Why do so many people sound burnt out in the run-up to Christmas?
A friend last night sat staring at her pile of 200 cards, that had cost her a fortune she didn’t really have in printing and postage, and nearly had a breakdown thinking about writing in them and addressing the envelopes. But her husband, who had been the one to send out the cards, has died recently, so she thought she should take up the burden.
Another friend talked of how she didn’t want to send a single card and secretly and shockingly to herself resented seeing people enjoying Christmas. Being in her 90’s she feared people would think she was dead if she didn’t send cards.
A third was practically glad her parents were dead and she had no children or grandchildren so she and her partner could do what they wanted.
And this is before we even started talking about the present buying, the wrapping, the decorating, the cooking, and everything else.
I’m a bit of an expert on burnout because I burnt out myself, and then, as one does, wrote a book about it, The Joy of Burnout. My view of burnout is that it is not about overwork, but rather that it happens when your heart goes out of a situation, but your identity is tied up in it, and you drive yourself to do it anyway.
And I think this is the problem with Christmas for so many people. The heart has gone out of Christmas, which, as everyone keeps repeating, looks like a shopping fest rather than a holy day. Yet we are driven to fulfill the requirements because of our beliefs or fantasies about what other people will feel or expect. And perhaps by a fantasy of that perfect Christmas we are supposed to have.
Normally, if your heart has gone out of a situation, the way to stave off burnout is to step back, consider whether you can change the situation, change your attitude, or leave the situation. Then you are free to say what I call The Great Yes, to recommit to the situation, perhaps by changing it or changing your attitude, or The Great No, to leave the situation.
This is more difficult than it seems when Christmas is all around us and inside us, and we don’t believe we can break the rules, change the rules, revision, or give it all up. We might not mind but others will. So we soldier on, push ourselves, and hope we will recover by New Year.
Being Jewish, it is easier for me, because I wasn’t brought up with Christmas. But I can still feel the tug of the culture threatening to overturn me.
When people burn out, the first lines of my prescription are: Stop. Give up hope. Keep the faith. This means that you need to stop holding together whatever it is you think is more important than life itself, and face the possibility that you will never do or accomplish or experience the things you are supposed to do, accomplish or experience. And then you need to keep the faith that you will be okay anyway.
I told my friend with the Christmas cards that she needed to put them all away, despite the fact that she had spent all that money, and had all those obligations, and give it all up. Then one by one, if it comes to her that she wants to send a card, she can. And if not, she never has to.
Her spirits lifted, and my bet is that she will send a lot of those cards anyway. But not all. Definitely not all.
If you are feeling great about Christmas, just spare a moment remembering the people that don’t (and might not want to fulfill their Christmas obligations to you) and then go ahead and enjoy what you are doing, and do as much as you enjoy even if it looks over the top.
But if you are not, yet feel you have to do all the Christmasy stuff anyway, take a look at whether you have any of these burnout symptoms.
Do you feel your fire is low? Do you feel disconnected from the very people you love, or perhaps angry, or resentful or painfully cynical? Do you find yourself doing more and accomplishing less? Are you getting ill?
If you have even one of these symptoms, then, just for a moment, put aside all your obligations and expectations, and imagine you will never fulfill them, nor will Christmas work out as you would like, and it will all fall apart. Get a clear picture of your worst fantasy of how that will be. Breathe, and keep breathing through it, until you feel you can still be okay.
Then see if you can find a better picture that really fits you and the way you live.
And then do what you want to do and not what you don’t want to do.
The world won’t fall apart, and you may even find the joy that a festive season is meant to be about.