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.
What has changed? (since I wrote “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women” )
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”.
Leadership qualities such as collaboration, creativity, emotional intelligence, inclusiveness, and intuition (typically associated with the feminine) are being acknowledged as important and needed to solve complex issues of today such as climate change and systemic racism. See https://pamela-thompson.com/why-feminine-leadership-holds-the-key-to-creating-a-world-that-works-for-everyone/ for a more detailed discussion.
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.
 “Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, caretaking, or romantic relationships.” Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout
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.
About four years ago a friend told me about a weekend training which was the “way in” to being part of a new Women’s Circle that was forming locally. Being curious and relatively new to the area, I thought this might be a way to make new women friends. I eagerly signed up and on entering the room felt welcome and in the company of like-minded women. The facilitator began the workshop by creating a safe space for us all; one of confidentiality and respect.
At the end of the weekend, we were asked if we wanted for form a new Circle and I jumped in without hesitation. Little did I know the journey I was about to embark on!
After being part of a Women’s Circle I am a changed person. I now am more in touch with my feelings and have learned to trust my intuition and share my thoughts with others in the Circle and beyond. I have experienced each woman growing, stepping into who she is, and creating the life she desires from the inside-out. We have supported several women through separation and divorce, one has retired, and another is contemplating retirement. Women have tapped into their creativity. One is composing music and has started playing regularly at a spiritual center. Another is drawing beautiful mandalas and has recently been asked what price she would ask for them. We now plan social events from time to time to share playful and fun times together. I look forward to our bi-weekly meetings and being in a circle of women who truly love and respect me; women who I know will always share their truths and perspectives if I ask.
Jean Shinoda Bolen in her book The Millionth Circle – How to Change Ourselves and The World, beautifully articulates the power of a Women’s Circle and how to create and maintain one. Dr. Bolen “provides tools and inspiration for women to create new circles or deepen and transform existing circles into vehicles of societal and psychospiritual change.”
Based on my own experience I decided the context for my new book The Exploits of Minerva would be a Woman’s Circle with six women who have been supporting one another in a Circle for more than two decades through a variety of life transitions. Stay tuned for the launch coming soon!
I encourage you to check out Dr. Bolen’s book and google Women’s Circles if you’re interested in learning more. If you have experienced the power of a Women’s Circle, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.
You may be feeling heavy-hearted and overwhelmed by all the conflict in the world, challenges you have faced during the pandemic; and to add insult to injury, the recent invasion of Ukraine. You may be feeling exhausted. Feeling like you want to return to bed a few hours after awakening. You may want to shake off all this sadness and heaviness and return to a lighter and more optimistic way of being.
I feel you. Recently I returned from a road trip to visit a dying friend. It was so sad to see how weak and frail she was having lost 50 pounds in the past 4 months. She texted and asked me to give her 15 to 20 minutes before arriving as it took that long for her to recover from unlocking her front door and returning to her living room couch.
It’s been 10 days since my return, and it took over a week until I started to feel more like myself. What have I found helpful to lift the heaviness from my heart and body, and support the return of my energy?
What did I do to help process the grief and sadness?
- I listened to my body. When I felt tired, I laid down for a short while.
- I created more space in my days. Rather than have my agenda “packed full” I removed and didn’t attend events that did not light me up.
- I went for a walk in nature every day. When we walk in nature it clears our energy, reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, and strengthens our immune system.
- I faithfully did yoga three times a week.
- Rather that push the sadness away I tried to feel it and let it flood through my body. I’ve learned that resisting sadness and grief takes a lot of energy and in the long run it still lingers in my body.
- I went for a massage with a woman who is also an energy worker. I felt much lighter the next morning after the massage.
- I openly shared my sadness with people close to me instead of acting strong and soldiering on (a typical behavior I have used in the past).
- I find writing, journaling, and doing something creative therapeutic; it takes my mind off the injustices in the world.
- I put on my favorite music and dance around the kitchen.
What strategies have you found helpful to process your grief and sadness? I welcome your comments below.
Many people are talking about the “new normal” and what our lives will look like after COVID-19. Rather than returning to old beliefs, systems and ways of working, I view this time as an opportunity to internalize new beliefs, create new systems and ways of working, building on the lessons learned so far and based on the vision of a world that works for everyone.
