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Our expectations can contribute to autistic burnout. | The Neurodiverging Podcast

As a late-identified person, I didn’t know what autistic burnout was until I was already many years into one. Then, I was able to make some significant changes that reduced many of my day-to-day challenges, and stayed burnout-free for a number of years. But around last summer, I almost hit hit full burnout again. In this episode, I’m explaining what happened, what I learned from it, and how I got out of burnout in record time.

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Transcript: Our expectations can contribute to autistic burnout

Hello my friends, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast. My name is Danielle Sullivan and I am your host. Thanks for tuning back in. I’m glad that you’re here today.

Today is part one of what’s going to be a multi-part series where I am talking about autistic burnout. We have discussed burnout on this podcast multiple times from multiple different angles. But I personally have not actually experienced burnout in several years.

As a late identified person, I didn’t know what autistic burnout was until I was identified and was already in chronic burnout. Looking back, I think most of my 20s was in chronic burnout. But once I was identified and I was able to do some of the work to re-frame and re-understand what I needed, as a human being and as an autistic brain specifically, I was able to make some significant changes that reduced a lot of my day-to-day challenges. Now I have been burnout-free for quite a number of years.

But around last summer, 2023, I almost hit hit full burnout again. Since this was the first time that this had happened to me in many years, it took me a while to realize that that was going on. I was able to catch it before it really dipped. Now, about six months later, I would say that I’m basically recovered, which is unheard of, because at least with my clients and in my experience, solving burnout usually takes a lot longer than that.

But since I had this experience, I thought, well, maybe it would be useful to some of y’all to hear me talk about a very recent experience of burnout, what caused it, what led up to it, and then what I’m doing now that I’m out of the passive healing stage and into the active addressing stuff stage again, doing the work to fix all the stuff that fell over while I was in burnout. Because a lot of stuff falls over when you’re in burnout, because you can’t handle as much.

For part one today, I would like to talk about what led up to that burnout experience, how I noticed what was happening, and was able to intervene a little earlier than I would have been able to 10 years ago.

Before I dive in, I just do want to, of course, thank my patrons. They are the best people. Patrons throw a couple of bucks in the pot every month over at to support this podcast and allow it to keep going.

They pay for our low-income clients to receive coaching access. They also support my ability to do this. So they’re a fantastic group of people and I am so happy and honored that they are spending their hard-earned dollars on this podcast for us to have available to the public. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all of our patrons for making that possible.

If you’re interested in becoming a patron, you will love the community. We have a private discord community where we meet twice a week for accountability and body doubling sessions. We meet once a month socially. People check in on there all the time. We talk about the podcast episodes. We talk about recent news and neurodivergence. We talk about our own lives and what’s going on and support each other. It’s a really amazing place to be. If that sounds like something that you’re into, please go over and join us. And there’s lots of other perks and things you can actually get in terms of classes and discounts and stuff like that too. So Alright, so let’s dive into this.

Around June last year, just to set the stage, things were going well in my general life. All the spheres of my life were moving relatively well. The kids were doing okay. My mental health was fine. My partners were doing okay. We were making some really great progress on some house projects that I’d put a lot of time and energy into.

As head of the company, obviously I put a lot of energy into Neurodiverging Coaching, and it was going well. We had had a huge influx of new clientele about eight months prior and I’d had to very quickly do a lot of work to grow. And it had caused some, not anything close to burnout, but it caused me some stress. Positive stress like, Oh gosh, we’re growing really fast. This is amazing. That wasn’t what I really expected. Let’s hire some folks. Let’s create the underlying stuff you need to have in a business, like payroll and calendars and training manuals and all these things.

Around June, it had started to quiet down. But then what happened is I had an unexpected pregnancy in June. I’m not going to talk about this too much. So this is two minutes of discussion, just for those of you who are concerned.

I have wanted another child for a long time. For various reasons, it is not likely to happen and was not likely to happen. And so the pregnancy came as a huge surprise, but something I was really excited about. And I should just say that it was actually early July that I recognized that I was pregnant. I was incredibly excited and happy about it.

