Sometimes I wonder if I’m meant to be a participant in this great internet that I love. Maybe I’m wired funny, or something.
I’ve noticed a consistent pattern over the past 8 years of internet life. I will pour myself into sharing my life and what I’ve learned with others. I will share on my blog, email with people, tweet and facebook with them. I will teach a class or start a project for others to participate in. I will immerse myself in the amazing global internet community. I will exult in my feelings of connection and contribution.
And then something happens. I get tired and overwhelmed. After a while, I start to retreat. I stay quiet for a little while – a month, sometimes more – focusing entirely on my work and projects and not venturing much out into the wide internet world. Then when I’m ready, I enter back into the conversation, recharged and ready to start giving of myself again.
I could chalk this up to being a Highly Sensitive Person, or an Introvert, or an INFJ. All of these things are true. But none of them make me any happier with the result.
There’s nothing wrong with following this pattern of giving, giving, giving, and then retreating, retreating, retreating. It works well for some people. But bouncing back and forth between being “present” and “distant” is confusing for me, and probably for others. It feels like hugging all the people to my chest for a while, and then slowly backing away to recoup. Then starting all over when I come back.
This pattern also makes it hard to maintain momentum in getting my creative work into more hands and hearts. Though I’m grateful for what I’ve been able to accomplish, I can’t help but feel that my start, stop, start, stop patterns have held me back from being able to see greater potential in each of my creative endeavors.
Turn left to go right (Or, that time when the best thing to do was EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what I thought)
Lately, I’ve experienced a surge of “sharing” energy that is coming on after a six-month reclusive spell. I’ve started a new blogging project, put together a new mailing list, and I’m contributing to more creative communities. The relief I feel at coming out of this most recent period of withdrawal is spurring me to look for a better solution to social renewal than “disappearing from the internet”.
In the book Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success by Adam Grant, I read a fascinating story about Conrey Callahan, a young teacher who wanted to to make a difference in low-income communities. After pouring herself into her students for years, she finally hit rock bottom. “I was burned out, overwhelmed, and ready to give up.”
Of course, I’m no Conrey Callahan. I don’t spend my days breaking up fights, tracking down truant students, and praying for my survival. But what was interesting about this story was that Conrey found a way to avoid staying burnt out, and in fact found more energy to serve than she ever had before. And the answer (surprisingly) wasn’t to give herself more “me” time.
What Conrey did instead was to start giving more. On nights and weekends, she began volunteering her time, both as a mentor to other teachers in similar situations, and as a co-founder for a national non-profit organization that helps high-achieving, low-income kids get ready for college.
All in all, she spent ten extra hours a week giving to projects that had observable results. As a result, Conrey’s energy returned and she was newly inspired in her role as an educator, making her one of the longest-serving and most impactful teachers at her school, and eventually leading to her nomination for a national teacher award.
Oh, the screens that stand between us
Grant’s theory is that we don’t get burned out by giving too much – we get burned out when we feel like all our hard work is not making a difference in people’s lives. When we don’t see results, it’s hard to continue to show up and give of ourselves.
Sharing what we know with others on the internet may not be as emotionally and physically demanding as working in an inner-city school, but sometimes it can leave us with that same feeling of “am I making a difference?” After all, I don’t have the benefit of seeing your face as you’re reading this. I will probably never know the impact my words have in your life.
Add to that the sheer abundance of words, images, and video that are filling up all of our news feeds every day, and I can start to wonder if my voice really matters. Am I being a contribution, or a drain of someone’s time and energy? Even though I firmly believe that we make each other stronger when we share our lives and what we’ve learned, that niggling voice starts to whisper. And sometimes I listen.
It’s tempting to believe that more numbers will solve this problem. If only we had X amount of people in our communities, our work would be validated, and we would *know* that we were making a difference. But I know this is not true. I’ve worked with people who felt this disconnection and doubt when they had 100 readers, and when they had 100,000 (yes, seriously; “I only have 100,000 email subscribers” is something a client has actually said to me; once I pointed out that this wasn’t actually a problem, it became a running joke).
An experiment in tracking meaningful progress
I’m not entirely sure how to fix this problem; I’m hoping that we can figure it out together. But I have some ideas.
First, we need to find ways to visualize the impact that we’re having.