One area that I feel strongly about is Work-Life Balance. Having almost burnt out several times in my life I know what it is like to feel SOoo tired and to push through fatigue to finish that one last “thing”, instead of listening to my body and taking a break. I’ve also witnessed younger and younger women clients losing their passion and burning out. Perhaps you relate.
Did you know that burnout is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide?
In May of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its classification of burnout from a medical condition to an occupational phenomenon. Their definition:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.” 
The importance of this change in the WHO classification is that it acknowledges that organizations and their leaders have a role to play in reducing workplace stress; rather than burnout being perceived as a personal medical issue, a sign of weakness and something to be hidden and ashamed of.
To learn more about how to know if you’re burning out and what to do about it see: https://pamela-thompson.com/how-to-know-if-youre-burning-out-what-to-do-about-it/
When you think about work-life balance what thoughts or feelings come up for you? You may have negative feelings about the term and believe it isn’t possible OR you may dream of living a life where you no longer are feeling there is so much to do and so little time but instead are feeling healthy, happy and fulfilled.
For me, work-life balance is both personal and elusive. Personal, because what work-life balance looks and feels like for me is different from what work-life balance looks and feels like for you. Elusive because many people speak about work-life balance and yet few are able to achieve or maintain it.
How can you as a leader integrate work-life balance into your own life and model it for others in the workplace? Here are some “tried and true” strategies:
- Count up the number of hours you typically work in a week. Is it more than 50? (Obviously sometimes)
- Make a commitment to reduce the number of hours you typically work weekly (choose a realistic number to begin with)
- Experiment with a work week when you reduce your hours. Then notice how you feel. You may wish to journal about it
- Make a clear differentiation between work and home time. For example, before leaving work say to yourself, I am now leaving work behind, or pick a point on your drive or walk home where you make a conscious choice to release work and step into “your” time
- Begin incorporating mindfulness practices into your personal life; e.g.
- on awakening while lying in bed do a body scan from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet noticing any tension, discomfort, heaviness. Breathe into those areas of tension, discomfort or heaviness and set the intention to release and let go of them.
- Start doing mindfulness walking meditations 3 times/week for 30 minutes each time. Some of my clients do this at lunch hour. Others after work. Notice how you feel before, during and after. Is there a cumulative effect?
- Schedule blocks of time in your calendar for you (e.g. work out at the gym, yoga class, lunch with a friend, concert with your partner)
- Unplug at least 90 minutes before retiring and encourage your colleagues to do the same.
- At work, encourage people to take breaks
- Set clear expectations with your direct reports and colleagues related to NOT checking emails and answering texts on evenings and weekends. Share with them the importance of them taking time for themselves and their families
- Have short meetings (up to 60 minutes max) with clearly defined agendas, and expectations so people know why they’re there, how to prepare and the expected results
- Encourage people to take lunch breaks
- Support people to take regular vacations and to NOT check their emails while on vacation (set up a buddy system so staff and managers can feel that the key aspects of their positions are being covered while they are away)
- Have yoga classes and/or a gym on site and participate in the classes/use the facilities yourself.
What strategies have you found helpful to create more balance in your life on a personal level and if you have a team, on an organizational level? I welcome your comments and suggestions below. Feel free to share this post with others.
*updated from May 2, 2016 blog post
 A tool from Easter psychology that I have found extremely useful for getting “out of my head” and into my body is Mindfulness Walking Meditation. Mindfulness practices focus on the senses and feeling sensations and emotions in our bodies. When we do a mindfulness walking meditation, we feel the ground beneath our feet, we feel the breeze against our face, we feel the cool air going from our nostrils down into our lungs. We smell the scent of salt or the aroma of lavender in the air and observe the scenery in front of us. We try to stay out of our minds and experience our senses. Rather than spend a walk in nature constantly thinking and processing all the things we have to do, instead we stay present and experience nature and all of its beautiful sights, smells, sounds and sensations.
Did you end 2019
feeling exhausted and burnt out? Did you set the intention that this year would
be different, that you would take more time for you and to spend with friends
and family? Are you finding that already you are slipping back into old
patterns of taking work home in the evenings and working on weekends?