And then in August found out that the pregnancy was not viable. And so that’s all I’m gonna say about it. So I’m not gonna get into details about, but basically had a miscarriage. It was very uncomfortable physically and also just mentally very draining.

There’s so many things that can go into causing autistic burnout for clients. And for me, in my personal experience, for me in the past, it was a lot of emotional turmoil, not really understanding my alexithymia, not understanding communication styles, having a lot of empathy but not reall knowing how to use it appropriately.

What was really interesting about this particular burnout last summer was that it was really clear to me… well, okay, in the moment, I should just say, it was a burnout. I had no energy, everything sucked, I was exhausted, I was non-functional, the house fell to ruins, everybody was eating takeout. It was just one of those things.

What I find really interesting now thinking about it though, is here’s what caused my burnout. There were all these practical level things. I had a miscarriage. I felt like crap physically. I also had stuff going on with the business and stuff going on with kids that popped up in September a little later. And so there was stuff practically happening. This one thing triggered it or started it and then stuff piled on top of it.

But really what it came down to for me, what caused the burnout for me, mentally as opposed to physically, was I had put so much energy into envisioning a new life. One thing about pregnancy, if you have never had a child or if you’ve gone through any other life experience – maybe you expected to get married, you expected to enroll in a certain college, you expect to be able to go on some amazing vacation – and then for whatever reason, the thing doesn’t go. The thing doesn’t work out.

And what happened in my case was I spent weeks and weeks and weeks of intense energy envisioning a future in which XYZ happened – all the planning you do when you think you’re going to have a baby – all of that that I had done was not going to happen. So then I used all this energy trying to set up for something that wasn’t going to occur.

And then on top of that, on top of that energy loss, there was also, okay, now I have to re -plan the whole future again. So I spent all this energy planning and envisioning and working and figuring out a set of problems I thought existed. Then that stopped, that didn’t work, but I had a new set of problems that existed. And so I spent even more energy and time and effort re -envisioning and planning and practicing for what I expected the future to be.

So the first set of energy was expected in my day-to-day. I expect to be envisioning for the future of my day-to-day. But then when the baby didn’t happen, I had to find and utilize backup energy that I don’t really have, on top of the physical manifestations of dealing with huge hormonal shifts and physical miscarriage.

So I had physical challenges on top of emotional challenges on top of mindset challenges. And to have to expend yet more energy, from a place of emergency response really, really, really pushed me back.

So then I didn’t have enough energy left to recoup from all this crap. I used energy to plan. It didn’t work. I had to use emergency energy to reshuffle everything again. And then any little thing that happened – A kiddo has a problem. One of my kids had to had a big cavity, and we had to go to six dental appointments about it. I would have been able to handle that in most cases. But because I had used up my emergency energy storage, I didn’t have anything to use to deal with this dental issue. And he’s fine. We solved it. So, don’t worry about him. It was just an example.

The garden fell apart. I was not able to meal plan and cook. And so I was eating, if I was eating,
I was eating takeout, which is fine, morally neutral. But I often was not feeding myself or remembering to eat or drink, or remembering to go to bed on time, or I was not able to sleep because of the hormones and the anxiety and all this. And so then I was even lower resourced.

So now that I am out of burnout, what enabled me to get there? And I’m going to talk about this more practically in future episodes. But the thing that I really remember from when I was originally identified as autistic and started to realize I was in burnout and was trying to implement ideas to get out of it, and then what I’ve learned from clients, and then what enabled me to try to approach this burnout is first:

It took me two months to recognize that I was in burnout because it didn’t happen overnight. It’s not that I woke up one day and I was in burnout. And initially because of the fact that the miscarriage had prompted this burnout, for lack of better framing, I thought that I was bereaved. I thought that I was experiencing a very difficult but normal level of grief around the loss of the baby, but also the loss of the things I had planned. And I think it’s pretty normal when you’ve had any kind of loss that you’re going to feel pretty awful for a while.

