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Ever felt like you were running on empty? I know I sure have. I get to the point where it just feels like everyone wants something, and I have nothing left to give. The hardest part is that often the people I love the most, my family, get the left-over dregs of me after I have exhausted myself caring for others during the day.
I have learned I have a limited capacity in four key areas of my life. Some things drain energy out, other things pour energy in. There are indicators that reveal when the levels are getting low, and if you ignore the warnings, you burn out. Simple as that.
It took some horrible experiences, the insight of a wise counsellor and some growing self-awareness to figure out what was going on. It happened when I changed jobs a few years ago. It was a change I put my hand up for and was excited about.
I had a role that was very task focused with tight weekly time deadlines and structure. Then I changed to a pastoral care role. It was all about people. I came face to face with grieving families, cancer patients, people struggling with life and faith challenges.
But, even though I loved what I was doing, after a while I wasn’t coping. I found myself teary, feeling exhausted even after a good night sleep, unable to think clearly and function effectively. It was a scary time. I was a mess, and I couldn’t understand why.
I had a good friend and colleague who pointed me to a professional counsellor who had experience with people in vocational ministry.
My counsellor explained the simple concept of my four energy jars. The type with an opening at the top and a little tap at the bottom. They were labelled Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual. Each energy is distinctive, each is important, and each needs refilling in my own unique way.
She explained that my previous job was mentally and physically demanding. I had learned how to recognize when I was mentally and physically depleted, and how to refill these energy jars. However, my new role was emotionally and spiritually draining. I had not learned to recognize the warning signs that my jars were running low, and I had neglected to refill these vital energy reserves. Talk about an ah-ha moment!
We have to discover for ourselves how to manage our energy levels because we are all different and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
This is probably the easiest to understand and manage. I know what it feels like when I’m getting physically tired, and I know what I need to do to refill. Basically, when I’m tired, I rest. We are not designed to work flat out seven days a week. God instituted the Sabbath day; a day to rest, worship and refocus. This is a good discipline to have, but difficult to implement in our hectic culture.
I try and stick with the rule to be busy no more than three evenings a week. If I'm out too often in the evening, it starts to show. I have had to decline invitations and miss out on events sometimes because I know my physical limits, and I have to take care of myself.
There are some tasks that I find take a lot of brain power. Writing is one of them, as well as developing Bible study resources, strategic planning, and detailed data entry. I get to the stage where I start making silly mistakes, struggle to think creatively and hit a mental block. I now know not to panic, not to give up with an “I can’t do it” feeling of failure, but to take a break and stop thinking for a while.
When I’m stuck on a complex problem, when I can’t find the right words, the best thing I can do is to stop and do something else. I intersperse mentally challenging tasks with mundane physical ones. On writing days at home, I also get the laundry done, water the herbs, wash the dog and rearrange houseplants.
When I have mentally challenging tasks at work, I tackle them in time blocks interspersed with face to face meetings and phone calls, or routine tasks that don’t need much brain power. When I get stuck, I clean something.
I know my emotional tank is getting low when I find myself internalizing and owning other people’s problems and hurt. I find it hard to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day; I have a disproportionate reaction to bad news I see or hear about, and I get highly sensitive to any sniff of relational conflict. Some days it feels like I’m on the verge of bursting into tears any moment, and it takes all of my energy just to keep myself together. That’s when I know that my emotional energy jar is empty.
There are also some people who suck the energy out of me. They are not necessarily bad people, they are just hard work for me to relate to, sometimes they ask searching questions or expect something of me. I love them, but after spending time with them, I leave feeling tired.
Other people fill me up. They are easy to be myself around, they love and encourage me, and they make me laugh. (There's nothing like a good laugh to fill up my emotional tank.) These relationships leave me feeling energized!
I think it’s important to have both kinds of friends, those who need something from me, and those who pour into me. I just have to manage my relationships with intention and wisdom, and I have to regularly invite my kids home for a family dinner filled with fun and laughter.
This one is so important for health, and yet easy to neglect without discipline. God calls us to a life that is beyond our own capacity so that we can be constantly dependent on Him. I get spiritually depleted when I am busy in ministry, doing what God called me to, but do not take the time to plug back into the source.
I know I am spiritually depleted when I find myself being a people pleaser, making decisions to keep people happy and make them like me. When people come to me for help or prayer, and my heart responds with a sigh instead of a smile, I know I'm running low. I see the problems clearly but can't quite picture the power of God to overcome.
I refill by spending time in God’s word, reminding myself of God’s character and love. I spend time in prayer, off-load the burdens of my heart, and quietly listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking courage and truth into my life. My perspective shifts. As I magnify the power of God, my problems become smaller, and I have the faith to believe in miracles once again.
Self-care isn’t selfish
I read a story in ‘Leading on Empty' that continues to have a significant impact on me. (Actually, I highly recommend the whole book.) Wayne Cordeiro tells a story of a farmer who had a roadside stall of produce, freshly picked from the farm each day. As the customers lined up to purchase his quality fruit and vegetables, eventually he would run out. As he responded to the disappointed customers, he would calmly say, "I don't have any. Come back tomorrow, and I will have more."
This concept doesn’t only apply to physical products. It applies to our internal resources as well. People will continue to line up and request more and more from us, but at some point, we have to be able to say, “I don’t have any more. Come back tomorrow.” When we are empty, we have to refill.
All of this may seem very simple and common sense, and it is. The trouble is that our lives are so busy and demanding that we often don’t take the time to take an inventory and think about how we’re travelling. We push on and on until we eventually crash.
How are your energy levels? Take the time to take a detailed inventory of each of your energy jars. List out the activities that drain you in each area, and the things that fill you up. Then take a critical look at your calendar. Do you have planned activities that fill up all four of your energy jars? Make sure that you have a good balance for sustainable health and self-care.
Need help? Sign up and download your Energy Inventory worksheet here.
You'll find wonderful hope and encouragement in reading Bonny Gray's story of restoration in Finding Spiritual White Space.