Emily and Amelia Nagoski may not have written Burnout especially for educators, but it sure feels like it. I ordered a copy before the episode of “Unlocking Us” got to Brené Brown’s Rapid-Fire Questions round. The pages are already underlined and dog-eared. When the stressors pile up and the pearls of meaning and goodness sometimes feel like the pea under a mattress pile, it is reassuring to know that I can begin to manage stress, even when I can’t manage the stressors.
Stress is something that happens automatically in our bodies. It is a cascade of chemical messages and every system in the body responds. The cycle, like driving through a tunnel, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we can’t immediately handle stress or notice it in the moment, we can get stuck in that emotion, the feelings pile up, and we end up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.
It turns out that the key to dealing with embodied stress and emotions is to speak a language the body understands. I had a perfect opportunity to put this theory into practice. The day after I streamed the podcast with Emily and Amelia, we had a fire drill in the classroom. The idea and experience of a fire drill in a classroom of 3, 4, and 5 year-olds is disruptive at best and scary at worst. The alarm is startling and the routine is unfamiliar. As we walked out of the classroom I shook my arms next to me like an ecstatic octopus and told the children, “shake it out!” They waved their arms until our classroom looked like a scurrying millipede. It worked! It’s the calmest the children ever felt reentering the classroom after a fire drill. We still gathered to make sense of this unusual experience, as we often do after a fire drill to explain what’s happened. This time the debrief included the reminder, “The alarm was startling and we shook all of that feeling out of our bodies!” I’ll admit it. I’ve had a good shake a few times since, but there are also other ways to work through stress.
Emily and Amelia cover a list of things we can do to get through the stress cycle. Moving is at the top of the list for children and adults, but other strategies work, too. When we streamed “Elf” for family movie night, I felt myself laughing out loud and I remembered that I was doing something good for myself. Even thinking about a time when I laughed uncontrollably can help me work through stress when I can’t break out the watercolor set or go for a hike.
Connection is key signal that we’re safe. It can feel hard to connect while wearing a mask and hugs don’t happen from six feet away, so we owe it to ourselves to curate these moments of connection. Sharing a little bit of kindness can go a long way for all involved. When the moments don’t give us reasons to smile and the tears start rolling down our faces, let them come. Emily and Amelia have some tips for a good cry— a practice that can help our children, too. Don’t problem solve in the moment, don’t ponder, don’t blame, and don’t worry about the what-ifs. Focus all attention on the sensation of crying. Notice and count the tears. Feel the skin heat up and notice the sensation of breath and heat.
The strategies are familiar, but I’m embracing these with a new perspective. When I’m able to move, create, laugh, cry, connect, hug, or breathe, I notice that I’m doing something good for myself. I’m also letting go of that twinge of guilt that comes for making time for myself and putting myself first. How did I finally manage that? I was let in on a secret, the secret of the Human Giver Syndrome.
Kate Manne describes Human Giver Syndrome as a cultural code that communicates that “human beings have a moral obligation to be their whole humanity, while human givers have a moral obligation to give their whole humanity,” and to give while remaining always, “pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others” (Nagosaki, p. 62). The messaging is coded for women, especially caregivers, and for BIWOC most of all. As caregivers, we cannot empower our children, no matter their gender, if we tie them up with these messages that harm those on both sides of the imbalanced scale. Now is the time for code breaking.
Every teacher I’ve met is passionate about their vocation. I feel incredibly lucky to love what I do. To work with integrity and truth, I must hold my own wellness at the center and I owe it to the children to model my own humanity. Every child deserves to fulfill their moral purpose and never at the cost of another’s humanity. To find this path, children need to see caregivers living their fullest humanity, too.
If ever there was a recipe for burnout, 2020 has all the makings. We may not be able to control the stressors, but we can still manage our stress. I’m not looking to find a permanent sense of calm. I’m practicing how to return to a state of peace and calm and to share these tools with the children who are learning to live their fullest humanity, too.
Nagoski, Emily PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books, 2019.