How to Heal from Burnout
Kelsey Patel was in her twenties, working on Capitol Hill, when she realized she was in pain. She thought she was doing everything she was supposed to do. She had the high-powered position, the lifestyle that looked successful. But she felt sick, and she didn’t know why. Eventually, she quit her job, moved to Los Angeles, and dove into the world of alternative healing.
Maybe we can’t all do that—but there’s a lot we can learn from just talking to Patel about her path. She’s wise, and she’s honest, and she laughs. Today, she’s a wellness coach and a Reiki master who helps people who feel the way she felt: anxious, overwhelmed, and tired. Her debut book, Burning Bright, is about “the mess of being human” and the chronic exhaustion we know as burnout. But it’s about all of it: the potential roots of emotional and physical pain, toxic patterns, and that feeling of not being good enough or deserving of happiness. It’s full of tools and practices for self-care and inner healing. It’s an intro to Reiki, meditation, EFT (emotional freedom technique, or tapping), and rituals. And it’s a guide to help people recognize that they’re enough and that they can feel more by doing less.
P.S. For more from Patel, check out her book club kit (complete with a chakra-balancing meditation) and follow her on social for other workshops and meditations.
A Q&A with Kelsey J. Patel
I had no idea that my book would come out at a time when everyone was experiencing acute burnout. It was intended to help people recognize burnout, which is this energy of needless suffering. I was hyperfocused on wanting to help and support people who have been burned out for years or maybe decades and couldn’t see or recognize it. We experience burnout when we become consumed with everything other than our own experience and the experience of being a part of the world as a human. And how we address burnout and how we tend to anxiety and fear is through the work and the practice of showing up for ourselves.
To me, it’s important for people to become active participants in their own life and take responsibility for the mechanisms that drive anxiety or burnout and have a hard look at it and ask themselves, What do I need for me to meet myself in this moment? Let’s pull back all the layers, even right now during the pandemic. There are suffering and grief and emotions and feelings that some people aren’t going to process during the experience. And that’s okay. It comes from the place inside of them that is rooted in that fight, flight, or freeze mode, and they may have their walls up for protection right now. That’s normal and completely understandable. But at some point, you have to face it and come back down. You are going to enter a new period, or there will be the experience of what manifests as disharmony in the body, mind, or spirit.
Once you know what has hurt you, triggered you, and helped you build up the walls around yourself, you can choose what is serving you and what is no longer serving you so that you’re not disconnecting from the present moment of your life now. As painful and hurtful as your past may have been, it created some form of information for you to move forward in your life. And some of that pain is helpful because it gives you awareness. And then there’s hurtful pain, which is about transformation and allowing yourself to grow. You have to know the full spectrum so that you can make conscious, healthy choices about how you want to participate in life and show up for yourself.
These imprints that make up your pain story—some people call it your shadow—are not something that you need to be afraid of. Start to question and dig in a little bit more and see if it’s still true or if you’ve been living an old fear program. What does it feel like to sit with yourself all day? What does it feel like to experience something that is chaotic and uncontrolled going on around you? When you can sit with that and see where it stirs or shakes up a lot of deep, emotional feeling, that is your medicine. The nectar is to really look at yourself and what is coming up in that discomfort so that you can choose what to do next. Then add love and have compassion for yourself and have patience with your human experience. It’s very hard to be human. If we weren’t meant to have all these feelings and all these human emotions, they wouldn’t exist. People spend so much time trying to avoid them and do anything but dive into them, and that is a missed opportunity. The more that you can go inward and learn more about yourself and feel more of those inner feelings, the more you create a moment of growth and transformation. It’s not because anything’s really shifting; it’s because your awareness is inviting a new frequency, a new opportunity.
Burning bright is having a sense of deep awareness and connection to yourself and your needs. It’s your willingness to meet those needs so that you don’t look outside of yourself for that light or that validation or that worthiness. It comes from within. And you’re willing to keep tending that flame inside of you so that it becomes so bright that you and your existence—the way that you walk and give and show up and share in the world—come from a place of fullness rather than a place of depletion. It’s not a flickering flame that’s ready to be blown out at any moment.
