I am frequently asked how to prevent burnout if you work in a helping profession. Recently I read an excellent book, “Give to Your Heart’s Content: Without Giving Yourself Away,” by psychologist Linda R. Harper. Her book discusses giving styles and describes how each style either increases or decreases the risk for burnout.
Prevent Burnout By Giving To Yourself
Unlike popular culture that often implies that all self-care is selfish, Dr. Harper differentiates between “self-centered” and “self-nurturing” actions. She says true self-nurturing involves giving to one’s body, mind, and soul. Her book includes a quiz to assess how well you are doing in each area. “Body Signs” that you need more self-nurturing include: Lack of energy and enthusiasm for starting your day; trouble sleeping; and upset stomach. “Mind Signs” that your giving is hurting you include: Feelings of resentment; anger outbursts; and forgetfulness. “Soul Signs” that something needs to change include: Fantasies about escaping your current life situation; overeating; and compulsive behavior such as drinking, gambling, or sexual behavior. At the conclusion of this section, Dr. Harper suggests concrete ideas to incorporate self-giving into your every day life. Examples include: Giving yourself the gifts of doing one thing at a time; stretching a self-imposed deadline; saying “No,” to things you don’t really want to do; slowing down; and enjoying simple comforts.
Prevent Burnout by Giving Unconditionally
One of the key ideas in Dr. Harper’s book is the idea that giving conditionally is a big setup for burnout. To prevent burnout, she makes a persuasive case for unconditional giving. The book includes quizzes to evaluate whether you are currently operating as a Trader (someone who focuses too much on getting a fair deal or a fair exchange), a Martyr (someone who feels drained by the perceived demands of others and unappreciated as silent sacrifices go unnoticed), or a Controller (someone who focuses too much on specific outcomes or results). Dr. Harper says you can move toward unconditional giving that is also authentic and joyful, and she tells you how to do so. For example, some specific suggestions she makes:
Accept a gift you will not reciprocate evenly.
Purposefully give unevenly.
Discover what comes easily to you and apply these innate traits to your gift-giving acts.
Limit the options you give others to include only those ways that you really want to give. (This one isn’t an option in many job situations).
Recognize that the fruits of your gifts may not be observed in your lifetime.
Even after all the years I’ve invested studying how to prevent burnout and working with helping professionals on issues of sustainability and job satisfaction, this book impressed me with new ideas and specific practical steps that you can implement to stay enthusiastic about being in a helping career. I highly recommend it.