In September 2012, I first said the words out loud. I was sitting on a wooden bench, drinking with a friend at one of Albuquerque’s newer breweries, enjoying the crisp autumn air. I was startled to hear my own voice expose my secret: “I want to leave diversity and inclusion work.”
The timing of this confession was most inconvenient. Just weeks before, my handsome companion and I had shared the stage at TEDxABQ, and I’d passionately made a case to over 800 people that “diversity is necessary for human evolution.”
People aren’t supposed to do a TED talk on a subject, then walk away. My friend and I were meeting to co-conspire around our respective areas of interest. I wondered if my crush on him was making me say provocative things to impress or tantalize. I checked in with myself. Nope, I’d just dropped a truth bomb — mostly on myself.
It’s taken me over nine years to make good on those words. Leaving a field that has been my life for over 50 years, and my livelihood for more than half that, is no small feat. What kept me stuck for almost a decade was a combination of uncertainty about how else to earn a living, dogged commitment to The Cause, and a nagging question: What if I’m just burned out?
After multiple tweaks to my work, and deep soul-searching, the verdict is in: This isn’t burnout. I’m not “fit for duty.”
At this time of year, as humans speed up while the Earth slows down, many of my clients and friends are exhausted. Perhaps you, too. You, your colleagues, or your reports may be hitting a wall and wondering: Is this burnout? Am I “just” exhausted? Or am I experiencing something bigger?
Here are the three ways I knew I was beyond burned out, and unfit for duty.
Experiencing Too Much Harm
Since the year I spoke those words to my friend, as a diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) professional I’ve owned two training and consulting businesses, subcontracted with other firms, been an internal leader in a large organization, worked full-time for a large corporate consulting firm, and published multiple articles. During that time, I’ve been viciously trolled and harassed online. I’ve been repeatedly rejected for being perceived as white, while also patronized for being perceived as Latina. I’ve been dismissed by corporate folks for being too much of a social-justice warrior, while also rejected by social-justice folks for being too corporate.
One older colleague belittled me in front of a workshop after announcing her commitment to supporting junior women. A mentor ended our long relationship after a conflict stemming from me wanting more equity and integrity with him. Two beloved bosses turned on me. I was publicly escorted off one employer’s property after quitting, due to a misunderstanding that triggered the leadership. I was scolded in a room full of corporate leaders for an innocent question, ignorant of their backstory.
I’ve also been removed from projects I loved with no explanation — by people supposedly committed to equity and inclusion. In the last year, I’ve been yelled at twice by male executives in front of their colleagues.
I share this list not to invoke pity. My experience is not rare among change agents who are truth-tellers. My experience is also not remarkable compared to what many BIPOC, female, LGBTQI, disabled, or immigrant professionals go through during their careers.
But burnout is not a competitive sport. The body, heart, and mind need time to process and heal from harm, and each body, heart, and mind is different. The quantity and severity of the microaggressions — and straight-up aggressions — is too much for my particular body and heart. Especially when the harm never stops — once I start to recover from one painful incident, another one occurs.
Living in a constant state of threat and vigilance is debilitating, and made me more reactive, mistrustful, and anxious. During my last large client engagement, I suffered weeks of insomnia and tension headaches that impeded my ability to serve all my clients well.
These are signs of being unfit for duty. The amount of energy I was expending to manage my accumulated tension, fear, and frustration drained me of curiosity, creativity, compassion, joy, and openness — all necessary to do important work with human beings.
This brings me to the second way I knew I was no longer fit for duty.
Inflicting Too Much Harm
Hurt people hurt people. All the above examples of harm I experienced are also indicators of harm I caused. People don’t belittle, scold, reject, harass, or yell at people with whom they feel safe. People don’t remove colleagues they trust from teams or walk them off the premises. Whether or not any of those people were justified in their feelings or behaviors is irrelevant.
The point is that once others experienced me as unsafe, I was no longer able to be effective. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but if my agenda was to create change, I didn’t always do a good job. If my agenda was to tell people the truth regardless of the consequences, or inflict pain due to my own trauma, I often did a great job.
