About a year after I had begun counseling, I was finally in a position to make the changes that I needed to make in order to rebuild my life on a solid foundation. It had all started in the fall of 2009:
While I had been living to please people for years, I hadn't been truly overwhelmed until our senior pastor took two months off for a sabbatical, a spiritual refresher. I had almost begged for a sabbatical in 2003 and then again in 2007, but the church leaders didn't think it was necessary and didn't seem to understand why they would pay me to not be there. But in 2009, when our pastor had seen tragedy in his family and in the church, they began to understand.
Everything in me knew that he needed this time. He had been through a very difficult couple of years and wasn't acting like himself. He needed time to untie some of the knots in his heart and refocus on his wife and family and his own self care.
I determined to be both Pastor and Assistant Pastor until he returned. The normal pressures of my job remained constant, but I added the responsibility of checking my email constantly throughout the day, answering every phone call, and being "on" all the time. My sleep suffered. And, in turn everything else suffered.
The elders praised my leadership and wisdom during this time, and I felt that emotional inflation that I longed for. But it faded as quickly as it would come. It wasn't enough.
As a pastor, I had learned to suppress my feelings and to not express emotion in order to be strong and trustworthy for others to be able to rely on. But, in the previous 4 years, I had been reemerging, feeling again, and learning to recognize and express my emotion appropriately. All of that shut down again. I went into survival mode.
I ministered to others out of a numbness in my soul.
Though only those closest to me seemed to notice, I was dying.
When the pastor returned in October, he asked me how I was doing. I said, "Fine" and the catching up on things continued. He and I had grown to trust one another through our time together pursuing a doctorate degree. So, I wasn't lying, I was just carrying on as I had learned to, putting one foot in front of the other.
The next morning, during my prayer time, I typed out this letter to him. I am not even sure if I sent this or something similar:
I didn’t know how to say this in person when you asked yesterday, but I feel on edge all the time. I feel like I am one step away from burning out. I feel like...everyone wants a little piece of me. I feel like I am empty and when I get up early to pray or spend a moment to talk with Rachel that it is just a little sip of cool water and doesn’t satisfy, just shows me how thirsty I really am, and then I am pouring it out and become dehydrated so quickly again. I feel like I am always about ready to burst into tears or punch something in anger. I can’t seem to cry, so the only emotion that surfaces is the anger. ... I am empty and can’t seem to refill. I am trying to be refreshed and recommitted to doing the simple things which I know God will use to refresh me, but I can’t seem to catch up. I always feel like it is just out of reach and then the next phone call comes. … I have no sense of well being. ... Everything is laborious and it takes forever for me to think and decide and act.
Thanks for asking. I’m not sure what to do now. I am trusting that God will provide rest and refresh me by his Spirit.
My cry for help,
Pastor and the elders took it seriously and told me to take a month off during the Christmas season and two months off during the summer.
I began to go to counseling during this first sabbatical month and continued it for over a year. In the beginning, there was just an amazing freedom to speak about myself and delve into my own heart and soul, to let the tears flow whenever they wanted to with no reason in the world to hold back.
I was convinced that there was no way forward without dealing with whatever might surface. The counselor was great. He would listen and probe and listen some more. Eventually, when I was done unloading, he would gently guide my thinking or give me direction. But, he always began by allowing me to explore my own heart in the presence of God and so helped me not to be afraid of what I might find.
I found lots of pain and lots of grace.
My counselor affirmed what I knew to be true. I had to care for myself, my soul, my heart, even my body, before I could be of any use to help anyone else. I was at a pivotal junction in my life. I had felt hopeless and helpless, but was beginning to believe that God could lead me through this.
I learned to make simple changes that would redirect my path and bring me closer to health and healing.
If you have found yourself in a similar situation or are there right now, here is what I learned about myself and how to promote health.
First, I set and reset clear boundaries.This wasn't a one time fix it all. The boundaries kept shifting as I grew to understand myself and my needs and my capacities.
I had to say, "No," to good things in order to say, "Yes," to the right things, the best things, the things that offered me hope for the future. Anything that I was doing to please people instead of for the glory of God had to stop. Even when it came from my bosses, I would say, "No, I don't think that's best." If they still wanted me to do it, I would try to explain what things I would have to stop doing in order to do this thing and then follow their lead.
Every time we say, "Yes" to something, we are saying no to lots of other things.
I said, "No," to counseling parishioners and coworkers when I already had someone to counsel that day. I mostly limited the counseling sessions to one hour each day. It was all I could handle. I made sure I was home with my family two of the five nights during the week. I stopped staying up past ten or else I couldn't get up by 6 to spend time with God. I set up relational boundaries and limited some peoples' access to me. This was the hardest and most crucial because these were some of the same people who I had earlier depended on for affirmation.
Maybe there are some things that you just need to stop doing. Maybe that will be the key that changes how you feel and which direction you are headed. I needed to do this and more...
Second, I found things that were truly refreshing.
Music - I would listen to uplifting, positive music that made me feel good.
Exercise - I started running, moving, sweating. I had not felt so good physically in years. But, it also helped me feel better emotionally.
Create - Writing poetry, painting, drawing, computer design, photography. I tried it all and enjoyed expressing myself and my feelings.
Sabbath - Taking one day a week off, totally off. It was hard and many weeks I failed, but it was great when it happened. I used that time to decompress, disconnect, connect with my soul and connect with my kids.
Journal - I had been doing this for years, and it is probably one of the keys that kept me going for as long as I did. This allowed me to think and not judge my thoughts, just let them flow.
Prayer and Bible reading - Often in my journal, I would record my prayers and what I believed God was saying to me. I would also read the Bible, listening for God's word to me. This allowed my relationship with Christ to grow and develop and stay fresh, vibrant and relevant.
Talk to Rachel - Spending time with Rachel allowed me to have confidence that we were in accord, of one mind about the direction and purpose of our lives. Without this, I would find myself constantly wondering and worried. With it, I could relax and focus on the moment. We tried to talk each night before we fell asleep.
I don't know which of these things would be refreshing to anyone else, but these are the things that gave me more than they took. They refreshed and revitalized me.
Others are refreshed by yoga, walks in nature, time spent in solitude, time spent with certain friends, phone calls to a certain relative, jacuzzi time or time making music. The key is to find what refreshes you. What makes you smile just to think about it.
Use a scalpel, surgically remove those things that are most draining by setting clear boundaries and use that time to set up routines of refreshing.
Those things that refresh you, then, become the backbone of your life. They form the skeleton which provides the strength and support that everything else forms around. So, first thing in the morning, don't check your emails from work, spend time sipping coffee, listening to the birds and reading the Bible. At lunch, don't work through lunch isolated in your cubicle, pounding out one more email that has to get sent. Do a crossword, listen to some positive music, talk with a friend while eating a healthy lunch, walk around the outside of the building to get some fresh air, or take 5 minutes to meditate on a passage of Scripture.
Be patient with yourself. I had spent years getting myself to the point of burnout, listening to my counselor, I realized that it would take months if not years to rebuild my life on a new foundation.
After a year and a half of setting healthy boundaries and filling my life with things that were refreshing and revitalizing, I felt whole again. I was hopeful and had joy again. I felt positive about the future and looked forward to each day's possibilities.
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Trust God that He can get you from here to there. Whether you are desperate like I was or just feeling afraid that you can't do it all, begin to make changes that will allow you to obey God when He calls, to be who you were created to be, to Follow Your Bliss.
PS - Yesterday, I found this timely article by Craig Groeschel on the addictive need to please, and what finally set him free.