By Athlee Bowman
Pulsating whines hovered near my left ear, nagging me out of a dream state. I opened one eye, shut it, and groaned. Day had dawned, but nothing out there enticed me to get up, except…maybe the dog wriggling and whining in the doorway, big brown eyes pleading.
Every day started like this. My body felt like a rag. But duty called. I grabbed clothes, trudged downstairs, let the dog out, and shuffled to the shower making mental lists.
I was staring burnout in the face – an ugly, consuming monster that explained my inner turmoil. Happiness was at a low ebb, uneasiness spread to fear, sadness sank to sorrow, anger rose at odd times, and exhaustion was my constant companion.
Although I didn’t know what was happening, I knew that I was over-working. But as missionaries in Japan, overwork seemed normal. We needed to hang tough in a society where schedules ran by the minute. After all, if I didn’t do the work, who would? Somebody had to maintain my home, teach my kids, play piano for church, teach English classes, plan special events and…the list was endless, but I had to do it all.
Then, early one muggy Sunday afternoon, reality hit me in the face. A perky lady and I tackled potluck dinner dishes in our closet-like kitchen. As I collapsed against the sink willing my eyes to stay open, a wiry five-year-old brushed against my hip. “Tamo” wanted to help, but proceeded to hurl suds in a three-foot radius. I marched him out, yelling, “Out, out, out!” I fled for home, my emotions surging.
I was scared. I couldn’t handle even small problems anymore. I wanted to quit, curl up, and sleep for a year.
Then God graciously intervened. I was dangling from a limb, He knew it, and His timing was perfect. Our mission happened to invite a psychologist, “Dr. Dan,” to our spring conference to speak on burnout. He told us we needed to limit work and allow time to rest. Many countered with questions, “What about holidays?” “What if I am working alone?” They listed a long string of seemingly inescapable jobs.
Dan listened quietly, arms folded, eyes focused on the speakers with a patient, pondering gaze. His response was short, “You have a choice. Stress leads to burnout; burnout leads to depression. Next question.”
I squirmed and thought, “Choice? Do I really have a choice?” That day, I asked God to help me.
God’s answers but conflicting thoughts continued to wreak havoc. “Someone has to do the work; am I supposed to make myself a complete wreck? Is this what it means to work for God?”
While understanding my dilemma, my husband repeatedly told me, “You’ve got to learn to say ‘No.’”
“But what would people think?” Listening to myself, I realized that a people-pleasing attitude fueled my problem.
As I searched God for answers, four major problems surfaced:
1. A Warped Notion of God’s Will. I needed to focus on God’s will and say, “No” to interferences. Sure, I wanted to have Christ’s giving attitude (Phil. 2:5-7), but I had missed the big difference: Jesus had humbly followed His father’s will in everything. He showed compassion without bowing to all the crowd’s demands as I had (Jn. 6:14-15).
To follow God’s will I needed to focus on God Himself rather than on the work at hand; to be a God-pleaser, not a people-pleaser. Romans 12:2 (NLT) says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person.”
2. Lofty Expectations of Others. I needed to do some mental “spring cleaning,” trashing my high expectations of others and the resulting hidden anger. I learned that the major cause of burnout leading to depression was buried anger. According to Minerth and Myer in Happiness is a Choice, “The irresponsible action of holding grudges is what brings on the majority of depressions.”
“But, that’s not my problem. I’m not angry! Oops, wait a minute. Maybe I am.” Pain and anger collided in my brain, jostling for position. “I am angry that people ask me to do things and then do nothing themselves.” My anger was sparked by my high expectations. Though all people have expectations, many people head into ministry with preconceived notions. I was no exception. When I expected people to be super Christians, I was disappointed and then blamed them. I listed my unresolved, buried anger and asked God to help me forgive people. It seemed impossible, but through prayer and thought-control, anger dissolved bit by bit.
3. Fuzzy Relationship Boundaries. I discovered I had a bad case of displaced anger or not “owning” my problems. I had to learn to take responsibility for my problems and set boundaries in my thoughts and actions regarding others. What problems are mine that I need to fix and what dilemmas are others that I should prayerfully leave up to them?
In the book, Boundaries, authors Henry Cloud and Peter Townsend write, “Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible.”
I had fuzzy boundaries between myself and others; I needed to draw some distinct lines in my life. I was reminded of God’s two greatest commandments, which became my boundary-setting guidelines, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-38).
I love God by considering His will first. I love others, not by meeting their expectations, but by doing what seems best for them. I love myself by setting boundaries, thereby avoiding a physical or mental crash.
4. Time to Grieve Over Life’s Losses. I needed time to grieve. My mother had died and our daughter had left for college the year before I hit the burnout skids. I reacted to grief by becoming busier than ever. When I felt like sobbing in a corner, I found a project to fill the gap instead. I thought work would fill the gaping holes left by death and my shrinking family, but nothing filled those spaces. Instead, time to mourn and time to relax in God’s arms has healed the ragged edges in my heart.
Six months after Dr. Dan’s stress ultimatum” and my subsequent peace hunt, the sun shone again. My mental darkness lifted, the burnout monster faded into the distance, and a joy creature named “Hope” tiptoed back into my thoughts. That morning my husband noted the change, pulled me into his arms, and simply said, “Welcome back.”
The way out of burnout wasn’t an easy path to tread. Sometimes it seemed like a muddy track through a dark tunnel, but God was always beside me, teaching me, picking me up, and lighting the way with His smile, giving me hope.