I hurriedly hung up from my Zoom call. I could feel a tightness in my chest that hadn’t been there for ages. I was agitated, which is not within my normal nature, nor was it indicative of how I felt toward my colleague. I thought to myself, “Great, now I need to reschedule the rest of my day...”

I stepped away from my computer and told myself to take a beat before I rearranged my afternoon. What happened next changed my view on burnout entirely.

The meeting had run over its scheduled time, and it wasn’t the first time either. It was becoming a pattern, and each time my stress levels would rise. I was prioritizing someone else’s time over mine and my emotions were unable to differentiate between what I had control over and what someone else was doing to me. All I could hear were the stories I was telling myself: “Your time is less important than everyone else’s. Work on everyone else’s priorities before you can even think about working on yours. No matter how long or hard you have to work, make sure they know you can do it all.” This was a familiar song for me, but one I hadn’t sung for quite some time.

For the past year I’ve spent each day prioritizing and standing up for my health and happiness. Heck, I changed jobs to live out my dream and answered the call within myself to help women across the globe overcome their addiction to busyness and perfection and shift toward self-love, self-care, and self-leadership. But in these recent moments of playing stressed-out calendar Tetris, despite all the healing work I had done, I felt transported back to my most burned out episode.

The anxiety, the anger, the raw open wound of being overwhelmed – it was all back.  But I’m not overworked. I’m not being pulled in a million directions, nor am I running a million miles a minute. Quite the opposite. I’m energized every minute of every day doing what I love, working with people I’m inspired by. I jump out of bed and eagerly await my day to start. I am balancing work and self-care. I’m not burned out.

This was my momentary epiphany – one I’ll need to remind myself whenever I feel myself slipping back into the cacophony of overwhelm. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress that has not been managed successfully. I was not burned out. I was not experiencing excessive and prolonged stress. Any stress I was exposed to I was managing with my self-care practices. But nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore the feelings and the information my body was giving me.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Go inside and listen to your body, because your body will never lie to you. Your mind will play tricks, but the way you feel in your heart, in your guts, is the truth.”

So I scanned my body for the messages it was pleading to share with me. And there it was, sitting deep in my chest, a burnout scar.

4 things you need to know about burnout scars

1) You can’t see burnout scars, but you can feel them.

The first thing you need to know about burnout scars is that you can’t see them, but you can feel them.

Burnout scars are unseen marks remaining deep within our body’s emotional memory after healing from the traumatic experience of burnout. If you’ve suffered and recovered from burnout, then you have burnout scars. 

But you don’t have to wait to be triggered to uncover your scars. Training yourself to recognize a scar will help avoid unnecessary stress. By doing a simple body scan, visualization, you can uncover burnout scars.

2) Burnout scars are memories, not the real thing.

If you happen to scratch an unidentified scar, like I did, the second thing you need to know is they are memories, you are not currently experiencing burnout

It’s important to differentiate between the two because:

  1. The level of care you need will depend on whether you are currently burned out or not. If you are having difficulty differentiating between the two, seek counsel from a therapist or coach, or take an online assessment to help determine your level of burnout.
  2. Recognizing and acknowledging that you are not burned out will help you regain control, and be in a better position to understand your triggers and scars.

The next time you feel triggered, get really curious about what just happened and what’s going on within you. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself next time:

What was I just doing that triggered me?

Where do I feel it in my body?

What is the emotion here?

What images or memories come to mind?

What did you do to heal burnout in the past?

What can I do differently now to look after myself?

3) Sitting with your emotions can be difficult but is a vital step to living burnout-free.

Understanding our burnout scars is not easy, nor is it comfortable. Burnout scars can live deep within, concealed by layers of emotions, and to get to them can be very uncomfortable, but is the third (and most vital) step to living burnout-free. By sitting with your emotions, getting really curious about what’s going on, and fully understanding your triggers, you will be able to find your scars and start addressing their specific needs.

4) Self-care routines are not stagnant and should constantly evolve to meet your current needs.

The last thing you need to know to continue to live burnout-free is that your self-care routine should not remain stagnant and should be constantly evolving to meet your current needs.

Once you have a better understanding of your burnout scars, reassess your self-care practices and bravely stand up for what you need now.  Remember, this may look slightly different than what you needed before. You may need to (re)set boundaries, reach out to a mentor/coach to reinforce the personal growth you already went through, say ‘no’ more often, or ask someone for help.  

Once I realized what was going on for me, I knew what I had to do. On the next call with my colleague we talked it out. I shared what had happened, why I had been acting like I did. I established the boundaries I needed around time management, and we redesigned how we managed meetings together.

Uncovering a burnout scar changed my view on burnout entirely by reminding me just how far, yet how near burnout can be if we don’t continue to look after and stand up for ourselves. And if there is just one thing you take from this article (although I hope you take many!) it is that your self-care routine is just as vital to your success as the skills necessary for your craft.