A recent LDSLiving.com article, “What to Do When You're Overwhelmed at Church,” ended with a simple survey. It asked one question: Have you ever experienced spiritual fatigue or burnout? Over 1,900 people took the online survey, and a whopping 95 percent said that they had experienced burnout.
Ninety-five percent! Houston, we have a problem.
But why is it so easy for Latter-day Saints to get to the point of burnout when it comes to their faith? A lot is expected of us—donating one-tenth of our income, hours of service in our callings, the expectation to “multiply and replenish the earth” and not delay marriage, three hours (minimum) of church attendance on Sunday, not to mention leadership meetings, activities, daily scripture study and prayer, journal writing, food storage, humanitarian work, missionary work… the list goes on and on.
And we expect a lot of ourselves; we want to serve God and serve each other. We want to be obedient. But sadly, a failure to live up to these ideals can elicit feelings of worthlessness, discouragement, and shame.
The Cause of Our Burnout and Unhappiness
In her book Daring Greatly, best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, defines shame as an intensely painful feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging. She also identifies it as a core human emotion. Guilt says “I did something bad,” whereas shame says “I am bad.” According to Brown, the most common things that cause shame are situations that threaten our ideal identity—how we want to or don’t want to be perceived by others and by ourselves.
This concept is particularly relevant to Latter-day Saints because our ideal identity is, well, unrealistic. Part of the trap that I’ve seen in my own life and in the life of my LDS clients is that we forget that the ideal that we strive to become is not actually attainable (at least not anytime soon and not without serious help from our Savior).
That’s why it’s called ideal and not real. Burnout and religious fatigue can happen when we put pressure on ourselves to reach that ideal.
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Get more advice from Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW in The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women
As a wife, mother, clinical counselor, and musician, author Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks understands better than most the demands placed on women in the Church, and she has spent years providing clinical counseling to Latter-day Saint women and families. The Burnout Cure dispels common cultural myths that often leave women feeling “never good enough.” Through scriptural quotes, personal stories, and clinical examples, Dr. Hanks offers a bevy of tools designed to help sisters identify and meet their emotional needs, to accept their limitations, to let go of the guilt and perfectionism, and to lean on the Lord.
Here’s a personal example, which ironically occurred after I finished a week of training with Brené Brown. My husband picked me up from the airport. He had been working out of town a lot, so I appreciated the fact that he was in town and was willing to pick me up.
He asked me about my week. I started sharing some of the amazing aha! moments that I’d had, and then I added, “But it was really tough to be all alone, with no one to celebrate when I received such great news!”
His face looked puzzled, and he asked very hesitantly, “Uhhhh, now what great news are you talking about?”
Shocked, disappointed, puzzled, I looked at him and said sarcastically, “Oh, just that I was offered a national book deal, that’s all.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” he said sheepishly, and after a long pause asked, “Now… what was that book about again?”
I was crushed.
We had plunged into a shame spiral. My ideal of having an amazingly close eternal marriage was threatened because I felt like my husband didn’t seem to know (and care) about the details of my life. He was feeling shame because his ideal was on the line. He wanted to think of himself as an attentive and caring husband, and this exchange seemed to highlight the disconnect we had both been experiencing but not wanting to admit.
Shame disconnects people, unless you share it. Shame can’t survive empathy.
I was faced with putting into practice what I had just spent the previous five days studying: how to become shame-resilient and practice vulnerability. We named our shame and we empathized with each other.
“It took a lot of courage for you to ask me for clarification—I bet that was scary. Were you feeling shame?” I said.
He replied, “Yes, I was feeling shame and yes it was scary to ask. But I should have remembered about your book contract. That is a big deal. You just have so many different projects going on that it’s sometimes hard to keep things straight.”
I replied, “I know. And you’ve working really hard right now, and we’ve both been under a tremendous amount of stress.”
Not only did the situation resolve, but we actually felt closer.
5 Ways to Combat Shame
So as Latter-day Saints, how do we manage the feelings of shame about our constant failure to live up to our ideals? Unfortunately, a frequently used strategy is to just try harder and do more. Unfortunately, this begins a cycle that leads to burnout because we don’t understand that our ideal identity is ideal and, therefore, unattainable in this life.
However, we don’t need to throw out our ideals in order to address this vicious cycle, which many are tempted to do when they feel burned out or overwhelmed.
Here are a few suggestions to keep us out of a chronic shame spiral and the cycle of working even harder and doing more to avoid feeling ashamed or inadequate: