Burnout can be mysterious. Sometimes the cause is obvious and external — working long hours, any news headline from the past 4 years, lack of sleep, relationship strife, to name a few. Other times, burnout can creep in even when everything on the surface is going well! This is when the source can be more puzzling, and we have to do some soul searching to uncover what’s going on beneath the surface.
When the source of burnout is hidden beneath a shiny surface, it’s easy to shirk it off and attribute it to being “all in your head.” But the beauty of a dynamic, multi-dimensional approach to self care is that we can receive any sign of burnout — even the more mysterious cues — as an invitation to realign with who we are and what we need. When I need to recenter, realign and touch back in with myself and my needs, I turn to the element of water as a teacher.
Picture this : every element of your life and your body make up a wild landscape. One way we can conceive of burnout is that this ecosystem is literally burned. While there is a role for fire in a healthy ecology, we all know that too much for too long can cause massive damage to a landscape and all of its inhabitants.
Water is an obvious antidote for fire, and it can also show us a paradigm for burnout’s care. Since human bodies are over 50% water, as is the planet, water carries many wise ways about how to be alive. Learning and practicing the wisdom we learn from water is what I call Water Medicine.
There are many ways the body can let us know we need water medicine:
In the worlds of myth and cosmology, water often represents the soul — that more slippery, wild essence of us. So when our life isn’t obviously on fire, sometimes in order to heal burnout, we have to also attend to the soul.
When we lean in to what the water wants to share, then we can open up to new wellsprings, flow and rhythms of rain for any parts of our ecosystem that have been parched, dried out or burned up. In my work with students, Water’s medicine points us to methods like integrating desire, welcoming creativity, healing identity exhaustion, and finding forgiveness.
Most of us don’t have lives where we get to do only the things we want, and that’s to be expected. We have schedules to maintain, people to care for, work to get done, meals to prepare. Day-to-day life requires a lot of order and discipline from us in order to keep going. But there are also parts of who we are that don’t like order. There are pieces of us who present more wildly, make more of a mess, and rebel against the containment of the regular and the routine.
Because the order is more culturally acceptable, more explainable and more practical, those more wild versions grow hushed and hidden, subjugated to the law of the work week. When we do this year after year, it’s no wonder that pleasure, wonder, and awe begin to feel so distant. It’s no wonder that surviving feels like all we’re doing, engaging with life just to “make it through” instead of savoring its sweetness.
When burnout is coming from somewhere down inside of us, there may be a very important part of who we are that is ready to be prioritized. We may have to dive deep to recover, reclaim and give voice to an identity that got lost, a desire that we stopped believing was possible or a wound that wants to be forgiven.
When we’re living with burnout, it quickly becomes impossible for us to show up fully. Whether or not the root cause is clear, here are some ways you can begin to heal burnout with watery wisdom in mind.
Most cultural norms and expectations create an underlying assumption (even if unspoken) that we should be always expanding our capacity to be available. Therefore, the more we take care of ourselves, the more we can handle.
But water teaches us that we are not constant beings, and we can never show up for the world with never-ending availability.
Maybe you’re grieving, and you’re pushing yourself to RSVP “Yes” to every invite on your calendar. Or you’re overworked, telling yourself that after this one last project, you can rest. Or there’s no reason not to go except you just don’t want to.
Give yourself the permission to break from this cycle fueled by the myth of constancy. There will always be that “one more thing” to check off the list. But just like the rhythm of the waves, our rhythms change based on the seasons, the day, the time of month. The ocean doesn’t “get smaller” when the tide goes out; it’s just reaching out less. And, just like the ocean, retreating doesn’t mean you have lost capacity. Being honest about your capacity and availability can be a great start to forming more healing expectations and making more room for some of those more sequestered wants to come up to the surface. When you listen to your true needs and act on them, you can show up for yourself and those you love more fully.
There are parts of us that only poetry, nature, beauty, solitude and sensory rest can heal. What are the things you don’t allow yourself to do because it isn’t “practical” or because it isn’t serving an obvious goal or outcome? What are the experiences you crave that remind you that you can belong? When was the last time you played?
Play provides us with sources of inspiration and pleasure. When we play, we experience high levels of neural plasticity, which means we’re more capable of rewiring and changing our patterns.
Most of us have something we want to change; but the irony is, most of us have forgotten how to play. Deliberately build playtime into your life, whether that’s making art, dancing to your favorite song, or offering yourself blocks of unstructured time.
What are some regular playdates that you can keep with yourself? Keep the date even when you don’t “need” it.
In a state of burnout, we become so used to running on empty that self-care happens only in an emergency. Many of us live in this seesaw of extremes, bouncing back and forth between maximum effort and maximum recovery.
Sustainable rhythms are necessary for self-care. When we proactively take care of ourselves, we heal burnout before it ever has the chance to overpower us. Most of us don’t have room in our lives to take a six-month sabbatical, but we can all design breaks that might keep us from needing one.
Think of this inner nourishment like hydration. Most of us don’t want until we’re on the brink of death to remember that we need to drink water, but we drink a little water every day. The same is true for our inner hydration.
A rhythm that’s unique to your own life’s structures can help you receive the support you need. A simple rhythm that I’ve implemented into my life is that I only do outward facing recordings, meetings, sessions and teaching during two weeks of the month. That gives me two weeks each month where I can be a little more flexible, have time to catch up on back-end work, and not worry about how I look on Zoom. These more invisible weeks also line up with my menstrual cycle, so that I also have more bandwidth to take care of my body during a time where there is frequently health flares, pain and emotional weather. It’s a rhythm that I can rely on each month to take care of me.
I realize not everyone has the privilege to set their own schedule, but what is one small thing you could do each week or each month that can give you some cushion, some bandwidth, an exhale. It could be trading childcare with a friend every other week, getting groceries delivered, asking a family member to be in charge of meals two nights a week or putting a recurring swim date on your calendar.
It doesn’t matter what it is except that it’s regular, that it’s a relief, and it’s designed to catch you.
As part of nature, we are also a part of the frameworks and wisdom of the world outside. The good news is, nature heals so quickly when we work with how nature works.
Let water remind you that —
All of who you are deserves to be at your life’s table.
Constancy is always changing. Your availability is not a given.
There is fun to be had. Find ways to play.
You don’t have to be thirsty to take a drink. Hydrate often.
grace allerdice is a dance artist, astrologer, energetic practitioner + systems consultant. She is the host of the home—body podcast and the creator of Water Medicine™️. Since closing her yoga + Pilates studio in 2019, she facilitates individual sessions, online communities + learning that help us live into a more meaningful experience of purpose, fulfillment, flow and healing. It's her deep-seated pleasure to bring people together, ceremonialize the every day and bring people home—to themselves, to one another, to their best work and to this wondrous Earth. If you want to discover your own Water archetype for self care, take our free, 1-minute quiz here.