And there’s ways that that awfulness checks the same boxes as the awfulness of burnout; there’s some crossover. And so at first I thought, okay, well, you’re grieving, and it’s going to take a while, and you just have to let yourself do it. And then you’ll feel better: not right away, but you will.

And as my physical health returned, this was maybe in about October, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling as okay as I expected to. So I knew that I wasn’t going to get over this issue quickly. I wasn’t expecting that grief would be three months and then I’d be done. That’s not realistic.

But I did expect, Oh, there will be an initial space where these feelings are intense and ongoing. And then they will start to space out a little bit because that’s been my previous experience of loss and grief. And what I noticed was that at the time when I was physically better and should have been starting to be emotionally better, I was still very easily emotionally triggered.

I was still not sleeping well. I was still having trouble eating. I was still having trouble doing what I wanted to do. Self care. And that’s when I started to think, Oh, this isn’t just grief. This is burnout. This is your kind of brain, my kind of autistic brain.

Because of the huge emotions that grief calls for, my brain is using so much energy processing this set of emotional experiences that there is nothing left for the day-to-day tasks and the basic living skills. They’re just gone.

And of course I was prioritizing parenting, because I have two vulnerable kids, vulnerable in terms of their ages, but also in terms of their neurodivergences And so anything that I had that was not going to processing grief was going to parenting –  communicating and hanging out with and enjoying my kids. Which I don’t think was a bad decision, but it did mean that there was no energy for anything else,
for anything else.

Once I was able to realize that, “Hey, this is not just grief. This is now grief plus burnout,” then I was able to be like, a”Okay, I know what to do with burnout, at least practically.” And it’s been a while since I had to practice knowing what to do in burnout, but I do know what to do in burnout.

Here’s what burnout does. Burnout is exhausting. Burnout makes basic daily living skills impossible. It messes with your executive function, so you literally can’t think from step to step to step. One of the other reasons that I realized I was in burnout is because – I spend most of my time in my room at home. I sleep in my room, I hang out in my room, I read in my room. It’s my cozy safe space.

Any time I left my room for this three-month period, I would walk out there and I’d go, “Why did I come out here?” I just could not hold information through the door. That piece of executive function, your working memory, that lets you carry information from one environment to a new environment.

And a lot of people have trouble with this regardless. I have trouble with this regardless, but it got 300% worse during burnout. I would walk out the door and go, was I trying to eat? Was I trying to drink? Did a kid ask me for something? Did a cat ask me for something? What am I doing here? Why am I here? This existential, I don’t know what’s going on! My brain was toast.

So here’s what I did. First, I recognized I was in burnout. I said, “Danielle, you are in burnout. Your priority is just trying to make things okay-ish.” Nothing is going to be 100% in burnout. Nothing is probably going to be 35% in burnout, frankly. And so the first thing I really had to do was reset my expectations of what was possible for me in this moment.

Not to saym Hey, you’re never going to feel better again! Not to say, Oh, I’m a failure because I can’t cook for my kids and we had pizza again. Not to say, Oh, I’m a failure because I spent too much money on pizza again.

But to say, I am having a significant challenge, and I am not going to let the little brain worms tell me that I’m crappy because I’m having this challenge. I’m going to reset my expectations.

I am going to say Danielle-in-burnout is not capable of the level of activity of Danielle in a normal state. Danielle-in-burnout is not able to cook as much, to clean as much, to pick up trash, to clean the cat food off the wall, to do any of these things.

The first thing I want to encourage folks who are dealing with this to do is really, really, really, really reset your expectations. If this person who is going through burnout, if they were sitting right next to you, what would you tell them? Would you tell them they should feel bad for ordering pizza again? Would you tell them that they should feel bad that there’s dust in the corners? Would you tell them that they should feel bad that they’re sleeping too much and they’re hardly leaving bed?

