision to create a Unit to serve an under served group she cared much about. Her boss asked her to write down her vision, mission, the number of Full Time Equivalents required for the Unit and submit it to her. The boss then shared the document with “higher ups” as if it was her own, without acknowledging my friend as the creator. The Unit was approved with a budget attached and rather than offering my colleague the position, she interviewed and brought in a Unit Head from outside of our Division and totally excluded my friend from the process.
That experience had a really negative impact on me. I felt so bad for my colleague. I started to notice what I perceived as a cancer growing in the organization. In team meetings, my Division Head would call down a younger male team member in front of us all because she perceived him as a threat. I realized I could no longer work in this toxic environment even though I enjoyed my work and believed I was making a difference. Soon after, I met the partner in a consulting firm and was invited to join them which I did. I left my government job with the benefits and supposed stability and lost the matched contributions to my pension plan.
Perhaps you have experienced something similar. The impact this and other negative experiences I had with other leaders, was to associate the negative qualities I had seen and felt with leadership. When asked to join a Women’s Leadership Network a number of years into my career and to speak at their monthly meeting, I felt anxiety and fear rise up. Was I really a leader? For many years I denied that fact and I believe it was largely due to the negative experiences I had had with female leaders in my various positions.
In order to be an effective leader, it is obviously helpful to have experienced and been mentored by one or a several “good” leaders. Those who you respect and view as positive role models. That said, if you’ve not been that fortunate, it is important to reflect on your experience with leaders in your life and notice how that has affected your perception of leadership and interest in being a leader.
Are you telling yourself a leadership story that is no longer serving you? Is it time to change the narrative?
I would love to hear whether you have experienced something similar and how your experience with leaders has affected your interest in and comfort with being a leader. I invite your comments below.
December is a great month to reflect on your achievements from the current year and to set intentions for the coming year.
A process that I’ve found to be extremely useful for myself and my clients is to answer the following questions and journal about them at the end of one year and before starting a new one.
What are the accomplishments I am most proud of in 2020?
What am I most grateful for this year?
What lessons have I learned regarding relationships, work experience, my business, my own blind spots … over the past year?
What are my intentions for 2021 (in five areas)?
Personal life – i.e. What my personal life looks and feels like. Note that it is important to write your intentions in the present tense as if you have already accomplished them. For example; “I am strongly connected to myself, my gifts, my fears, my strengths. I courageously uncover any and all fears, doubts and limiting beliefs that are holding me back from standing in my true power and fulfilling my larger vision and mission … .”
Related to my Health – i.e. What my health looks and feels like. “I feel great! My body is toned, strong and flexible. I radiate health and vitality – physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. I do yoga 3 to 4 times/week, meditate daily and spend regular time in nature hiking, kayaking, swimming, cycling …
Financial – i,e. What my financial life looks and feels like. “ I average $_______ thousand a month in terms of income generation through Creative Life Coaching & Consulting. I feel financially free and serene. I pay off my credit cards every month and my line of credit is paid off. …
Spiritual – i.e. What my spiritual life looks and feels like. “I continue to meditate daily and deepen my ability to go within and connect with the Universal wisdom. I continue to strengthen and listen to my body’s wisdom. … “
Intellectual – i.e. What my intellectual life looks and feels like. “I am flexible, flowing and open to new ideas. I connect with my creativity easily and effortlessly. … I blog regularly and creative ideas come to me easily. I design and facilitate workshops and retreats that many women connect with and learn from.”
I encourage you to experiment with the process above. Feel free to change the titles of the 5 areas suggested to ones that resonate for you. Reviewing your intentions quarterly and noting how you’re doing in relation to them, helps keep them top of mind and provides encouragement to move forward. Using your intentions as a “touch stone” at the end of each year to review your achievements is helpful.
Celebrating your accomplishments feels so good and is important to provide you with the energy and commitment to move forward and fulfill your intentions. Here’s a short video that explains why it is important to celebrate.
Best of luck reflecting on 2020 and setting bold intentions for 2021. To your health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace!
I invite you to try out the process and welcome your comments below. Feel free to share this post with others.
Have you ever interviewed a potential staff person or manager who on paper looked amazing, answered the questions thoughtfully, came to the interview well-groomed and appeared well-mannered and reliable? Your rational mind (left brain) thought “this a great candidate; I want to hire her or him”, yet there was something niggling that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Something that didn’t feel right; yet you went ahead and hired that person. Three months after they started their position, you realized they were not a good “fit” for the organization. One of your organizational values was collaboration and they were extremely competitive to the point of withholding information from other team leads. On reflection, you realized that your body had told you this person wasn’t right for the organization and yet you let your head overrule your heart and did not listen to your body’s wisdom.
