How to avoid burnout, getting bitter

Uncategorized / Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Give what you can with joy. When you get bitter, it’s time to stop.


Written by: Anna Spady

She was telling me how much she loved her cause, how needed it was, how much she believed in it and above all, how utterly and totally exhausted she was.

As she admitted her exhaustion, her eyes filled with tears of frustration and shame. I nodded my head in the solidarity of understanding.

The woman in question ran a local nonprofit. I met her at One Million Cups KC a couple of months back. To my embarrassment, I don’t remember her name or the organization, but I remember our conversation vividly. It was so familiar.

It’s a story I’ve lived and heard all my life. I grew up as a missionary kid. My family had been involved with nonprofits, NGO’s and volunteering longer than I can remember.

Over the years, we’ve had many hard conversations about how much do you give, how much is enough and especially, do you let the “need of the cause” drive your life, even if you are burning out in the process?

It’s not something people like to talk about. Yet, it’s something that anyone who constantly gives freely or cheaply faces.

My parents are counselors. They’ve studied sticky topics such as boundaries — or as I like to call it the art of saying no — for years. Saying no is something that I’ve only gotten marginally better. It never feels like enough. I should give until there isn’t any more need, right? But then I remember a story about Mother Teresa.

One of the staff that served with her suggested they give away some of their personal food rations to the starving poor.

Mother Theresa responded that they had to eat plenty, or they would get weak, and then they wouldn’t be any good to those that needed them.

Long-term volunteering and giving has to be treated like a marathon: to finish well, you have to pace yourself. For leaders and managers, pacing can seem like a nice, naïve dream. Something that will get done “one day.”

A couple of years ago I took a social work class. They told us the number one mistake we could make was to let need drive the game, rather than capacity. We can operate that way, but only for a little while. At some point, you have to learn to pace yourself or you will fizzle out and be useless in the long run.

Thus, I told the hardworking, crying woman the same advice my mom gave me long ago.“Give what you can give with joy. When you start getting bitter, it’s time to stop. At that point, you’re not doing anyone any good.”

Written by Anna Spady