No, you’ve got to be kind to your and you gotta reset expectations. Danielle is gonna leave the bed when she freaking can and that’s that! And if she’s out of bed, she’s doing a good job, okay? And that is the kind of attitude that I think we need to practice taking with ourselves all the time, but especially in a vulnerable period like burnout, okay?

The second thing outside of resetting expectations is prioritizing the self-care and relinking to your community. When you feel crappy, it is human nature, at least for some of us, to hibernate, to say, “I want to just be in my bed watching Drawfee and I do not want to talk to anyone. I do not want to text anyone. I do not want to call anyone.”

And to some extent, calling people and texting people and going to coffee with people or whatever your social thing is legitimately difficult in burnout. It is legitimately difficult to want to do the executive function pieces, the tasks you have to do to even text somebody.

But it’s also difficult to want to be in a place that doesn’t feel safe. When we’re burned out, we are even more likely to feel less safe than any other time. And as we’ve talked about multiple times on the podcast, a lot of our internal experience a autistic people is just 100 % not feeling safe anywhere.

I feel safe in my room, but the rest of the house, I’m 95 % safe in. My kids are loud. My cats yell, as you have heard, in this podcast, because I can’t freaking filter Leo out of it, no matter what I do. Sometimes people come knock on the door. I think there’s really something to the fact that a lot of us have experienced so much trauma that when we’re burnt out, it makes sense that we want to hide. We want to keep ourselves safe.

But it’s also really important to, even if it’s just a little bit, find your friends and let them tell you that it’s going to be okay. Even if that’s 1% of the contact you used to have with that person, it’s still better than nothing. And it’s important to remind yourself that you used to be okay. and you’re gonna be okay again.

The other thing is that self-care piece. The first two months after the miscarriage, I think I basically laid in bed and watched Drawfee. I read a little bit. I hung out with my kids. We watched so many cartoons. And I tried to just focus on eating and drinking and being with my family. Those for me were the things that were self-care. Those for me were the things that [will help me] feel better, if I can basically feed myself, basically rest myself and try to be reinvigorated and enjoy my life with my kids ,who are a huge portion of my life, and my cats who are a huge portion of my life.

I backed up from Neurodiverging a ton. Thank you so much to Jenn and Emily for making the business run, because I really had to back off. I couldn’t handle the executive function of writing emails, and my brain was mush. People with mush brains should not write emails. I read lots of fiction. I took so many baths. I ordered food in, as I mentioned.

I also just want to say that from the professional side as a coach, this is the piece of burnout recovery that I see clients struggling with the most. I think a lot of us are taught that if we’re not productive, then we’re failing. And burnout requires you to be literally non-productive if you want to feel better, because all of our energy and all of our attention and intention needs to go internal. It needs to go to our basic interoceptive, proprioceptive stuff.

All you can do during burnout is let your brain recover, let your brain reconnect, let your brain do the work it needs to do to feel okay again. And that’s all internal work. You can’t see it at all from the outside. So from the outside, it looks like you’re sitting around watching TV and eating pizza. And it’s really easy to judge ourselves, but also to judge other people for what looks like lazy behavior.

But as we know, laziness is not real. Thank you, Devon Price. Laziness is a way of saying that there’s a mismatch between the expectation and what’s actually happening. If your expectation, and this is just a circle back around, if your expectation is that you’ll be able to function the way you used to, you’re going to feel bad because you’re not going to be able to meet your expectation.

So in burnout, the first steps are to be as freaking lazy as you can, to get as much off your plate as you can, to defer tasks, to delegate tasks, to get everything out of your way so that you can sit and watch TV and let your brain, the subconscious background stuff, sort itself out. After enough time and enough rest, most of our brains sort themselves out.

You might need therapy, you might need psychiatric help, you might need peer support, you might need community support. There’s lots of other things you might want to add into this. But the basic level is you have to drop your expectations for your productivity and let yourself feel better.

