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#burnout #exhaustion #depersonalization #selfaware #selfcare #grahamstandish #counseling #victorstrecher #christinamaslach #samaritancounseling

By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA - Executive Director

Amidst everything written about how the pandemic has or will change us, have you noticed recent ones about people who aren’t returning to work, who choose to remain unemployed, or who are changing careers? It’s become an issue in businesses such as restaurants, hotels, mini-markets, and any number of lower paying entities.

It’s not just them. Many, many people are reappraising the kind of work they do, where they work from, what their work/life balance should look like, and even whether they want to continue the career tracks they had been pursuing prior to the pandemic. Quite a number realized during and after the pandemic that they no longer wanted the careers they had because they were burned out. They became deeply aware that their life wasn’t what they wanted it to be, nor that they felt it should be.

What is burnout? It’s very difficult to define. According to University of California, Berkley researcher and author, Christina Maslach, there are three critical factors she identified as part of an inventory on burn out she developed called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. They are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion is the easiest to understand and has really been almost epidemic during the pandemic. It’s feeling pervasively overwhelmed in ways that no amount of sleep, breaks, diversions, entertainment, exercise, and/or activity can relieve. Depersonalization is more difficult to describe. It’s feeling detached from ourselves as though we are numbly watching our lives from a outside. It’s common among people who have experienced trauma, and for many people the pandemic has been a slow, persistent trauma. A diminished sense of personal accomplishment refers to a sense that nothing we’ve achieved, nothing we’ve done or are doing, really matters. It kills our sense of self-worth and causes us to feel empty and unimportant.

I know these feelings intimately. I experienced burnout in 1983 after working for two years as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital, followed by 16 months of being unemployed. These experiences led me to do a lot of self-assessing and eventually led me to go to seminary, while simultaneously getting a master’s in social work, so that I could, in part, help people experiencing what I had experienced. My burnout led me to realize that there’s another component to burn out that researchers often don’t pay enough attention to: a loss of meaning and purpose. Victor Strecher, in his book, Life on Purpose, says meaning is a sense that I am on earth for a reason. He says purpose is the sense that what I do matters. When we’re burned out we feel as if nothing we’ve done or are doing matters, and that we lack a greater reason for living.

Many people are emerging from the pandemic questioning why they are here. They woner if anything they are doing really matters. They deeply exhausted, depersonalized, and as though they’ve achieved little with their lives. Burn out is a serious problem that can lead to increased levels of addiction, self-destructiveness, lethargy, and isolation, all while eroding relationships and engagement in life.

What do we do about this kind of burn out? My burn out transformed me, but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It led me to make significant changes in my life and instilled within me a re-determination to pursue a life of compassion, healing, and spiritual openness. It took a lot of chats with friends, family, pastors, and others to get me there.

Burn out is an invitation to re-evaluate and reassess what our lives are about. What kind of changes to they invite us to make? They can include:

  • Slowing down: Many people slowed down during the pandemic and fear a return to a 24/7, 365 culture. Overcoming burn out means being intentional in taking and making time for nature, reading, reflecting, praying, thinking, and being appreciative and grateful throughout our lives.

  • Becoming more self-aware: Most therapists spend endless hours self-reflecting. That’s not as true for the population at large. Often, we don’t like to explore the roots of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relationships, and more. Becoming more self-aware helps us break out of patterns that drag our lives down, and it enables us to make more life-giving decisions.

  • Caring for self: This may seem obvious, but few do it. In American culture we talk a lot about self-care and do very little about it. Perhaps it’s the American way of constantly veering towards extremes, which makes us feel like caring for self means we have to become Olympian in our fitness, eating, and more. Self-care simply means doing what’s healthy for us, even if it goes against the grain of our culture.

  • Caring for others: In study after study, it’s clear that the happiest, most content people are those who find ways to care for others. Why is it so important? From a spiritual, meaning and purpose perspective the answer is simple—we’re on earth to love and care, and when we do we end up doing what really matters.

  • Family and friends: Not all families are healthy, nor are all friendships, but it’s important to carve out time with others with whom we can laugh, do things with, and love. This may mean looking for new friends who can help us have healthy relationships and working on our families in counseling to create greater health. Much like what was said about caring for others, family and friendships are the primary people we can care for.

Reflecting on all of this, how can each of us turn our levels of burnout into insight that leads to a better life. Our therapists at Samaritan are here to help.

