A recent LDSLiving.com, “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.
Here’s a personal example, which ironically occurred a couple of years ago 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:
Become aware of your ideal identities and how they affect you.
Start exploring your ideal identities. Ask yourself, “How do I want to be perceived, and how do I not want to be perceived?” Start noticing when your wanted and unwanted ideals are triggering feelings of shame and unworthiness. Think about whether those ideals are helping you to strive towards something better or holding you back from feeling secure and content in yourself.
For example, here are some of my responses:
My ideal identities: I want to be perceived as spiritual and committed to the gospel. I want to be perceived as being a dedicated wife and mother. I want to be perceived as someone who is willing to help and to serve others.
My unwanted identities: I don’t want to be perceived as a selfish, neglectful mother. I don’t want to be perceived as putting my careers before my family. I don’t want to be perceived as lazy in my Church calling.
Understand your ideal LDS identity is unattainable, but still worth aspiring towards.
In conversations at church, community events, and with family, we can begin to speak differently about our ideal identity as Latter-day Saints. Let’s talk openly about our spiritual journeys, growth, and even our struggles instead of trying to be seen as flawless. We can find the courage to share feelings of shame and unworthiness when we feel that we don’t measure up to who we want to be, who we think we ought to be, or when we think others think we aren’t measuring up.
By sharing those struggles, we can begin to realize together that no one lives up to that ideal—that we all feel inadequate and need help at times. And that reality is not only okay, but normal and good. Because by recognizing our limitations and shame, we open ourselves to vulnerability and gain humility that allow us to come closer to others and to our Heavenly Father.
Understand that worth and performance aren’t the same.
Worth is unchanging and based on the fact that we are children of Heavenly Parents, but our performance or behavior is constantly fluctuating on any given day. When we equate our worth with our performance, our feelings of self-worth go up and down too.
Some days I’m productive, and some days I stay in my robe all day getting very little done. Some days I’m very patient with my children, and other days I have a very short fuse. Some days I am in tune with the spirit, and other days not so much.
But that’s life. That’s reality. As part of being a human being, our performance will go up and down based on many factors, but our worth never, ever changes.
Focus on growth and connection instead of perfection.
Instead of focusing on external signs of flawlessness—appearance, success, hours spent doing your calling, etc.—focus on your trajectory and growth. Focus on the important intangibles, like the quality of your earthly and heavenly relationships. Do I feel close or distant from God, from my family, from my ward members? How can I strengthen those relationships?
Notice and honor the signs of burnout.
As human beings, we have limitations. Our bodies, our emotions, and our spirits will give us signals to slow down, take a break, say “no,” or even back out of a commitment. Too often we ignore the signs and continue on the treadmill of doing more and more in an attempt to reach the ideal and to avoid shame.
Burnout and spiritual fatigue seem to plague even the most faithful and dedicated Latter-day Saints. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to remember that “the Lord looketh on the heart” (Samuel 16:7). While God expects obedience, He also is mindful that our obedience will fluctuate. If we could reach our ideal identity, our full potential on our own, we would have no need for a Savior. The fact that He sent His Son to redeem us is in itself permission to be an imperfect human being.
Originally published here