It’s taken me a long time to learn that self-care isn’t about pampering and taking a bubble bath. Instead, self-care is actually about inner work: changing your mindset to prioritise yourself in your own life, treating yourself with love and compassion, creating boundaries, making empowered choices, and filling your own cup first. I initially researched self-care strategies and rituals because of habitual burnout throughout my corporate career. However, as I began to explore further, I noticed many women around me complaining about the same issues…and we all seemed to have something in common—the disease to please.
Research shows that burnout occurs from an accumulation of unmanaged stress. This seems to imply that if we just get better at managing stress, we can prevent burnout, but that’s only partially true. The truth is that both external and internal factors contribute to burnout. For example, stress management is an internal factor….but getting better at managing stress when working in a toxic environment will not eliminate the risk of burnout. You may get better at coping with stress. You may even feel you are becoming more ‘resilient’. Still, when the system is rigged against you (as it often is within many organisations and workplaces – especially for women), burnout can easily creep up on you.
Many organisations and workplaces do not intentionally create a culture of burnout, making it even harder for them to stop perpetuating it because they don’t know that the way they are operating is promoting it. However, the evidence is clear that the patriarchy designed workplaces remain outdated. Suppose your boss only acknowledges you when you are working back late, working over the weekend, coming in early, prioritising work over your life, consistently sacrificing your time and working through your lunch break etc… In such a case, your boss could be seen to be promoting the type of behaviour that will lead you to burnout.
Let’s add one more thing to the scenario – your personality. Let’s say you have the disease to please; let’s say you base your self-worth on external validation and approval. You guessed it. You will be at a higher risk for burnout than your colleagues who may not have this people-pleaser personality trait. In over 20 years of working in organisations, I have never had a manager who walked up to me and said, “I’ve noticed you are always working back; let’s chat about your workload; I’m concerned we may be setting you up for burnout”. Instead, I have always been acknowledged or praised …, particularly with words such as “you’re amazing!”.
Was I, though? Was I really amazing for working myself into the ground? No. I wasn’t amazing. I was exhausted, overworked, anxious, insecure, a perfectionist, desperately trying to do the most beautiful job possible, but slowly killing myself trying to prove my worth and…. I was boundaryless. Throughout my career, no matter where I worked, I was one of the people who always worked late and sacrificed my weekends and my personal time….and I wasn’t alone. I noticed that other people did this too ….and we were the same type of person. While organisations and workplaces have a huge role in the burnout culture, why is it that some people will burn out and others in the same organisation won’t? Common personality traits and characteristics of those prone to burnout appear to be perfectionism, having a rescue mindset, being a giver (rather than a taker), low self-worth, being driven by external validation, and not having boundaries. Oh, and one more thing-being a woman.
According to research on burnout, women tend to be more prone to burnout than men. Why is that?
For many women, our value somehow lives ‘out there’, and we think we can only ever grasp it by ‘doing more’ for others, ‘giving more’ of our time and energy without necessarily being asked, and enslaving ourselves to living up to an image in our head of what we think we ‘should’ do and how we ‘should’ be. According to Psychologist Dr Frances Praver, “too many women are modern-day martyrs – they give too much, suffer too much, burden themselves unnecessarily, and blame themselves when things go wrong. When women weigh themselves down by the needs and desires of others, there is a slow, silent death occurring – that or they will explode.”
Why do we do this, and when will this stop? In her TED Talk “The Science of Empowerment”, Dr Tasneem Bhatia shared that our DNA is passed down generationally, and our DNA includes imprints of our thoughts. Knowing what life was like for our female ancestors – fighting for equality and, in some cases, basic human rights, a woman wasn’t a priority in most societies, let alone in her own life.
Interestingly, we are generations later, still fighting to empower ourselves and prioritise our needs. Some might say we are fighting their fight (picking up where our ancestors left). Self-care is particularly important for helping women prioritise their own needs. But, as Giorgio Galli says, “the future has an ancient heart”, and if a woman hasn’t had the opportunity to do the work and embrace her power and authenticity, it can be internalised by her daughter and passed down to the next generation. Mothers pass down their emotional landscape to their daughters. In other words, we are hard-wired to self-sabotage and give our power away if our mother did that.
Clinical psychologist Christina Manfredi says, “Every cell in our body contains our ancestor’s genetic and spiritual blueprint. As a result, historical information that goes back generations is encoded within our own DNA. This not only refers to the way we look or an orientation to certain health conditions but also includes the psychological stories of hope and fear experienced by our ancestors.”
The good news is we do have the power to change it all. According to Dr Tasneed Bhatia, there is a science to empowering women, and it involves “changing women’s chemistry – altering their DNA so they can embrace their power and authenticity. Without empowered and healthy women, societies fail, countries fall, and the children are just forgotten.”
Science shows that our thoughts manifest as emotions in the body and directly impact the structure of our brain and our DNA……and our DNA is passed down generation after generation. Some scientists say that it takes seven generations to change this pattern entirely.
Our thoughts matter.
As women, it is now more critical than ever that we practice real self-care – which I like to call inner care. However, inner care does not negate the external work organisations and workplaces need to undertake to change the systemic factors perpetuating burnout.
Inner care is about taking care of the internal factors that can lead to burnout. Inner care involves being mindful of our thoughts to help shift unhelpful thought patterns and change our mindset. Inner care is about setting and holding our boundaries, developing the courage to say no, taking time to listen within and honour our intuition. Finally, Inner care also entails learning to hold ourselves in high regard so that we don’t sacrifice our needs, self-sabotage or martyr ourselves.
We need to be vigilant about our inner care and hold external systems accountable for their role in burnout. Burnout is a serious matter and increases mortality by 35%! *
Self-care is not fluffy. It’s life-saving.
When we are vigilant about real self-care (our inner care), we can become positive role models for future generations – our daughters and their daughters (including our nieces and girls in our sphere of influence).
Given these insights from the science of self-care, I invite us to make International Women’s Day 2022 (on March 8) the catalyst for “no more burnout”. As we practice inner care and hold external systems accountable, we can vow to stop the normalisation of burnout, and become conscious ancestors.
Through the practice of real self-care, we can change our imprint and, in turn, empower future generations of women.
As I always say, self-care isn’t just about us. Instead, self-care enables us to reshape the future and change the world.
* Reference: Ahola, K., Väänänen, A., Koskinen, A., Kouvonen, A., & Shirom, A. (2010). Burnout as a predictor of all-cause mortality among industrial employees: A 10-year prospective register-linkage study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 69(1), 51-57.