Blessed by Burnout
By Leanne Di Bella
“Am I really making a difference in my students’ lives?” That weed of a thought was planted the year after what I expected would be my most challenging year as a teacher, the year of distance learning. Although I was in my 19th year of teaching, in many ways, I felt like a first year teacher again. The pandemic reset the experience clock. My colleagues and I faced an epidemic of new and difficult behaviors. Burnout set in.
Burnout is an imbalance at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional levels with psychological and physical effects that reverberate at each of these levels (Maslach, 1997, p. 236). Its hallmarks include cynicism, exhaustion, and a sense of inefficacy, according to burnout researcher Christina Maslach (1997, p. xxii). A worker’s most vulnerable window of time for experiencing burnout is within the first five years of the job but it can happen at any point in a person’s career. An unexpected event - like the impacts of the recent COVID-19 pandemic - can exacerbate this phenomenon at any stage. A widespread post-pandemic increase in burnout is being felt across all fields. In-person teachers experienced such a marked and sudden change to their work, it’s no wonder that burnout seems even more prevalent among teachers than in other professions. We’re on a new playing field– in many ways, working a new job. Novice teachers and seasoned teachers alike are now equally susceptible to a divorce from job engagement.
Maslach asserts that burnout is not necessarily representative of a lack of resilience in the individual but is a symptom of the imbalance in the system. A mismatch of workload, control, community, values, or fairness contributes to burnout (Maslach, 1997, p. xxiii).
Understanding burnout erases any potential shame for embodying it. However, blaming the entrenched system is unproductive. Instead, we must ask ourselves, how might we adapt the system and better support those working within it?
Taking personal responsibility over burnout, rather than allowing it to overpower me, was essential for my growth as a teacher– as a person. Like engaging with a nightmare image through active imagination techniques, addressing my burnout was a call that I, at first, refused. The self-work seemed too difficult, until I began to contemplate the alternative– ceaseless isolation, continued neck problems, growing cynicism, and bone-deep exhaustion.
Not only did I lack job engagement, but, like many of my colleagues, I found myself lacking life engagement, abiding in a dark night of the soul. I leaned heavily on depth psychology. Specifically, a deeper understanding of projection became my entry point for healing.
Projection is an unconscious mechanism by which one throws out that which they cannot yet own in themselves onto another person or institution. “You spot it; you got it.” Recognizing one’s projections is a difficult task. It acts as a teacher using the discovery method, requiring a student to muddle through a challenge so that the learning is more memorable and the student’s self-trust grows. Fortunately, projections come with some indicators. Unfortunately, perhaps, those clues are wrapped in the form of overreactions, uncharacteristic reactions, harsh judgements, and hidden agendas.
For example, I was running late to work one day. On the way to my school, I found myself stuck behind a slow car. Usually, I am the slow driver and, typically, I feel relieved to relax behind the slower-than-me anomaly. That day, though, I became frustrated at cars whizzing by me as I waited for a space to pass the slower vehicle. “Put your blinker on, and someone will be nice,” rang my mom’s soft voice in my mind. I did. No one was nice. Even the driver behind me, who was sure to be aware of my blinker’s pleading intent, moved into the space for which I had waited. So selfish!
Then came the unexpected.
The driver from behind me slowed down in the left lane, purposefully creating an easy opening for me to enter.
“Awww,” I thought, as I waved my gratitude and moved into the pocket provided. Then, “Ohhhhh!” My internal dialogue shifted. What did my uncharacteristic judgemental frustration reveal about the part of me that’s hard to face– that part that is like a child who made a poor choice out of a desperate sense of self-preservation? In this situation, I– eventually and reluctantly– chose to ask myself, what selfish part of me did I falsely see in the driver with whom I never even spoke?
