Updated: Mar 23, 2022
Endurance is mistaken for resilience.
As a keynote speaker who works with leaders of major companies, I've noticed that we look in awe at people who take on many projects and work insane hours, and celebrating how tough they are. On the inside, they are often only a few decisions and misfortunes away from severe burnout.
When I was coordinating the political strategy for Extinction Rebellion, I worked from 6am in the morning to 11pm at night, 6 days a week, for months.
I had recently broke up with my partner, and asked myself what it would look like if I gave myself to just one thing beyond myself. I brought an intensity and zeal to my work, I was on a mission.
On the day after the second rebellion, battered and bruised from defending media attacks, I turned around to coordinate the XR General Election Campaign. I remember my colleague getting a call from an XR elder I respected a lot. She said: “Tell Ronan he’s the energiser bunny”. I felt this glow inside.
I lasted a week, and haven’t been the same way since. On the outside I looked resilient. On the inside, I was falling apart. I'd take valium before big meetings, go to the pub to drink Guinness after media interviews, and take ibuprofen around the clock.
The tipping point came when I started an over the counter dopamine supplement to manage my anxiety. More dopamine is good right? It felt that way so I kept on upping the dose. It turns out when you introduce an exogenous supply of dopamine, your body corrects the imbalance by stopping its endogenous supply. I went into a severe dopamine withdrawal, the equivalent of coming off a long term cocaine addiction. I went from challenging Boris Johnson in the media to shivering alone in my bed.
As a keynote speaker I often say that resilience begins that day we start to really feel the impact of what we are doing to ourselves. We find a deeper part of us who feels they are being dragged through a bush. The poet, David Whyte, heralds the returning to the “unbullied and uncoerced self”. Who would you be if you weren’t cracking the whip?
Resilience means looking at our relationship to over exertion, perfectionism and intensity. This is hardest when we’re in the stress zone and have tunnel vision. To this day, when faced with a mountain of tasks, with stress in my system and an aching neck, my default is to cram it all in. I’ll hear myself say: "Well, your neck is fucked already, so we might as well keep going". I literally have to pull myself away from the computer and walk into another room, like an addict.
As a keynote speaker I often remind my audiences that the heart of this work is making our unconscious drives conscious. Whose tune are we playing to when we drive ourselves to endure beyond reason? Is it a boss who has power over us, the obligation we feel to a world in crisis, or is it a younger part of us that is running the show?
Until we rein these in, we are on a collision course with burnout.
We must not endure.
This is an A-Z guide to showcase some unfamiliar concepts in resilience, originally shared on my LinkedIn and inspired by day-to-day insights from my own experience with burnout and my work as a keynote speaker.