Work Support – Avoid Burnout and Support YOU @ Work
Chapter 4: Managing Psychological Energy A Thermometer Check
Defining Psychological Energy
This chapter is about managing psychological energy and how to avoid burnout. We are all familiar with managing our physical energy, sleeping enough, eating well, exercising and staying healthy. Psychological energy is more than having energy to do things. It is our ability to cope with what life and work throws at us. It is our ability to be resilient and to stay connected and stable in our day. It is our ability to relate to ourselves and others with confidence, clarity and compassion. I picture psychological energy as being measured by a thermometer with a spirit level that has a line towards the top that is red and a line towards the bottom that is black, these are the two extremes.
Real World Examples of Burnout
Samantha is a self professed perfectionist. She goes the extra mile to get the job done and done well. Her colleagues like this, as they know that if they need something done properly they can go to her. When Samantha was on holidays her case load built up, so that the day she arrived back in the office a mountain of work was waiting for her. So Samantha got to work and forced herself to get the work finished on time. During the day a colleague came in and asked Samantha for something. Samantha was so busy she thought to herself “Can you not see how busy I already am?” Feeling resentful she gave in and did what her colleague wanted. Another colleague came in later and asked for something else. Samantha lost control and screamed at him saying “Can you not see I’m already swamped?” She felt bad afterwards for having lost control and letting the situation act as a trigger. When she went home that evening she indulged herself from the fridge with chocolate cake.
Paul was working on an important deal for the company. Everything had to be right, to be perfect. It was a legal contract therefore all the t’s needed to be crossed and the i’s dotted. Paul was very busy, so busy he was working sixteen hour days and driving his team to do the same. The contract was finally finished and send to the client. It came back a few hours later with the client highlighting a simple legal mistake. There was a witch hunt in the office. Who on his team was responsible for such a basic error? Paul was furious, he couldn’t sleep, he wanted retribution. He had meetings with everyone, he grilled his employees, he spent nights awake. How could some underling spoil his work, his image? When he found out who it was he was going to deal very severely with his employee.
David loved to perform. His passion was the stage, and he lived for the moment when the audience were captivated by his acting. He always felt anxious before the performance and yet once on stage he got very energised by the audience. After the show he felt a real emptiness and would spend the night drinking with his friends to “come down” from his work. The more David performed the more this emptiness seemed to grow, and the more he drank, until it became a habit and not a healthy one.
Movements on the Thermometer – What do they mean?
Let’s use David as our example worker. When David is busy he notices that he moves towards the top of the thermometer. He becomes more energized, and he really starts feeling more alive, in response to what he is doing. The adrenalin is kicking in and his stress levels are elevated. When he’s relaxing or sleeping his energy falls down the thermometer toward the bottom again. His adrenaline drops and so does his stress level. Somewhere in the middle he is centred, where he feels anchored, at home and in control of himself.
The movement between the top and bottom of the thermometer is a standard psychological shift of expansion and then contraction (integration), much like waking up and falling asleep, and is a requirement for a healthy person.
When it becomes Bi-Polar
When we swing beyond the red line at the top and the black line at the bottom of the thermometer this is referred to in its extreme state as a bi-polar movement. A person with bi-polar illness can’t anchor themselves in the middle range between the red and black lines. They swing from elation to depression and back again with no ability to control that particular movement.
The problem for a person is that when they go above the red line, although they are still energized, there are now additional unconscious forces in play. These unconscious forces are:
- Needing approval from others from the work you are doing
- Wanting to be seen as successful
- Hoping to be recognized for how accomplished you are
- Needing everything to be perfect
- Fear of errors and thereby failing in some way
Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, would say the “unconscious childhood / father / mother approval complexes start to kick in.”
This is what takes a person above the red line. So even though the context is still the same and someone is doing something that they might even love and have a passion for, something has changed in the experience – there is a wildness and anxiety in the person that wasn’t there before they reached the red line.