We can inflict harm despite our best intentions, and it’s not always our fault. We’re not responsible for others’ reactions or emotions. But if triggering others gets in the way of our mission, or is misaligned with our values, inflicting pain is a warning sign.
Not only have I noticed a shift in who harms me — increasingly supposed allies and not just “enemies” — I’ve noticed a shift in the harm I’ve inflicted.
Early on, I caused harm unintentionally with my naivete, sincerity, or candor. In recent years, I see now that some harm I inflicted was unconsciously intentional. A part of me was lashing out. I was justifiably angry, but a part of me wanted revenge.
Again, hurt people hurt people.
Being an Impostor
Here’s where sh*t gets real about being unfit for duty. Much has been said about impostor syndrome, an inferiority complex that women, people of color, and folks with other marginalized identities bring into the workplace because we’ve been historically excluded from certain jobs, leadership roles, and industries.
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Recently, some commentary about impostor syndrome has rightly pushed back on the notion that those with marginalized identities are somehow inherently lacking in courage or confidence, but rather responding to places and people who treat them like impostors.
However, no one seems to be asking this question: Are you an actual impostor? In other words, are you trying to fit into a role, job, career, or organization that’s not a good fit for you? That might even be bad for you?
I see it all the time with my clients. And now I see it in myself. I am an impostor.
I wasn’t always an impostor. At my essence, I’m a creative, a writer, a teacher, and a seer. I always have been. And that’s mostly what I did for work until I accepted an intriguing position as a training specialist in a large organization with a fantastic team. There, I learned leadership development, strategic planning, and organization development.
My toolbox and skillset grew rapidly. I enjoyed a newfound sense of accomplishment, and received validation for my new skillset, which ultimately led to a leadership position. Unsuccessful in that new role, I left and became a consultant to other organizations to pay the bills.
I now look back at my 35 years in the workforce, and two things stick out: (1) I’ve only spent 14 as a traditional full-time employee of an organization — and two of those were outside the U.S. (2) My work with almost every large organization I’ve been connected with either ended badly, or involved a major conflict.
It took me years to realize that I’m an impostor. I ended up working for organizations by accident, and stayed by necessity — or that’s the story I told myself. In truth, I don’t love organizations, and organizations don’t generally love me. I am pretty good at working with organizations, but I’m not brilliant.
What I do love is people. I care deeply about individuals and their personal growth. Most people who trust me with their growth journeys love me back, and are grateful for my work as a creative, writer, teacher, and coach. This is where I’m brilliant. Such work energizes and nourishes me. When I’m holding space for a client that’s crying, angry, or out of their mind with anxiety, I don’t wish I was somewhere else. When I’m writing or creating, I lose time, engrossed in delight.
That’s because I’m not an impostor. I’m home. I’m not trying to pretzel myself into a shape that’s not me. I’m not trying to make myself fit into some funky-ass clothes that are too tight or not right.
Those words I spoke to my companion in 2012 were a sign. The harm I experienced, and the harm I inflicted after that were symptoms of a larger truth — I was in the wrong place. And because of that, I became unfit for duty.
The Question That Really Matters
Ultimately, the question of whether I was burned out or not fit for duty is irrelevant. Burnout is an indication of being unfit for duty — it’s more a question of “for how long?”
Sometimes being “unfit” is temporary and points to a need to rest, check out, unplug, or recharge. Sometimes it points to an unmet need for more support or balance that would make the difficult-but-worthwhile work more easeful and sustainable. Then, once rest has occurred, or balance achieved, “fitness” returns.
But sometimes “fitness” has been lost or damaged beyond repair. Maybe it was never there. Perhaps the world shifted around you, and you no longer fit like before. Regardless of the reason, sometimes burnout is your soul and psyche screaming: “You’re in the wrong place! You’re depriving yourself of joy and satisfaction! And you’re depriving the world of your unique gifts, and the gift that is You when you are joyful and satisfied!”
If that’s the voice inside you, I hope you listen and heed. I hope you don’t wait nine years, like I did.