When The Cracks Begin To Show


First published on Medium 20-03-2021

Image by the author with help from Pixy

After surviving many episodes of burnout in my life, I have learned to look for the green shoots. Either I can nurture those green shoots within the stressful situation, or I have to step away.

Green shoots come in many different forms, and they can take a long time to nurture and see growth. It is easy to miss them, paper over the cracks, think they are weeds, and destroy them.

My story of becoming a writer spans the last eight years. The green shoots appeared. I papered over the cracks, changed jobs, moved house, ignored the green shoots, and tried to move on, thinking I had removed the stress from my life. It took me seven years to recognise the green shoots for what they were and begin watering them.

The Cracks Appearing

I was working as a supply teacher and landed a one-year contract in a school. I had just stepped away from my own business, which had supported me well for 15 years.

I needed the money to pay off my debts and my mortgage. I had stepped into a school department carrying a lot of stress and not dealing with it very well. In the fifteen months I was there, I had three heads of department. Each left when they took time off for stress-related illness.

I convinced myself I was only there for the money. I was not looking for a promotion or even a career. I just needed a nice, quiet job to keep me busy and afloat financially.

Even though I was keeping my head down, the cracks were starting to appear. I was not speaking my truth at team meetings. I was doing anything for a quiet life. I felt on edge because my philosophy of teaching and learning clashed dramatically with the school, the department, and most of the individual teachers. But of course, I was not voicing any of this. I was keeping it to myself.

The final straw appeared when one of the students made allegations about me touching them inappropriately. The school put me on gardening leave straight away, which lasted for four months while the police carried out an investigation.

I was in a hugely stressful predicament where I stood to lose my job, my career and even face incarceration.

The Green Shoots Appeared

In this environment, the green shoots began to appear. I had to find something to occupy myself, so I wrote a short novel in four months.

The investigation proved that the allegations were invented, and I was invited back to work. The novel was consigned to a virtual bottom drawer, and I soldiered on.

The green shoots had given me a pretty clear message. You are much happier sitting and writing at home than you are slogging away at the chalkface*. This motivated us to put our house on the market and to downsize.

A year later, we had moved to a small flat in a wonderful location, and I had found a job that was much more to my liking and was at least partly creative in nature.

However, the stress came again in the form of a bully in the workplace. I managed to work with this fairly well, but then a serious medical issue arose, and I had to take four months of sick leave.

More green shoots appeared. This time I converted a camper van, and I started to look for an editor for my novel.

I made many more changes, and now I am watering those green shoots and watching them grow. I am training to be a counsellor and write music and publish it. I am working on the second draft of my novel, regularly writing for Medium, and my website.

I am not avoiding stressful situations, but I am choosing everything in my life more carefully. I have learned to identify stress or the potential for stress. I have learned to distinguish between motivational stress and that which acts as a disincentive or an obstacle. I have reorganised my life so that money is no longer the leading argument in how I live.

Here is a Four-Step Breakdown of the Process

  1. Recognising stress
  2. Recognising cracks
  3. Recognising green shoots
  4. Watering the green shoots

Recognising stress

The first thing to get is that stress does not exist in the world. It only exists in our reaction to the world. For example, going for a swim in freezing water would be too stressful for most people to contemplate. For a seasoned cold water swimmer, it can become a daily practice that releases a ton of endorphins and sets them up for a happy productive day.

Stress is so much a part of life that we convince ourselves without stress we would lose any motivation to grow. Can you find a way of distinguishing between the stress that keeps you motivated and the stress that keeps you trapped? Are you addicted to having stress in your life?

Recognising cracks

Are you biting your tongue, holding back, keeping it all in, holding your shit together, keeping a low profile? These limitations to your self-expression can all precede the cracks.

Addictive habits of any kind are also a sign that cracks are appearing. You are trying to paper over the cracks with your desensitising behaviours.

Cracks can appear as major setbacks, physical illness, mental illness, or simply obstacles that appear insurmountable.

Recognising green shoots

Where do you find solace? What do you do, where do you go when the stress gets too much.

Note here that hitting that bottle of red wine is not a green shoot. That is papering over the cracks. You may have to be strong and avoid those addictive behaviours in order to recognise the green shoots.

Look for the creative absorbing activities you focus on which keep you in a calm place. The green shoots may surprisingly appear when you face the stress head-on rather than stepping away from it.

I loved the story of a woman in her 30s who discovered cold water swimming. In the space of a few years, she abandoned her comfortable but unfulfilling career and retrained as a cold water swimming coach. She expressed delight in giving up her comfortable warm office job, to go down to the lake each morning with a mallet and hack a hole in the ice for her daily swim.

You may find the green shoots in surprising places.

Watering the green shoots

This is a long-term project. Plants don’t grow overnight. Not all of the green shoots will make it, some will wither and die.

You have to make space for the green shoots to grow. You may have to abandon a career, move away from your family or even leave the country of your birth. Alternatively, you may find that by tending the green shoots, the stressful situation just melts into the background.

In a Few Last Words

The first steps you take when you notice approaching burnout may be simple and straightforward, the NHS article below is a good starting point. If you are looking for a quick fix then you will probably be disappointed. Burnout is the result of avoiding or battling with stress for too long. A long-term issue requires a long-term solution.

First, turn off the heat, allow the cracks to appear, notice what begins to grow in the cracks, and get out the watering can.

Every Mind Matters | One You
Feeling stressed, anxious, low or struggling to sleep? Every Mind Matters and One You can help with expert advice and…www.nhs.uk

*Chalkface: NOUN, British in singular: The day-to-day work of teaching in a school. ‘teachers at the chalkface’ — Lexico

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