Going past the energy
I call this ‘going past myself’ or ‘going past the energy’
It basically feels like something else is taking over and that a person is no longer centred or present in the experience. There is now an underlying anxiety and emptiness, although this can be hard to quantify. When someone is really busy, it gives them a high – like being elated. What happens then, of course, is that after the work has finished, there is a let-down. This expansive phase is like a hot air balloon just waiting for someone or something to burst it!
Into the Attic
What’s it like above this red line? I think of it metaphorically as the attic in our house where all the weird things happen! It’s represents a non-integrated space within our psyche. For some people its where they live a rich fantasy life, for others its an over busy work life. I love the story of the person who spends all there time in the attic dreaming about life. Often they are referred to as a bit neurotic. The psychotic person actually lives in the attic and a good therapist charges them both rent!
In our examples a person loses their temper or does something impulsive that they aren’t in control of and later regrets their behaviour. With Samantha she was triggered by the second colleague, who asked her for something. Triggering occurs when a person is already stretched emotionally and someone does or says something, to push a psychological sore spot. We all have these sore spots that come a possible negative self-image. Often in childhood these “self esteem killers” are taken on board as part of our make-up. For example:
“Your a lazy good for nothing”
“You’ll never amount to anything unless you do that I say”
“I’ll only love you if you please me”
Accidents can happen
Accidents can also happen when a person is above the red line. Carl Jung describes our psyche as looking for a release or we’re just not paying attention and something happens to knock us down. This is a really interesting phenomenon as most people like to then blame external forces rather than co- responsibility.
If the energy has spiked above the red line, when it drops, it doesn’t just drop somewhere to the middle range on the thermometer, it drops all the way down past the black line.
When this happens, a person can feel exhausted, burnt out, grumpy, negative and very tired. People often say: “I don’t want to talk to anyone or see anyone. I just want to be alone.” In our examples Samantha loses her temper, Paul wants retribution and David turns to alcohol.
Over time this bi-polar movement can become a habit, where there is a constant swing between the red and black lines and no anchor in the middle.
When the energy drops below the black line, psychologically it almost takes a person back to an earlier stage in life, a stage when they weren’t receiving the affirmation, love, understanding or approval that they needed.
When they hit that deeper psychology within themselves, they don’t just experience being tired as normal after a long day at work. There is an added element to the tiredness, or the grumpiness, and the sense of depletion. That added element indicates that the pendulum has swung from spiking above the red line to dropping down to the other extreme below the black line.
Burnout and addiction
Often people either spend too much time in the expanded states (above the red line) to avoid the low recovery ones (below the black line) and this can lead to burnout and sometimes addictive behaviour. I know many people who spend all their time doing and working (workaholic) so as not to have to feel the emptiness below the black line and what it represents. And the opposite is also true for some people who are depressed and have no energy and spend too much time below the black line.
This is often where addiction can arise. This movement is typified by a night on the town where we drink too much and get high in the evening followed by the low of the hangover the next day. Its easy when we are experiencing a low state of psychological energy to look to things such as comfort eating, alcohol, drugs, or sex to take a break from it all. All addictions are often a way of looking for nurture in just the wrong place!
My goal in presenting this thermometer image is to bring clarity and awareness to the process that can happen in a person’s working life. I am always seeking to find the middle range in my awareness – the place where the thermometer doesn’t spike above the red line or drop below the black line. Sometimes I refer to this as managing psychological energy so that the old wiring based on our complexes doesn’t affect current performance.
Simple Anchoring exercises to avoid burnout
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Often to stay centred during a working day there are a number of simple techniques you can use.
For example do a ‘Thermometer Check’:
- Pause and take a deep breath, from your chest all the way into your stomach and out again. (When we are stressed our breathing often becomes shallow)
- Visualise the thermometer, and ask yourself, where is your psychological energy now
- If it’s too high (above the red) what nurturing steps can you take to re-align yourself back into the optimum range?
- If it’s too low below the black what energising steps can you take to bring you back into the optimum range?