People who have experienced burnout know exactly what that feeling is—that at any moment, their flame feels like somebody could just gently blow and the whole thing would go out. You have an opportunity to enhance and strengthen your flame so that it becomes so bright that a gust of wind or rain or anything else that comes your way won’t dim or blow out that light.
Everybody does it. I still do it. No one’s immune to it. The same way none of us are immune to grief or suffering. It’s part of the human experience. It’s what we’ve been taught. And part of healing is shifting the matrix of how we’ve learned to find worthiness. We have this idea that our productivity is equivalent to our success. If we looked at the way we’ve been taught to see and show ourselves what is of value, it equates to productivity and having things and all this stuff outside of ourselves. A very intelligent selling system is to make people believe that they’re not enough as they are and they need to buy something else to help fill that gap.
It’s also a lot easier to look outside of ourselves than to look inward. And people have gone through a lot and some of them may not recognize it or feel worthy of their story. I’ve worked with a lot of people who think that everything else in the world is bigger and grander and so much more of a hardship than their own human journey. They don’t choose to look at their own journey and the pain that it may have caused them or the things that have built up because they feel guilty or ashamed that their path wasn’t as hard as other people’s. And while there’s truth to that, I also think it’s really important for each of us to recognize that we came here to have a full human experience, and being yourself with love and compassion is not a weakness. And it is not something to dismiss. That is a part of my hope for people to want to go inward. There’s a famous Marianne Williamson quote where she says it’s not our smallness that we fear; it’s our greatness and our ability to be powerful beyond our beliefs. The truth is that people are afraid of their own power.
I still work on it. I’m still definitely a work in progress. To me, it’s a day-to-day experience. I’ve gotten a lot better at it because I’ve had a lot of experiences that have made me face it. I might say yes to something, and then I go do it and I’m exhausted and drained and mad at myself for giving my time and not feeling like there was an exchange. It could be in a personal relationship; it could be in a work relationship. There have been so many times when I’ve had to sit with my feelings. Instead of ignoring it and pushing it away, I sit with it and journal or meditate or Reiki myself. I cry or do EFT, and I get to really look at what actually made me upset or made me feel disappointed or hurt or angry. That’s where I’ve started to honor and value myself more—through very deep, radical self-love and self-acceptance.
I was a director of crisis PR and I was a deputy press secretary in the Senate, so I get it—I get that people who write for a living have a harder time writing for themselves because it’s easier for them to focus outward. But for everyone, writer or not: Give yourself some love and compassion, and when you do sit down to write, look at yourself without a writing hat on and without it needing it to be about other people. Show up for yourself and give yourself a voice.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice was from a friend of mine who teaches workshops. She said, “Don’t buy a pretty journal or a pretty notebook, because you’re going to want to make it stay pretty.” And she explained, if you’re going to journal, get a legal notepad. If you get a really nice journal, you won’t want to rip out your heart and sob and cry and tear up the paper. With a legal notepad or even the back of a piece of scratch paper, I’ll write ferociously. If I’m at a hotel traveling for work and I have a lot of feelings come up, I’ll grab that little notepad that they give you and write all over it. I’ll write messy words on top of words and on both sides of the page.
If you don’t know how to start, ask yourself a question, like: How are you feeling today? That’s how I used to journal when I was a little kid. I try to ask myself inquisitive questions to begin. Then take a few minutes to breathe and connect to your heart space. Your arm is an extension of your heart, so when I write, there are times when I don’t think about what I’m writing. As I start to write, I just ask that it comes from my heart and then my hand follows. That’s what it’s like to write from a place of free flow.
I hope that they feel a deep belly breath and a relaxing exhale. A sigh of relief in their body and mind so that they can recognize and realize that they don’t have to put so much effort into life. That life can be easy and beautiful. That they can release needless suffering. Is there going to be suffering? Yes. But can they have some relief in their body to see: Oh, it might be easier than I’ve been making it on myself? A way to combat burnout is to show up for yourself every day. And it’s the hard part. We feel like there’s more work to do, but that’s the ego trying to take control of self-care. It can be simple. It’s about looking inward and asking, What do I need from me today?
Kelsey J. Patel is a Los Angeles–based spiritual coach, Reiki master, and yoga and meditation teacher. Her debut book, Burning Bright, is out now.
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