And that’s hard! It took me a decade and watching so many clients go through this to realize that that’s what was needed. I was in chronic burnout for most of my twenties and the early part of my 30s. And by the time I was identified as autistic, I had been been in burnout for probably, I mean, constant burnout for probably seven or eight years. And also, I had postpartum depression, I had PTSD, I had a slew of diagnoses, most of which had accumulated during that burnout period because I wasn’t getting what I needed.

The huge difference between how long it took me to recover from that burnout – it took years, years and years and years and years to feel better and to remember that I could be a person who enjoyed their lives again. And now I had a miscarriage in August. It’s February, so it’s six months later. I’m still going through the grief process, but I’m here with you. I’m feeling better. I’m eating and drinking. I’m hanging out with my cats. I cleaned the whole house. I connected with my friends.

I’m not in burnout anymore. I don’t feel 110%. I had a substantial loss six months ago. But I’m certainly not in the state that I was two, three, four months ago. I am recovering from burnout. I am. I would say I am recovered, in the sense that I am at 85 to 90 percent, which I think is pretty good because the idea that you’re supposed to be at 100 % all the time is pretty bonkers if you think about it. You’re going to be at 100 % twice in your life. And the rest of the time, if you’re at 60, 70%, I think you’re doing pretty well.

The hardest part about recovering from burnout is that you just have to let yourself do it. There’s no rushing it. There’s no making it faster. There’s no, if you follow this exact plan and do it in this exact way, you will recover in three months.

You have been damaged. You have been put through things humans are not designed to go through. And your brain and your body are freaking resilient and you can feel better. But it’s not going to happen next week or the week after or the week after. You have to commit to being kind to yourself, and this society doesn’t help us do that very easily.

You have to commit to letting yourself lay around and follow the things you feel like doing. You have to be willing to lean in to where you feel uncomfortable and think about why, and what you could do to feel better, as opposed to avoiding that discomfort.

All that stuff is basically impossible if you’ve been in chronic burnout for a long time, if you’ve experienced past trauma. It is super normal for me to see clients take two years to recover from burnout. Not to say that it takes two years for them to feel better. But that it takes two years for them to get from, “I have nothing in the tank,” to “My tank is 80% full.”

You can make significant strides faster. But there’s no speed run to getting through burnout. It’s taking care of yourself. And we’re not taught to do that. And we’re taught to feel bad when we do do that.

Next week, I’m going to come back and I’m going to talk about more practically the actual things that I have been doing after that initial self-care period of immediate response to burnout. I’m going to talk about what I would consider the second stage of burnout recovery, which is that practical strategic resetting of your life and your expectations and your goals that we do as our energy improves,
but we don’t want to go into burnout again. So using this past experience, I’m going to talk about that more and I hope it will be helpful to some of you who are going through it now.

I want you to know if you are in burnout that you are not doing anything wrong, you have not done anything wrong, it is not your fault. It is really hard to be a person with feelings in a society that doesn’t have them.

My best advice for you is to look at your expectations for yourself and consider, really, are they reasonable? Would you tell a friend, your best friend, the person you love most in all the world? Would you hold them to those expectations? Most people, when they really start to look at it, realize that their expectations for themselves are sky high.

And a lot of that is because we have have been working so hard to mask. We’ve been working so hard to look neurotypical that we put unreasonable expectations to ourselves. And that not only causes burnout in the first place, but also makes it harder to recover.

So go work with your therapist, go work with your best friend, go work with your coach, whoever it is. Or sit in journal if you’re one of those and figure out, Are your expectations reasonable? How could you make yourself feel better right now? Is that watching some TV? Putting some candy in your desk drawer? Going for a walk? Opening the window? Petting your cat?

Do something for yourself. Take care of yourself the way you would if you had a baby sitting next to you, or your old-man black cat who likes to yowl during podcasts.

Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope this is helpful. If you’re going through burnout, please know you are not alone. You are not alone, and you can get through it. Come back next week, where we’ll be talking about second stage recovery, and please take care of yourselves. Please remember, we are all in this together.

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