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The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

I’ve long been fascinated by people who’ve overcome despair, catastrophe, and trauma and forged new ways of living filled with hope, joy, gratitude, meaning, and purpose. I’ve spent a lot of years studying their lives.

Some have lived in modern times, but the ones who stand out to me are those who lived in history’s truly difficult times. Among them are people like St. Francis, who lived in the 12th Century. He had been a young, wealthy dilatant, preoccupied with drinking and chasing young women. Suddenly his whole life was turned upside down after being captured in the first moments of a battle he had no training or skill for. Spending a year in a festering, squalid dungeon, he re-emerged as a changed man who was ready to devote his life to compassion, love, and faith.

Another, Ignatius of Loyola, had been a magnificent and glorified soldier. During a battle his leg was shattered by a cannonball, which led him to spend more than a year in bed convalescing. He developed a new vision for his life and became a deeply spiritual man, eventually helping to found the Jesuits in 1539—a society for Catholics committed to education, self-reflection, and service.

The one who stands out to me the most is St. Patrick. There are so many fanciful myths about the man, but even when you strip those away, his story was amazing. As a 5th Century teen from a wealthy family in the southwestern part of the Roman province of Britain, he was captured by Celtic raiders and taken back to Ireland. He was forced to live as a slave for nine years, mostly as a 24 hour-a-day, 365 days-a-year shepherd.

Constantly starving and exposed to the elements, Patrick had to become physically, emotionally, and spiritually resilient. He had to develop strength he hadn’t had before. He also discovered God’s presence peeking through nature all around him. Responding to a dream telling him that a boat was waiting to take him home, he eventually embarked on a frightening march to the sea. When he got there, miraculously a group of traders were already there and agreed to take him back to Britain.

If you or I had escaped slavery, the last thing we’d want to do is to return to live among our captors. Amazingly, upon his return home, Patrick felt a call to return to Ireland as a priest and a bishop to minister to the Celtic people, who at that time were a fiercely tribal and violent people. What would cause him to want to go back? He spent the next ten years being trained as a priest and was finally named the Bishop of Ireland prior to his return. What allowed him to grow from his experiences rather than to be crushed by them?

These people inspire me. We’ve grown sensitive to people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our therapists do tremendous work with those suffering the trauma of war, abuse, severe bullying, tragedies and more. Still, there are some who face trauma and grow in response. They still have some level of PTSD, but that’s overcome by what’s called Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome (PTGS). Patrick was a person who clearly had PTSD, but he found a way to develop PTGS. He had resilience physically, emotionally, spiritually. So many of us struggle with life, especially in response to the twin traumas of our culture—pandemic and polarization.

How do we develop a resilient response to the struggles we face? Let me share some ideas:

Assessing Reality: Those who develop this kind of resiliency are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. They’re realists. They fully understand the situations they are in and accept them as reality. At the same time, they also recognize that they can create their own reality by how they respond to their situation. There’s the reality of their situation in life, and there’s the reality of how to respond to it, which leads us to…

Appreciation over Depreciation: Those with resilience learn to look at life with a sense of appreciation rather than depreciation. In other words, as bad as things are around them, they can be like St. Patrick, who began to experience God through the beauty of the surrounding hills, trees, grass, sheep, sun, moon, stars, and more. He experienced God in a beauty that contrasted with the ugliness of humanity.

Imagine a New Reality: Resilient people assess their present reality, but because they are appreciative, they can imagine a life beyond their present reality. They become intentional about crafting a different way of life. They choose to look for what’s possible, and as a result change their reality, even if it takes time.

Letting go of Loss: These people do recognize and grieve over what’s been lost through their turmoil and trauma. They don’t deny it, they work through it. And then they let go of the loss in order to move forward toward…

Obstacles turn into Opportunity: No matter how much we may want to change, we will always face obstacles. Always! The obstacles aren’t the problem. It’s how we respond to the obstacles that matter. Do we confront the obstacles and become stuck, or do we take advantage of them as opportunities to grow in new directions? My guiding metaphor for this is water. Notice how water reacts with obstacles. It either goes in new directions, finds a way to overcome them, or erodes them. Water doesn’t stop. Francis used imprisonment to grow. Ignatius used convalescence to grow. Patrick used his slavery and shepherding to grow. How do we use our situations to grow?

Resilient people aren’t necessarily special people. Instead, they are people who face the same dilemmas we face, or worse, and find ways to grow through them. Samaritan is here to help.

