Chavez: Be Kind, Unwind: Practice Self-Compassion to Avoid a Burnout


By Paij Chavez, Opinion Writer


I don’t know about you, but I LOVE the first day of school. 

Whether it is the feel of a new pen on a clean notebook or the unknown possibilities of the upcoming class schedule, starting a new school year feels exciting and fresh. Sororities, fraternities, student clubs and campus organizations start recruiting new members. The University of Utah hosts helpful job and internship fairs that offer an assortment of positions to help students earn extra income and gain work experience. It’s a new semester, and the opportunities seem endless.

Many highly ambitious students sign up for as much as they can fit into their weekly schedule. These students balance the demands of credit hours, student clubs, part-time jobs and whatever semblance of a social life they can find. While this commitment can result in a stellar resume, the effort of balancing so many responsibilities too often results in high rates of burnout by the middle of the semester. 

As students make these decisions and adjust to their new routines, it is helpful to implement self-care practices early into the school year to decrease the intense future effects of burnout. With the daily stressors of attending college and a turbulent political climate, it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed or exhausted. When looking for ways to decrease these feelings, the power of self-compassion is essential.

The concept of “burnout” was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book, “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” He originally defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Burnout is a reaction to chronic or prolonged stress, and the three main characteristics of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced ability. Burnout becomes a heavy obstacle for students who take on multiple responsibilities and they may begin to show the signs of stress until they fall behind in some way. This causes capable, over-performing students to feel intense shame, as though they have completely failed.

If you can relate to this cycle, let me emphasize this to you — exhaustion is normal. Burnout is normal. It isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it happens. College is difficult in many regards, and responsibilities may become especially burdensome when added to pre-existing stress about finances or health problems. Take it easier on yourself, you’re doing the best you can. 

Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the key experts on the growing body of research on the practice of self-compassion. “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings,” Neff said. “After all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Self-compassion can encompass conflicts between self-kindness and self-judgment, common humanity and isolation or mindfulness and over-identification. Self-compassion involves treating ourselves as kindly as we would a close friend who is struggling. When we recognize the common humanity that exists around us, it is easier to understand we are all struggling and trying our best. A dose of reality is far preferable to the self-isolation that comes with shame. Mindfulness techniques confront distressing thoughts and feelings without incorporating them into a permanent identity. Using these techniques will help to facilitate the processing of difficult experiences without creating negative feelings toward life in general. 

For a long time, I operated under the mindset that I could do x, y or z if I could just be disciplined enough. I felt like the road to success was paved with high expectations and strict guidelines. I would nag myself day after day, thinking of what I could be doing better and obsessing over the mistakes I made. I never would have considered a career in the military because I don’t like the idea of being yelled at by a drill sergeant, yet for years I was constantly criticized by the harshest voice I could imagine — the one in my head. 

After all this self-judgment and blame, I reached such an intense level of emotional burnout that I knew I had to make a change. I began attending therapy and started reading more about mindfulness and self-compassion. Not only is self-compassion a lovely way to approach life, but there are a multitude of scientific studies that show the positive effects of implementing these practices.

Setting and enforcing boundaries is a perfect way to practice self-compassion and reduce the likelihood of burnout. These boundaries can be set for your relationships with family members, romantic partners, friends and employers. Recognizing the feeling of being stretched too far can help a person reel themselves in and recognize when they need to recenter. Healthy priorities and calm communication is a crucial part of the process. 

Brené Brown’s research also supports the idea that boundaries lead to more compassion. In her book Rising Strong, Brown argues that boundaries are simply and personally defined as what is and isn’t okay. Boundaries can include (but are not limited to) the time spent doing different things and the behaviors or energy you feel comfortable around. “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it,” Brown said. “They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” If you commit to too many school or social obligations, you may find yourself feeling a lot of resentment of your own.

I used to berate myself for not being ‘good enough’ and not having more self-control. Talking down to myself while trying to reach ridiculous expectations never gave me a sense of mental clarity. It never provided the contentedness that I desired. I now focus on being kinder to myself. I continue to juggle scheduling, studying and time management, but I no longer become upset with myself when something doesn’t go according to plan. I accept what happens and I focus on learning from the experience through the idea of “self-care, not self-control.”

Some students have experienced burnout in the past and are approaching this semester with trepidation or guilt. Others feel the pressure to pack their schedules as full as possible. Boundaries will differ depending on the person and their experience with burnout. While articulating them may feel strange (especially if you aren’t used to talking about how you feel), defining these boundaries that will prevent burnout during this time when you can least afford it.

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