Alexandre Coimbra Amaral
“Don’t allow anyone to teach you how to be a nice person, a person who accepts violence and who unlearns how to respond to it.”
There is a voice in my head – call it karma, original trauma, debilitating anxiety – that says I don’t know how to defend myself. This voice tells me to be silent in the face of conflicts, to ignore discomforts and to withdraw attacks.
At different times throughout my life, that voice took over the air I’d breathe. It stifled my instincts, bellittled my intuition and drove me away from myself.
During the last year, that chatter voice started taking over over my work, my writing and my body, little by little, day after day. In the last few weeks, it’s debilitating me, leaving me unable to work, socialize, or even enjoy the sun that is finally back to this corner of the world.
When facing the situation that made the chatter emerge, I did what felt sensible: I defended myself against a public attack that was made to my work, in Portuguese. I have never said a word about what happened publicly because I am terrified of controversy and have a chronic aversion to conflict.
I tried to let it go away.
But it didn’t.
Ever since, every now and again, I would receive messages from people who felt they had seen something being indirectly directed at me on social media, stating I was someone who “talks about burnout just for the likes” , and someone who “hasn’t really recovered from it” .
Throughout this year and a half, I’ve tried not minding about these rumours.
I’ve blocked the creator so I wouldn’t have to see them.
I desperately wanted to believe that everyone who talks about the subject is in the same page. I refused to believe that hostility existed anywhere in the world, not only in classrooms or in multinational corporations, as life had already shown me.
When feeling of threat is overwhelming
In my online course about stress with Dr Cibele Castro , we talk about the difference between the occasional stress and chronic stress, and explain why the latter is harmful to our health and quality of life, and how a persistent sense of threat can destabilizes us.
It took me a while to realize that I was feeling threatened on a daily basis in my work. I already knew that every action can generate a reaction – I’ve been writing about my experience with burnout for six years and I’ve already seen doors closing in front of me. I’ve already reactions from high ranking people who wanted to deny my own experience. But until then, all that came from the corporate world, from which I’m relatively protected nowadays.
I heard something that will stay in my memory forever from the Brazilian psychologist Renê Dinelli, when we talked about burnout among teachers at the II Burnout Awareness Week. Renê said that one of the greatest sorrows for teachers comes from realizing that some of the people who they see as a colleague are actually behaving as their adversary.
I wasn’t made for direct combat. I’ve turned down invitations to events and lectures because I knew I’d have to share the stage with people who deny that burnout even exists, people who think that burnout is a sign of weakness or that talking about co-responsibility is playing victim. I am aware that I lack the emotional strength, the quick wit, the eloquence or the patience to convince anyone so far out. Out of self-preservation, I choose to dedicate my time, attention and service to those who already feel what’s true in their skin and in their daily lives.
Turns out, now I’m learning, I don’t always have that choice. As much as I preserve my days, my relationships and my partnerships as carefully as possible, that doesn’t make me 100% immune. We will never be completely immune.
On the last day of the III Burnout Awareness Week , I got a message from a follower. Wishing to get close to me and create a bond through the ancient art of gossiping, she told me about an exchange of messages with that same person whose rumours were crushing my self-esteem under the surface. In the exchange of messages, what was evident was not only anger, but fury directed at me. Statements that I don’t know the first thing about burnout, that I’m a fraud, that everything I write is a lie.
I wish I could translate the feeling of having the worst things you ever said to yourself said by someone else.
But I can not.
Once again, I pretended it was nothing and tried to let it go.
I had a panel starting in just a few minutes. Believe it or not, almost everything went wrong with the panel: the panelist was practically unable to join, the streaming system was down and the recording was left with an unfixable bug. But the talk went through, it’s available on Youtube and the content itself – which is what matters – is exceptional.
A few hours later, when I was just about to start the second to last talk of the 20+ in the event, one of the people who helped organise raised a question regarding the amount if live talks, considering that the pace of the week is maybe too intense, questioning whether this is the message we want to send for those who watch us. The argument is absolutely valid, precious and has guided a lot of our reflection for the next editions, and this person continues to be a great friend and partner of mine.
But in that minute, all I could think was,“I really am a fraud.”
I collapsed in front of her, I delayed the next panel by half an hour. I had to disconnect to breathe, I even considered not returning to the event. For a good few minutes, the ground dissolved beneath my feet. The rumours were right. What was I thinking, what was I doing with my life, what was I doing to people?