Technology can help us do this. For example, the mailing list program that I use has a handy map for visualizing readers as they open your emails. I don’t recommend staring at tools like this for hours because it can get addictive, but it is so helpful to see people digesting your words all over the globe in realtime. The analytics tool that I use also has this feature. You can see a map of people popping in and out of your website all over the globe.
If you don’t use tools like these, you can visualize it in your head. If you know you have 279 blog visitors every week, imagine standing in front of a room and speaking your words to those 279 people. That is essentially what is happening every time you put your work into the world. This can help you get off the cycle of “I don’t have enough readers” and really “see” how much of a reach sharing your life and wisdom actually has.
Second, don’t discount the thanks that you get from people; instead, record it.
I have a habit that has been attributed to impostor syndrome– discounting praise whenever I receive it. I’m now working on changing this habit and turning it into proof of my progress.
Once a week, I’m also recording the things people said to me about how my work affected them that week. For example, last week an email that I sent inspired someone I respect to start his own mailing list. Another friend told me that the prompt I’m using to keep me blogging regularly is becoming a part of her daily journaling ritual.
Stories like these make me realize how incredible it is to be able to share life with other humans, and that sharing ourselves, no matter how slow-going it may seem sometimes, sparks courage, love, and creativity in each other.
Third, consider spending more time making contributions that give you observable results.
For example, I’ve decided to experiment with blogging every day. Not only is it easier to do something every day than it is to do something less regularly, but blogging every day is also much more likely to give me observable results than my previous track record of blogging maybe once a month. My goal is not to hit any specific numbers, but to see some proof that my work is a gift that people want to get.
It’s ironic that pouring out more of yourself can actually give you more energy, but this has been a huge turning point in my thinking. I have to make sure that the more I am giving is actually aligned with how I want to be spending my time and that I am seeing results from it; otherwise, it drains my energy instead of sustains it. This is why it’s important for me to use tracking tools so I can have solid evidence of my progress.
I’m interested in finding other ways to renew my energy and capacity for sharing with others (that do not involve hiding under a rock for six months). Have you found anything that works for you? I would love to hear (I’ll be responding in the comments). <3
Meet Sarah J. Bray
Sarah J. Bray is resident nation-builder at &yet and writer, teacher, and maker-of-side-projects at sarahjbray.com. She loves toast, idealism, and good people like you.
Oh, how I needed these words at this time in my life. I adored this article and all the wonderful lessons within, Sarah. Thank you so much. I’ve been experimenting all year to find different rhythms and ways to renew energy – a creative career is demanding! We’re always creating our next move and making it all up as we go along. I envy my husband’s traditional job and reasonable project timelines! Now, when I have a huge launch or product line to release, I try to ask myself what would I expect of an employee – the hours and the timeline? And then, I hire myself for the position and follow the gentle schedule I would have assigned someone else.
That’s such a creative way to approach it, Lisa. Thank you for sharing…and thanks for your kind words!
Like a true Libra I am I feel these words so badly. It’s hard to find a rhythm and to juggle this rhythm with everything that goes in my life. This post is perfect. Loving what you write, always.
<3 Gina. It is *so* hard. (And hey, I'm a Libra too!)
Is that a Libra thing? I have issues with rhythm and consistency too.
Thank you so much for this post Sarah! I can’t wait to use this as a jumping off point for our #OMHG chat tomorrow. This piece was very affirming for me & really helped me work through some thoughts + struggles I’ve been having lately. I apologize in advance for the essay length comment 🙂
I actually was an inner city child + youth worker and community activist for years-I worked 18 hours + a day with young people, babies, families in high risk situations and was never tired. I didn’t burn out but I sure started getting bitter. It wasn’t the kids or families that did it, even when they pulled knives on me and pushed me down stairs the moments of true connection filled me up again. What was killing my ability to give was what I saw as apathy and inertia from everyone else. The extreme effort that was required in order to communicate how important it was that we protect our kids and support our communities and the equally opposing force of foot-dragging disinterest from anyone who didn’t already believe it was important. I’d been running events, hosting my own summer camp, working full time and feeling very undervalued not by the kids but by the rest of the community. So I packed a bag, took my last $150 and ran away to the woods on Cortes Island where I learned for the first time that it was okay to not be needed or have this pressing sense of urgency to change the world ALL THE TIME. I was allowed to retreat and recharge by connecting with the world and play with people who had similar passions. That time let me become more effective as a change-maker and go on to work with hundreds of organizations from a much more confident place without the same urgency or panic to create change. A much more resilient place to be!
