Saying no, setting boundaries and avoiding burnout 

Content warning: Mental health issues

Today is New Years Day. Happy new year and so forth! One thing which marked my 2021 and which I don’t care to repeat is suffering significant burnout resulting in some very dire circumstances in July-August. This year I am determined to avoid that happening again but sadly it doesn’t seem to be that simple. 

Last year I gave 42 presentations, wrote two books, did a bunch of consultancies and media interviews and also worked 34 hours per week in my day job. Why did I do all this? Well there are several reasons really. The first is simply that I enjoy my advocacy work and writing. It is hard to decline an offer to do something I enjoy and which is meaningful to myself and others. Another reason is based in my history as an advocate. I wrote my first book in 2005 and for many years there was very little interest in what I was doing. As such I wanted to boost my public profile and reach a larger number of people. For this reason my default response was to say yes to everything for many years. This works really well until you actually have a public profile and more people want you to do things than you have capacity to do.  Forty-two talks in twelve months really is too many! The final reason for my burnout is that I really, really struggle to say no and set boundaries.

My good friend and coauthor the most excellent Dr Emma Goodall once gave me a highly useful contraption: A buzzer which says ‘NO!!’ loudly in several different ways. I love this. Not only is it funny, it is helpful. When someone asks me to do something I would prefer not to I simply press the buzzer and then decline politely. Saying no is really difficult though. I struggle with assertiveness and boundaries but they are very useful ways of avoiding burnout. I am a person who has experienced significant trauma and mental health issues. These things tend to make it even harder to set boundaries. I also have some pretty significant imposter syndrome so worry that if I decline an offer of work that nobody will ever want me to do anything ever again as a result of me apparently knowing nothing about anything! Yes, in my brain I have nothing useful to say and all my books are due to luck and publishers who feel sorry for me. (No seriously – this is how I approach my work. Very annoying really and quite persistent – and not impacted by logic and reality for some reason.)

Burnout is a big issue for many people and it can be dangerous. When I was burned-out out in the middle of last year I actually ended up in hospital and spent a month there. This was actually good in some respects as I didn’t have my laptop so had a forced period of downtime! Downtime, saying no and simply stopping seem to be the best strategies for addressing burnout. Other than avoiding it in the first place which is by far the best strategy in my mind – and one I have struggled to implement! Sometimes you just need to stop but the kinds of people who are particularly prone to burnout can really find that hard. We fool ourselves that we HAVE to do the work and that if we don’t do it the world might end or we will lose our job or whatever and then end up in a worse position anyway. 

Autistic and other neurodivergent people can face significant issues with burnout. Our anxiety is frequently very high and we are often perfectionists. We are often high achievers too – all of which can feed into issues with burnout. There is something even more significant around burnout for autistic people and that is living in a mostly neurotypical world where we are expected to mask. Masking and camouflaging can take all our energy and then on top of this comes all the stress, workload and expectations. We also often have alexithymia or emotion blindness. This means that we struggle to be aware of what emotions we are feeling. It does not mean we lack emotions but that we can find it almost impossible to articulate what our emotions are. We might be overloaded and stressed but not be aware of it. This means that we do not initiate downtime or limit stress because we cannot feel things escalating. By the time we are aware of it things have got out of hand. Interoception is another issue which feeds into burnout especially for autistic folks. If you are unaware of what is happening in your body this can add to stress and feed into burnout. All this means autistic people can get from apparently feeling OK to being burned-out very quickly. 

It can take a long time to get over an episode of burnout. My best strategies to mitigate it are taking regular downtime – I ensure I take at least an hour a day of doing nothing with an output. Another handy strategy I use when I can is to decline any activities which cause significant anxiety whenever they are mentioned or I think about them – although sometimes such things are necessary. If you do need to do something stressful then put in place activities that relax you and that you enjoy to offset it. An autistic friend once told me I suffer less from burnout because I don’t really mask. I am 100% Yenn when around others. I guess that helps too because I am not pouring my limited energy into trying to act like the other humans but many autistic people find it very hard not to mask as it is a survival strategy. Building in ‘stop’ time before you actually get to the level of burnout can help too. If you can spend a weekend doing something you love that does not cause stress.

Burnout is a constant risk for many of us but it can be managed. And I recommend the NO! buzzer 🙂

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