As women, many of us have been taught from a young age that in order to get ahead and be successful, we need to suppress our natural feminine qualities such as intuition. These feminine qualities have been undervalued in general in our families and by society and we have learned that in order to get ahead in business and in life that we need to assume the more dominant masculine qualities such as rationality and valuing logic over intuition.
The recent pandemic has shone the light on many aspects of our societies and organizations that are no longer working. It has reinforced the need for us to reconnect with our authentic feminine leadership qualities such as intuition, collaboration and creativity and recognize their value and importance.
As authentic feminine leaders how can we reconnect with those parts of ourselves that we have disconnected with based on previous feedback and experience? How can we learn to listen to and trust in our body’s wisdom?
The first step is to believe that your intuition is a valuable quality and you can learn to access it and trust it. Dr. Bruce Lipton, a stem cell biologist, has done extensive research to show that the cells of our body are affected by our thoughts. This means your thoughts and beliefs biochemically affect your body and you have the power to change them.
Did you know that our heart and gut have nerve endings that send signals to our brains? The Heart Math Institute – https://www.heartmath.org – has done research showing the powerful influence our hearts and guts have on decision-making and strategic thinking.
Become consciously aware of your body. Notice the feelings you are experiencing. For example; have you sensed tension and stress when you walk into certain environments or organizations? We often say “We could cut the air with a knife.” Have you noticed that when interacting with certain individuals you feel tense and can’t wait to leave their presence? These are examples of our bodies warning us and trying to keep us safe.
On the other hand, have you been with someone who makes you feel appreciated and valued in his or her presence? Our bodies are amazing receivers and transmitters of information. Integrating tools and strategies that bring conscious awareness into our lives enhance our leadership abilities.
Learn practices and tools that help you get out of your head and into your body.
Body Scanning – is a mindfulness technique from Eastern psychology that is rooted in Buddhist principles. Mindfulness teaches us to focus on feeling emotions and sensations in our bodies and notice what is going on in our minds. The practice helps us to focus and be present. Rather than thinking about the argument we had with our partner this morning or worrying about the performance review we are having this afternoon, instead we focus on the here and now.
Here’s an example of how to do body scanning. I find it helpful to do it in bed on awakening. It then “sets me up for the day”.
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take several deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then return to regular breathing; in through your nose, and out through your nose.
From a state of open and relaxed awareness begin scanning your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Notice any sensations you feel (without judging them) from your scalp, forehead, ears, eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth. Then move down through the rest of your body. You may scan several times from head to toe in one sitting, or, after scanning once, attend to places in your body where you feel the most sensation. Experiment with this tool and find the process that is most useful for you. This may be done first thing in the morning and/or at night before you retire. It also may be done at various other times during the day.
Spend regular time in nature – make a conscious effort to spend at least 30 minutes outdoors in nature each day if possible. Find a park, go for a hike or walk among trees or close to a body of water. Notice how your body feels when in the forest or by water. Focus on your senses rather than your thoughts.
Practice yoga regularly (at least 3 times a week) – There are many types of yoga available. Experiment with different styles and find one that works for you. Yin yoga is a good place to start, especially if you have an active mind that rarely stops chattering. Yin has a meditative quality, is usually done in a warm room and involves holding poses for up to five minutes so that connective tissues loosens and energy blocks release. There are many studios who now offer classes online for minimal cost.
Meditate daily(for at least 10 minutes) – You may be thinking: “I don’t have time to meditate”. That’s what I thought for many years until January 2013 when after almost burning out, I began meditating on a daily basis. I was and still am amazed by the benefits. Meditation enables me to be less reactive and more responsive in my interactions with others. I’ve noticed that at times it enables my brain to “split” so that when I’m engaged in an interaction, I also experience part of myself “sitting on my shoulder” observing the interaction. This provides me with the big picture and helps me stay calm and detached from the outcome. Daily meditation has enabled me to quiet my mind, freeing me from the chatter that is often not helpful in focusing and moving toward my goals.
Nurture your body on a regular basis –I find it helpful to have a total body massage every 4 to 6 weeks with a trusted practitioner. Some massage therapists are also healers and energy workers and I ask them what they notice about my body. These massage therapists/body workers can help you go within and get in touch with what your body is telling you. They can also help release energy blocks that may be negatively impacting your body and decision-making.
Another strategy I’ve found helpful is to ask myself/my body “how can I nurture myself today?”, listen to what comes up and reward myself. It could be a bubble bath with candles and your favorite music playing, it could be curling up and reading your favorite book or poetry. Whatever it is, listen to the message and if possible, reward yourself.