Fast forward 11 years and I found myself in a pretty harsh place recently. My ridiculous expansive, generous love for the internet and building community here turning sour-not because I don’t feel my work matters but the replay of the same forces that led me to run into the woods when I was 19. Everyone shouting so loud and no one listening, watching ‘community’ and other words that are sacred to me become a hot commodity and market-speak. Trying to advocate for my mom to keep & no one but existing friends being willing to talk about homeless or mental illness. Struggling to create something lasting and valuable that still pays the mortgage when so often it feels like hype sells better then a thoughtful invitation. Even though I know my work & OMHG has measurable impact sometimes I still feel like the ‘only whatever I am in the room’. Like I’m wired funny for caring so much. I was pretty close this year to giving up on grand visions and going back to work for organizations where caring this deeply isn’t as much of a liability. So I ran away again this July, back to that same wilderness island, to reconnect & refill my empty tired places. It was a full circle & a mega-reminder to be aware of my own patterns.
A couple years ago I wrote a lot about dynamic equilibrium, or developing a rhythm in my life for expansion and contraction. When I do something expansive I need to make room for contraction because being fully on, no matter how good the Helper’s High is, eventually you do come down again. So I fully agree with this post-expand and show up so you can give more, share all of who you are but then contract again, however that looks for you. I require reading & real conversation + regular adventures in the wild. Staying too far in any one mode for me at least leads to extremes of either wanting to run away and live in the woods full time with some goats and a few dear friends or staying in too long and then overly diving into the world full tilt until the cycle repeats.
This is one of the biggest reasons for our Maker’s Retreat this year & why I hope it can become an annual gathering where we come together on Cortes, that wilderness island that has taught me so many powerful lessons about giving to others and to myself. Thank you again for this post & helping my brain work through these things!!!
Oh Jessika, I love this so much and am so gratified to not be alone in these feelings! It’s so interesting to hear about your experiences THEN and how that pattern replays itself now.
I so hear you on the idea of building community or “whatever it is I am doing” feeling like it’s becoming a commodity and a season pass to getting to people’s wallets. It’s so frustrating. I want so much more, too, and yet it feels sometimes that disingenuous tactics are rewarded. But! I believe in the long-term, true givers will win.
We need to get on the phone soon! I think we’d have a lot to talk about. I wish I could join you all in Cortes…it sounds incredible.
Jessika, I want to hug you. I had watched and wondered how it affected you with your Houseraiser campaign. I didn’t know how it went but I was paying attention. This reply of yours is enlightening. I think the world of you and your vision, spirit and soul working so hard to improve things around you, to have an impact, to have meaning. I want you to know that you do all of those things, even when it may not feel like it, even if the numbers aren’t always there to validate. xo.
PS the work you do as a mother, with the beautiful world you support at home for your girls — that is going to have a beautiful ripple effect far beyond anything you can possibly dream.
I’ve followed the same pattern, Sarah, and am also an INFJ. It seems like the solution as you describe it isn’t necessarily to give MORE, but to give in way that COUNTS and is APPRECIATED. For people who like to help and create and do, it’s hard to slow down and analyze where we can make the most impact. In your list above, I wondered why you didn’t include a “give up contributions that don’t make a measurable impact” or something like that.
That’s a really really great point, Claudia. I love that idea. Probably the reason I didn’t include it is because it’s so hard for me to give things up…I’m probably in denial! lol
I blog in an entirely different niche, but can relate to feeling like you are talking/blogging to an empty room and having no positive effect on anyone else.
It’s hard for me because I have actual mood swings, but the blog seems to suffer the most of anything in my life no matter what. Maybe I need to share MORE and try blogging daily too.
My niche (book blogging) often seems so limiting and while I am a crafter, I have found that I just can’t blog about it often. (Oh my god, doing tutorial posts would put me in an early grave)Forcing myself to remember that the blog is more than a book reviewing machine is tough. Just like there is a person behind those posts (me), there are people that read them. Maybe, if like you, I shared a bit more of my struggle, I would find that I’m not alone, with my mood swings or sometimes feeling constrained by the niche.