This self inquiry led to an automatic writing exercise later, in which I wrote a question with my dominant hand and responded with my non-dominant hand. The automatic writing sample below is one technique for reclaiming projections, once aware of them. Triggers house projections, working like the alarm in the home of our psyche that is activated by a sneaky, unwelcome intruder. The trick is that this visitor is really a banished part of ourselves that has come up from the basement, where it likely was exiled during childhood, when we were at our most impressionable and most vulnerable. It was in hiding because showing itself meant the risk of losing the acceptance of those we love.
Inspired by Richard Schwartz’s work in No Bad Parts (2021), an excellent read for teachers who seem especially adept at viewing their internal world as a group of parts that are similar to kids in a classroom, helpful questions to ask in conjunction with automatic writing include:
- What part of me was overseeing the overreaction/ judgment?
- How old are you?
- Where are you in my body?
- Can you show me a scenario about _____________?
- How old do you think I am?
- What do you need to feel freer?
My journal entry went like this:
- Right hand: My reaction when driving was uncharacteristic. What part of me was expecting selfishness from the other driver?
- Left hand: The silenced, selfish part of you. I’m not allowed to speak. Right: How old are you? Left: 10.
- Right: What message do you have for me so you can unload your burden?
- Left: I am not allowed to have needs.
- Right: Where do you live?
- Left: Hunched in the shoulders.
- Right: Can you show me a scene when you weren’t allowed to have needs?
- Left: Mom and Dad are worried about your brother. You are invisible. I want you seen.
- Right: I’m sorry. I can see how hard that must have been. I’ll try to check in with you more now that I’m an adult. I don’t think you want me to be selfish. I think you want me to be unafraid to be seen. Thank you for carrying this burden to protect me.
The sense of invisibility from my personal history was triggered when cars whooshed around me as though I wasn’t there.
As a side note, here, too, blame is not healthy or helpful for anyone. I never expressed to my parents that I felt invisible. They made sacrifices and suffered in ways so that my brother and I don’t have to embody the same hardships. My parents were doing their best. Their parents did their best. No perfect parenting exists. I know that I am a better mother to my daughter when I have done the self-work that allows me to see her clearly, rather than projecting the disowned parts of myself onto her. I am a better teacher for my students when I have done the internally integrating self-work that helps me see them clearly.
We face a choice: engage with our projection, get to know it and why it protected us by exiling itself to the basement (often because it’s a part of us that feared the loss of love if it showed itself), and heal it; or send it back to the basement, pretending it is someone else’s problem and repeat the unconscious pattern of behavior by delivering the same projection again elsewhere. My conscious choice to bring my awareness to the situation, despite the discomfort, led me to be truer to myself. I felt lighter. I exercised genuine self-compassion as a result, and the natural byproduct is more compassion for others. According to Jungian analyst, author, and teacher, James Hollis, “[l]ifting our unfinished business off of someone else is a truly heroic and loving thing to do” (2023, p. 4).
The self-selected Study of Self is a rigorous and demanding ongoing course. Its rewards, though, are life-enlarging. After much practice reclaiming projections through diligence and radical personal responsibility, an earned recognition begins to develop allowing for understanding when one is being projected upon and attending to the situation with compassion, rather than taking offense.
For example, I experienced an interaction with a parent that had the potential to undermine our relationship. On the fourth day of a new year of school, a notorious mother sent me a message, noting that she had a slight concern. I braced myself for being judged harshly as a teacher, bristling before ever meeting with this parent in anticipation of the critical perspective on me that I expected to encounter. I relived the few days of the first week of school, scouring my memory for something I had done that could be perceived as wrong. Before the meeting, though, I made a decision. I would view the concern as a “bid for attention.” Borrowing a concept from the relationship expert duo, Drs. Gottman, I would “turn towards” the concern and look for a way to strengthen the parent-teacher relationship at this fresh start of the new school year (2022, p. 6).
The mom shared a minor problem that her child had experienced at lunchtime and how she wished her child would handle it. I reminded myself that we, as parents, all project. I gathered more information and explained that I needed time to consider the issue and address it appropriately for all concerned. She responded that she had respect for that, for me.