I understand. I’ve been there. Early in my childhood I
internalized the belief that in order to be loved and valued I needed to
perform and achieve. And so I kept doing that. Setting one goal, reaching it;
then raising the bar and striving for the next one. Taking very little, if any
time, between my accomplishments to celebrate; until I became exhausted and
What happens when we
are driving and striving?
- Our agendas are packed
- We have little or no time for ourselves
- When we are speaking with someone, often half of
our brain is focused on them and the other half is focused on the next thing on
our to-do list
- We feel like there is so much to do and so
- We focus on our goals and become so fixated on
achieving them that we may miss out on other opportunities that come our way
- We often feel tired on awakening
- We may start to feel resentful, as we seem to be
giving to everyone else, yet no one seems to be there to support us when we
Do you relate? Living this way, constantly driving and striving, leads to adrenal fatigue, burnout, various types of cancer, and auto-immune disorders such as fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis (for more details on burnout and what to do about it – https://pamela-thompson.com/how-to-know-if-youre-burning-out-what-to-do-about-it/). When we work night and day, our bodies don’t have time to return to homeostasis where we relax and rejuvenate ourselves. As stress hormones constantly surge through us, our organs eventually burn out.
What does thriving
look and feel like?
- We feel happy, healthy and grounded with a balance
between “giving” and “receiving” and “doing” and “being”
- We feel open to possibilities
- We awaken feeling energized and excited about
the day ahead
- We spend time with people we care about
- We feel connected to something greater than
- We spend regular time in nature
- We exercise regularly
- We are grateful for the life we have
- We are clear on our core values and live life in
alignment with them.
Feel free to add your own descriptions to the lists above.
How do we move from
driving and striving to thriving?
- We learn to Listen
to and trust in our body’s wisdom – The first step in getting out of our
heads and into our bodies is a mindfulness technique called body scanning. On awakening, you begin
scanning your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and
noticing where there is any tension or discomfort. Then you breathe into these
areas and set the intention to release any discomfort. Another mindfulness
practice is mindfulness walking meditations.
I encourage my clients to begin doing this 15 to 20 minutes a day, 3 times
a week. It can be done at noon or during a break. Instead of taking a walk and
thinking about the next thing on your plate or reflecting on a stressful
conversation you had with a partner or team member, you focus on your senses.
You feel the wind on your cheeks, you smell the salt sea air, you hear the
birds singing, you see the beautiful vistas surrounding you. When thoughts come
into your mind you view them as clouds floating by and let them pass, returning
to focusing on one of your senses. When you do this, notice what you notice
during the exercise, after and the cumulative effects.
- When you are feeling stressed, Take deep breaths in through your nose and
out through your mouth; making a sound as you breathe out. When you do this
3 or 4 times you release oxytocin, a hormone that relaxes you.
- Each week
block off in your calendar all of the things you commit to doing for yourself
(that you enjoy). For me one of these is yoga 3 times a week at noon. It
may be going to the gym 3 of 4 times a week after work. It may be meeting a
friend or partner for lunch once a week.
- Set firm
boundaries. Learn to say no. This is important at work, and with family and
your energy levels and schedule your activities to capitalize on these. For
example, if possible, do your creative work when you are naturally more
creative. Schedule meetings after 10 am.
- Spend regular time in nature; walking, hiking, cycling, kayaking … . Nature is therapeutic. Based on several decades of research, the Japanese have evidence to show that forest bathing/walking among trees reduces your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells your body produces. For more on the benefits of being in nature check out: https://pamela-thompson.com/how-you-can-benefit-from-nature-why-its-important/
from technology for at least 24 hours one day a week (e.g. on weekends) if
your achievements, big and small.
It’s important to reach out for support to friends, family
or a coach, as moving from driving and striving to thriving, IS a journey and
it requires support from others.
For more practical tools and techniques to support you to be healthy, happy and grounded, I invite you to check out my book Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women – www.amazon.com/dp/B0145ZGDO2 that is backed up by evidence from neuroscience, eastern psychology and the health promoting and healing benefits of the arts. There is also a series of coaching questions woven throughout the book to support you to move from driving and striving to thriving.
I welcome strategies that you’ve found helpful in the comments below.