Example Solutions for how to avoid burnout
In our examples there are a number of steps to resolve the situation that Samantha, Paul and David are faced with. First they should become aware of where they are on the thermometer (the thermometer check). Secondly they need to create a boundary around themselves psychologically. I often quote the phrase “Anger is my boundary”. Credit for this comes from Julia Cameroon’s book “The Artists Way” where she explores the meaning of anger as an emotion. If every emotion has a purpose then anger and all its lesser shades, (boredom, frustration, irritation, grumpiness) have something to tell us. So recognising when anger or irritation is happening tells a person to focus on his boundaries. Samantha, Paul and David need to create this boundary between what they are experiencing and the outside world. The boundary acts as a buffer, so they become less likely to be triggered by the negative experience.
The next step is to communicate their thoughts and feelings, based on where they are on the thermometer, to the people around them. In Samantha’s case she might say “Today I’m totally swamped with work, I can’t help you but I’ll do it tomorrow”. Paul might say to the team member who made the mistake “I feel very angry that such a simple mistake was made, we all need to focus better in the future”.
The boundary also gives them the space to recognise that they are responsible for what they do with their inner feelings and thoughts.
Decorating the Basement
In many psychological and spiritual traditions this place below the black line is referred to metaphorically as the cave or basement in our house. This is where the complexes live. The parts of us that are split off from our main identities are locked in the basement, but still haunt us in various ways!
Want some deeper insight on how to avoid burnout?
Eckhart Tolle author of “The Power of Now“ calls the area below the black line, the pain body. Its easy to know when you are facing burnout because that’s when the negativity comes in. And its not just a critical voice that appears now and again, it becomes an ‘unhappy me’ story that takes on a life of its own, engulfing and overwhelming your ‘positive story’.
The pain body represents the sense that we’re not good enough, that we’re not going to succeed, that we’re failures and that we don’t deserve to be happy. Ultimately its like an auto-immune disease, where our system is attacking itself psychologically.
These ‘negative voices’ are often the old interjections of the younger person in our psyche, who was brought up to believe these negative views. Wherever a person may have picked up this attitude, whether it was from family of origin or in school, college or through negative relationships, they unconsciously incorporate it into a sense of self and believe it.
An internal complex is a part of a person that is still alive within the psyche, that believes that they are going to fail, and that is ashamed of past failures – a part that never felt good enough. It is this internal complex that sometimes comes alive in the work they do and they then start to spike above the red line. You could almost say that the pain body sets the bar too high because it wants to fail. So no matter how good a job a person does or how much they try, they always feel that it isn’t good enough. That in turn supports a sense of not being adequate and therefore they try to over compensate.
The Ego Threshold
So the next day, when they drop below the black line, the energy drops below an ego threshold and the unconscious complexes come up – you could almost say they ‘possess’ a person to some degree. The trap door in the basement is open and a person is pulled in. Often a person then feels emotionally and cognitively beaten up, telling themselves that they could have done better.
I think that the thermometer with the red line on top and the black line on the bottom is a really helpful image to keep in your psychological toolbox. You can take it out metaphorically during the day, stand next to it and take a measure of where your energy is at any given time.
Learning to communicate to others what your are feeling or thinking, when you are above the red or below the black is another vital skill.
You may not have the same psychological underpinnings that I’ve just described, but if you find that you spike above the red line and then rebound below the black line, you are experiencing a similar process. To bring that to your awareness and to use it as a measuring stick, you can then stop yourself from spiking and then regressing by anchoring yourself in a more stable way.
The skill is when working, and you have learned to be aware of when these unconscious energies as they begin to come into play, to not allow yourself to get carried away by them. If your energy drops afterwards or the next day, it doesn’t quite drop below the black line, or even if it does, and you become aware of it – you can bring yourself back into your optimum range.
You can say to yourself “I just need some time that day to restore my energy.” The more you bring that measuring stick with you in your pocket to work, the more you will be able to find a middle range. Instead, you will find that you have a greater sense of balance and centeredness and will be able to extend yourself to others without losing touch with your own core sense of well-being.