I think it’s so important to find rhythms that we can embrace no matter what is going on, if we really want to have a blogging practice that is both regular and feels good. Of course, I’m still figuring it out, but for me, it gets so much easier when the entire concept for my blog is related to what I naturally do every day (which is get excited about new things I’m learning. 🙂
LOL, the things that I do everyday and learning is my major issue with staying consistent on my blog. I am so busy reading and learning the next book or thing, that I have issues slowing down to post reviews of what I have finished. Awww, so many books and important factoids, so little time!
I am so grateful for this post. It resonates so profoundly with me. I definitely get burned out when I think my efforts aren’t meaningful in whatever area of my life. I notice this most easily in my mothering but your post helps me see it has affected my joy in blogging dramatically over the past few years. “It’s tempting to believe that more numbers will solve this problem.” I definitely thought this was true but it is so clearly a fallacy. I definitely spread myself out over many places and this dilutes my ability to fully embrace the wonderful feedback I do get. I used to keep a “win book” — an email folder to store positive feedback in but if that feedback doesn’t come via email form, it gets lost. This post has given me so much to think about. Thank you.
Thank *you* Jessica for sharing this. It is tough, but I think it’s a solvable problem. Or at least I hope. 🙂
Thanks Sarah, turns out I have just hit rock bottom and actively looking for ways to feel better about my work. As said by Claudia it is a lot about feeling appreciated. Maybe it is not so much about working longer hours but maybe refocusing the effort on things that really make a difference? Anyway, I’m on it, will let you know if I figure it out 🙂
Good for you, Raphaele! I look forward to hearing about it!
What brilliance 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this Sarah! It totally inspires me to look for more ways to give instead of retreat. I’m good at hiding under a rock as well, but you’ve inspired me to start contributing more. I remember one of the favorite lines from my Welsh Choir director in college was “energy begets energy!”. She insisted that even if you think you don’t have the energy to bring to a performance, take all that you do have and the process of giving your all will actually create more. It’s a special side effect of the powers of creation…something I need to use more often 🙂
Oh I LOVE that, Brooke. Energy begets energy! YES! Thank you so much!
This is such a great post, and exactly what I needed to hear. I’m in the same cycle, and have been doing my best to come out of hiding.
I love that you are tracking the praise you receive, and I think that is something I need to start as well.
Thank you so much for this post!
You’re welcome, Melanie. I’m glad to hear that you are coming out of hiding!
Great post!! I needed that. Being a Highly Sensitive, INFJ, etc 😉 myself I get this!
Solidarity FTW! 🙂
Thank you thank you thank you for this! I think most people cycle through periods of self-doubt and needing to withdraw, (I certainly do!) but how we deal with it depends on the individual – perhaps some fight it by getting more aggressively into their work… some get through it by feeling obligated to keep producing… and some struggle to keep going at all.
I went to a fabulous conference last week (The Artful Business Conference) and the message there was clear – when you are absolutely convinced about your “WHY”, you will find your way. It was really brought home to me when I heard Lisa Messenger speak – she started with NOTHING – no experience in publishing and no money – and now she has authored/co-authored 20 books, and heads up the Collective Magazine, published in over 30 countries. She said that when you have an unwavering belief in what you want to achieve, you’ll find a way to get there. It was such an uplifting idea for me.
I wish you all the best.
This is a really interesting perspective, Julie. I think when it comes to that, I have a lot of trouble choosing just one “why”. I’ll have to reflect on this some more…thanks for sharing!
This is perfect.
I’m new to the blogging world and first started a blog a little over a year ago. A few months after I had begun, with about a handful of readers, I ran out of energy and hid for a year.
You hit the nail on the head in regards to why I felt exhausted by blogging. It felt pointless.
Now I’m back and doing it not just for readers but for me. I’m so glad I ran into this post at this time, so that hopefully next time I begin to feel exhausted and pointless, I can look back here for inspiration and motivation. <3
Thank you for such a great post! In the last two years I’ve been on a huge journey of tackling burnout, losing passion and finding alternative ways to value myself. I love what you said about Adam Grant, I hadn’t heard that theory before. I think feeling valued is such as essential part of life, and without that, we can easily become burnt-out and disillusioned. Thanks for sharing your story, I’m sure it will help many people 🙂 I’m now going to go create my list of praise – great idea!
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