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Warning, Engine Overload in 3… 2… 1… (The Dangers of Burnout)

by Jenny Copeland, PsyD

Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

~Albus Dumbledore~

 I am exhausted. There – I said it out loud. Some days my body feels as if it has been going full throttle for months on end, and the only thing that makes sense to my brain is sleep. This seems difficult because I cannot seem to shut my brain down or walk away from my ever expanding To-Do list long enough to rest. I know from experience that I am on the verge of burnout. More importantly, I am certain I am not the only person feeling this right now. To say this out loud, accepting that I have reached my human limits, strips burnout of its power over me. To accept the depth of the physical and emotional exhaustion without resistance will create the opportunity for change. As Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”

Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.” Warning signs and symptoms include fatigue, lowered immune system functioning, feelings of failure and self-doubt, isolation, procrastination, and taking frustrations out on others. (

Some experts have conceptualized burnout as a series of stages:

That certainly seems like a familiar experience. As a HAES® community, we are met with a constant barrage of anti-fat, weight-loss pushing, generally oppressive campaign of propaganda (and hate). Living with such conditions is nearly unbearable. Choosing to fight against them? Well, that is no easy feat. And it is a recipe for burnout. To choose to be a HAES advocate is to choose to put one’s self in harm’s way, whether through direct personal or professional attack, or the gradual wearing down of emotional and physical resources.

Truth be told, sometimes our efforts for self-care are simply not enough. Is burnout inevitable? No. Is it a risk for each of us in this community? Absolutely. And it is incredibly difficult for us to admit this to each other. It can feel like admitting weakness to a group of people we deeply respect and admire, who seem unyieldingly strong even in the face of the worst stressors. I would argue it is not weakness to acknowledge these concerns with one another. Rather, it takes just as much strength to know there will be days when we need to step away, or times when we simply cannot take one yet another battle on another front. And that is okay.

If you elect to engage in this act of radical self-care, make those moments really count. Use the time for reflection and rejuvenation. The calls it The “Three R” Approach: Recognize, Reverse, and Resilience. For advocates this may take a specialized approach, considering that we have chosen to take on eradicating most prominent sources of stigma and discrimination. As I sit here considering how to get back to my full advocate potential, I have hatched the following plan that I hope you can benefit from as well:

Remember why you chose this path. What brought you to this community in the first place? Was it your own experience of oppression? Had you witnessed the pain of loved ones and friends? Was it the many failures in weight loss that led you to seek out a better alternative? For some of us it takes a single event, while for others it has been the buildup of oppression over a lifetime. In either circumstance, something(s) started us down this path. Even more importantly, what has continued to inspire your passion and energy for this work? The reasons we started are not always the reasons we have continued, and having awareness of each is what keeps up moving forward.

Find out who your supports are. (Hint: they are not only found within this community.) Your friends and family do not always share the entirety of your beliefs. Who can you turn to that “gets” who you are as a person, who is intimately acquainted with your drive and circumstances and can help turn your world right-side up when everything seems upside down? I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people who do not always agree with me and ultimately enrich my life because of this. Without this I would not be able to grow as I do, nor would I be able to continue moving forward. To have these objective lenses in your life allows you to take a step back when you are in too deep, offering a change in perspective that may not be available otherwise.

Determine what kind of advocate or activist you aspire to be. There are many styles of activism, and certainly no right or wrong way to approach this work. Each of us takes on an approach genuine to who we are. If you are struggling in your individual style and whether it may be, for example, emotionally draining for you, then perhaps it is time to speak with others with similar styles to learn about how they manage. We can all benefit from the lessons others have learned and use that information to our advantage. Perhaps it is time for a shift in how you approach this work and your style of advocacy. Consider whose methods appeal to you and whether there is a way to integrate these into your individual style.

Aspire to never stop growing and learning. It is new awareness such as this which can break the cycle of burnout. Even the tiniest idea can reignite our passion, helping us remember why we want to do this work and what will keep us fighting well into the future. This week, I had the honor of witnessing one person’s “aha moment” for body acceptance – a truly pivotal piece of her journey, which quite literally brought tears to my eyes. Every step that we take, every fight we take on, creates opportunities such as these: moments for people across the world to finally realize freedom. It’s what makes the struggle worthwhile. Create the opportunity for you to turn on your light in the darkness.

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