Because I chose not to enlarge any of the projection shadows at play, the resolution was harmonious. I saw this parent’s complaint as an attempt to handle her own feelings and treated it with compassion and curiosity, which was a benefit to her child as well. An experience that may have contributed to burnout was transmuted because I was able to reclaim my projections on this parent and recognize the possibility that she was projecting on her daughter and me. Would it be helpful to accuse her of projecting? No. Was the awareness important for formulating my approach to the situation? Yes.
With the constant and consistent work of reclaiming projection, I’ve learned to examine my extreme reactions in this relationship-rife profession as a teacher, whether it is toward student behavior, parent behavior, or administrator behavior. I’m human, so I project. I want to come closer to individuation, psychologist Carl Jung’s idea of wholeness, so I work to see and set free the imprisoned parts of myself. As an anonymous author wrote, “There is nothing more confining than the prison we don’t know we are in.”
Returning to the school site after distance learning, I felt, but did not fully understand, the transparent prison bars confining us all. Neither did I predict nor understand the post-pandemic responses I witnessed and engaged in at school. Not until I developed a consistent and constant practice of reclaiming my projections did all of the nonsense make sense. Patterns spinning around me screamed of projection. Kids unconsciously battled disowned power within themselves. During the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people in their lives who were supposed to have the answers– the adults– didn’t. Culture dictates that they couldn’t be angry at the adults, so they took their sense of powerlessness out on each other. Bullying and mean acts ran rampant. The students’ parents, being human, blamed (read “projected on”) teachers, and public vitriol increased. Teachers blamed administrators. The destructive cycle of unconsciously unloading our unfinished business on others has contaminated our shared world. Awareness, compassion, and action are needed for healing.
Projections sneak up on us, even when we have practiced recognizing and reclaiming many. The practice requires patience, like a young student who has learned one-digit by one-digit division must exercise self-patience to get familiar with this skill. The initial learning is important but still needs to be applied over and over. Those who have put in this kind of self-work may begin noticing when they are projected upon, a helpful perspective when responsibly applied.
Moreover, burnout itself can be viewed as a deteriorated projection. We enter our career with positive projections on it. When these projections fall away and we are left with the realities of the career, some beautiful and some ugly, we have a choice. We can make the career transition that is the healthiest choice in some cases; bring our genuine selves to our current career and examine it authentically, taking the light to the candle; or we can let it all burn down.
When my burnout began and teachers around me started leaving the profession, I feared for the future of education. Instead, I find that my personal psychological work toward wholeness allows me to make a greater positive impact than ever before, in and beyond my classroom.
As it turns out, the weed that burnout planted was fireweed. In nature, it’s the first life to grow after a wildfire and blossoms in stalks of vibrant pinks and purples. In human nature, where ashes of projection cool, new growth can be nurtured with vibrant results. Burnout can be a blessing when used as a catalyst for awareness, compassion, and action.
Just like strong first instruction supports mastery for our students, laying the groundwork of awareness and compassion creates a foundation from which action for the good of all rises. Rather than expanding in words on action, I charge the reader to take steps toward wholeness. Notice your own projections. Reclaim them, along with the lonely parts of yourself, using automatic writing as a powerful tool. With dedicated self-work, the wise teacher within will guide your right action.
*This article is intended to provide psychoeducation for self-help purposes. It is in no way a substitution for mental health services. A good burnout coach can provide invaluable support for healing, lifting you from a sense of isolation. If you are in unmanageable distress, seek help from a therapist.
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2022). The LOVE Prescription: 7 Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy. : Penguin Books.
Hollis, PhD, James. A Life of Meaning: Relocating Your Center of Spiritual Gravity. Boulder, CO, sounds true, 2023.
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. (1997). The Truth About Burnout. San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass.
Schwartz, R. C. (2021). No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma & Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. : Sounds True.
Copyright © 2024 by Leanne Di Bella. All rights reserved.