With the help of my boyfriend, who helped regulate my breath and reminded me of who I truly am, I went back. The event organisers and I talked, cried, laughed and celebrated the power of our candid partnership. The following panel, about the importance of a support network in mental health, I was able to have with me the friends who are now my mental health support network . It was something very special to celebrate.
Stuck in January
The event passed, but the winter in Holland and the lack of sunlight wouldn’t go away. January, February, March, April, May… until a few weeks ago, I got used to saying that I felt like I was stuck in January, and I thought that was just about a never-ending winter season.
When we pay attention to our words, we realize the power they have and the answers that lie in them.
Whenever I said I was feeling trapped in January, I didn’t just mean winter. Part of me got stuck in the pain I felt at that time because I didn’t do anything with it.
Once again, someone hurt me, and I wanted to pretend nothing had happened.
The pain that I’ve been carrying, for over a year, reminds me of the pain that I’ve carried as a child, when I was humiliated everyday at school, and the pain that I carried when the organisation that burned me out threw my self-esteem into a blender.
It’s not just the pain of the event.
It is the pain of being powerless in the face of it.
Face it or let it go?
Since this all started, people who love me have told me to let it go, that it was no big deal. I tried to follow the advice that was given with the best of intentions.
Turns out, it’s up to no one but myself to decide what to let go and face headfirst.
On some of the occasions where I’ve decided to use my voice and defend myself, I was badly defeated – that happens when we don’t practice.
Suing the owner of the company where I burned out was unprecedented in my history, my family’s and even his, who until then had not even responded to a lawsuit as a defendant. Facing the truth about a company who seemed such a wonderful place to work in the eyes of so many people (and in my own eyes for a good part of the time), cost me friendships and professional contacts.
I literally had to start over professionally. And as much as it causes immeasurable financial and emotional damage, I guarantee you that it saved my life.
In fact, I am no longer interested in looking at what I lose when I use my voice.
Because what I get in return is the only thing that really matters.
As hurtful as it all was, it was also a wake-up call to the importance of knowing who is worth my time, energy, and attention. I have with me friends, partners and colleagues that I deeply admire.
Every relationship deserves time, care and attention – and I’m certainly not impeccable with them, but I hope every person I am with with knows how special each one of them are to me.
These people have helped me accept the fall, go through the mess and regain strength to come back, stronger than before, more powerful than before, braver than before.
Ever since I started talking about burnout and mental health professionally, I’ve created an internal narrative that, speaking of this subject, I needed to be always well. As if going through a mental health crisis were, above all, a sign of incompetence.
No one has the right to step on my dreams and say I’m a fake
In the Mental Health at Work course , there is an entire module dedicated to stigma in mental health. I talk about psychophobia, about institutional stigma, how prejudice manifests itself and how to combat it.
Look how pervasive this is: even studying and teaching it, by considering my crisis as a sign of incompetence, I am reproducing the stigma. Without realizing it, I perpetuate the image that those who are productive have more value than those who are not. I minimise the abuses I’ve already suffered, thinking I should have more resilience, instead of celebrating my total intolerance for them, built at so much cost over all these years.
Because with all that is introjected in us, psychophobia becomes internalized.
It was during these weeks of crisis that I heard that internal, fearful chatter that reproduces the perverse in an attempt to protect me from it. These last few weeks, that chatter has been asking me if I really know what I’m talking about, if I’m not really a fraud for not feeling well, and if I’m not doing a disservice to the people I intend to serve. This voice asks if I really had two burnouts, if burnouts can be numbered, if I really recovered from it, if I create content to boost my ego and get likes. That voice introjects the abusers I’ve had and slams their cruelty into all layers of my psyche.
I had to be silent and willing myself to bear listening to it. I needed to put distractions aside and be a detective of myself to investigate what sounded like and why it reverberated.
I needed to write all of this, because that’s what I do: I write.
And when I write, as if by magic, a path of bravery materializes before me.
I still need some time to rebuild what had been slowly being crushed without me noticing, but this time I feel much stronger than before. And I know I’m not alone.
I will continue to take a break from social networks and work until, possibly, the beginning of July.
Burnoutados Anonymous will happen: we will have the 36th meeting on 06/30. Registration here.
When I feel strong enough, I’ll come back to update this text and update you.
Take care, listen to yourself, and allow yourself to use your voice.
Carol Milters 💛