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Updated: Mar 16, 2021

By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, Executive Director

#mentalhealth #meghanmarkel #suicideawareness #emotionaltrauma #oprahwinfrey

Did you see Meghan’s and Harry’s recent Oprah Winfrey interview? It was a revelation,… and disconcerting. The couple verbalized what we at Samaritan fight against day in and day out—the social stigma surrounding mental health issues. This stigma creates a culture of crisis for millions of people every day who need help but are afraid to admit it or seek it.

Meghan’s suicidal admissions caught everyone by surprise, confessing that “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore… That was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.” She shared how she slowly started to collapse under the blanket of isolation that comes with being part of the royal family—what she called “the institution.” Making it worse was the vicious, and sometimes racist, criticism from the British press, blaming her for creating strife that she wasn’t even involved in.

She asked for counseling but was dismissed: “I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” She sent “emails and begging for help, saying very specifically, ‘I am concerned for my mental welfare.’” They agreed that her situation was “dispropor-tionately terrible,” but then wouldn’t help because she wasn’t an employee. Where could she turn? Seeking therapy on her own would have amplified the criticism because of the stigma once the press found out. You could just imagine the British press coming up with new names for her, calling her “Mad, Mad Meghan,” or “the Disturbed Duchess.”

Harry admitted that he was “ashamed” to ask the family for help because they simply didn’t understand how the life they lived, and the pressures that life created for Meghan, could cause someone to deteriorate mentally and emotionally. They had dealt with the pressures all their lives, so they lacked compassion: “This is just how it is, this is how it is meant to be, you can’t change it. We’ve all been through it.” In other words, “toughen up, Buttercup!”

She captured in a nutshell the ignorant bias of so many when it comes to mental health. So many people falsely believe that to be strong mentally means toughing it out. Toughness doesn’t make us better. It does the exact opposite. It makes us weaker by isolating us, shrinking our resources, diminishing our compassion and empathy, and degrading our ability to connect with others and create healthy environments. Most “tough” people live isolated lives. They may have people who love them, but their distance weakens them by making them afraid of deeper, more loving relationships. They’re afraid of intimacy.

It’s also easy to dismiss Meghan’s plight by retorting, “Look at how rich she is. I wish I had her problems. Boohoo!” Maybe her situation is different from ours, but that’s a shallow reading of her quandary. Instead, look at the similarities? How many people live within unsympathetic families? How many feel imprisoned by life situations they find demeaning? How many feel powerless to verbalize their struggles? How many have reached out for help, only to be dismissively told to “deal with it,” which actually makes them less able to deal with it? How many are afraid to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental and emotional struggles (let alone spiritual struggles, which we also help with)?

Meghan’s lament feels personal to us at Samaritan because she is exactly the kind of person Samaritan helps. Okay,… we don’t deal with royalty much, but we do help people who feel isolated, criticized, dismissed, denigrated, accused, ignored, abused, and so much more. We will often talk about how we help those with “hidden wounds.”

Meghan’s wounds were hidden. Who knew that her smiling face on the cover of People Magazine hid such despair? Who knew that beneath the millions of fashionable images on the internet was a woman considering suicide? Deep wounds like these are often hidden beneath smiling faces and private lifestyles.

Growing up I saw personally how beautiful houses and lavish lifestyles can sometimes hide deep pain. At Samaritan, we’re the ones willing to look deeper and respond with care. You can’t lift the lid off Samaritan and see the healing we do, but it’s happening every day.

So, reflecting on Meghan’s interview, what can you do to overcome the stigma of mental and emotional trauma and help others? You can help people like her by doing several things:

1. If you know someone who is struggling, never, ever tell her or him to “deal with it” or “tough it out.” Refer her or him to Samaritan or another counseling agency. If you refer someone to us and we don’t have the right therapist, we will find the right therapist. Little known fact: we are so committed to healing that if we can’t help, we will find someone who can. We’re Samaritans. What we care about is healing.

2. Modulate your own thinking about mental health issues. Work on recognizing that engaging in therapy is a strength. Remember that seeking counseling reflects great strength, not weakness. Think about it. If you are going to seek counseling, you have to overcome your own stigmas against it. It takes courage to do that. So take that courageous step.

3. Be a person who cares… be a Samaritan. Encourage people who are struggling to become stronger through counseling. Meghan showed great strength in admitting her struggles. Help others to admit theirs, and help them to find help.

4. Be strong yourself by seeking your own help. If you are struggling, reach out to us. Sometimes it only takes a few sessions for people to feel better through therapy. Don’t “tough out” your own struggles. Let us or another center help you.

5. Support us in our work.


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

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