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Preventing Leadership Burnout: A Yogic Perspective

How Business Leaders Can Leverage Their Stress to Produce Higher-Quality Outcomes & Greater Work-Life Flexibility

Your Unwanted Thoughts & Painful Emotions Are Determining Your Life (Whether You Like it or Not)

Whether we like it or not, our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions determine so much of our lives, but only because we avoid them. Avoiding our unwanted feelings and thoughts often involves avoiding people and situations that produce these feelings and thoughts, including the very people and situations that are an important part of pursuing our most meaningful projects and a meaningful life. And as this list of people and situations (that we feel compelled to avoid) grows, life becomes narrower and narrower, and we become more and more rigid. In other words, by avoiding whatever triggers uncomfortable thoughts/emotions, we miss opportunities for growth.

 

We continue to avoid doing the things we know that we should be doing in order to grow. We squander opportunities and then beat ourselves up. And then we trust ourselves less. Our relationships suffer; we feel more and more disconnected. And whatever little happiness/success we experience quickly evaporates. We treat our successes as inconsequential because, ultimately, we don’t feel much closer to our ideal. And not feeling any closer to our ideal, we feel that we’ve “wasted” time. We feel dejected, wondering if we’ve achieved anything of significance and if we’ll ever achieve our goals. Moments of inspiration (during which we strongly feel that we have more potential than our current life suggests) become less frequent and more frustrating because they remain unfulfilled. We treat our successes as inconsequential because, ultimately, they haven’t gotten us much closer to our ideal. This compels us to think about all the time we’ve “wasted” in our past. We believe less and less in our own inherent value.

 

We become stuck in cycles of anxiety and self-sabotage. We become stuck in habits that we’ve inherited and developed in the process of managing/avoiding (and trying to eliminate) the discomfort of feeling incomplete. This includes “destructive” addictions (to things such as food, gambling, shopping, dysfunctional relationships, etc.), but it also includes addictions that we might not think to be destructive, such as exercise and self-help. Either way, our attempts to free ourselves only reinforces our imprisonment. We become stuck. Fighting against ourselves.

 

And freedom is unavailable to those who remain imprisoned by themselves.

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...freedom is unavailable to those who remain imprisoned by themselves.

How Avoidance Affects Business Leaders

Stuck in cycles of anxiety (and looking to avoid burnout), when business leaders are unable to reach their goals, they:

  • feel inadequate; they feel that there is “something wrong with me” (and they think that fixing their personal/professional lives will correct this feeling of inner lack).

  • feel that they are missing something; if only they had the “right” information or more information about the future, they would be able to grow.

  • feel that they need “permission/approval” from more successful people in order to become like them; a “successful” person telling them that they’re “on the right track” would grant them the permission they need to more actively pursue growth.

  • wonder if they’re doing the right thing; they feel that they would flourish if only they found the “right” thing/career/person/support.

  • feel that they are unsupported by circumstances and “unlucky”.

  • wonder if there is anything distinctive or special about their own abilities.

  • can’t see a bright future, and don’t feel particularly motivated to make changes. Their despondence leaves them wondering if they will ever reach their “potential”.

  • wonder if they’ll ever have the meaningful impact promised by business leadership.

  • are likely suffering from burnout and are frustrated about the R.O.I. on their time.

  • are perhaps unable to afford the quality of life they desire (for themselves and their families). 

  • feel that they’ve perhaps damaged their important relationships.

Being a business leader creates the conditions for having various forms of impact (e.g., achieving organizational goals, creating positive social change, creating the conditions for innovation, motivating and inspiring others, building a larger network and personal legacy, etc.). When we feel stuck, we do not feel as though we are creating as much of an impact as we had hoped. And if growth means just doing more of what we’re already doing (some/much of which we perhaps don’t enjoy), we imagine that we’ll be less free; we feel little motivation to grow. 

 

Avoiding our discomfort provides a number of challenges to our achieving meaningful freedom:

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from abandoning the strategies that have earned us success thus far (the abandonment of which is required for further growth). Our fear of “losing control” prevents us from removing ourselves as the bottleneck to further growth. We fear that the only way to earn more is to do more, and wonder if this is sustainable if we want more time freedom to focus on bigger and better outcomes.

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from exploring possibilities and acting on opportunities, so we are unable to gain new perspectives on our situation and find the “right” information/assistance so that we can take the next step (so we can feel more supported and optimistic about the future).

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from doing what we know we should be doing in order to produce results. (Taking uncomfortable steps to produce results—something we’ve all done before—creates a feeling of progress and competence that keeps us motivated.)

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from looking directly at the terms of our inner life or “mindset” that prevent us from growth, including our unacknowledged desires and frustrations, our (often self-sabotaging) standards, our relationship with our self/past, and what we might be uniquely capable of doing something about.

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from making difficult decisions about warring commitments and responsibilities, which prevents us from designing our life and formulating strategy, preventing us from improving our relationships, mental health, and important business decisions. Avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from honestly answering the question, “what kind life do I want to to live?”

  • Avoiding our discomfort/stress makes us less resilient. When life forces us to make changes that require growth, avoiding our discomfort/stress prevents us from quickly identifying a way forward.

 

As a result, we feel we have less time, and aren’t quite sure how to leverage the little time we have. As such, we can’t/don’t focus our efforts on the few critical things that will produce the best results (and a sense of improved capability and progress), and thus surrender our time freedom, financial freedom, and the freedom to pursue the life we wanted. We don’t freely choose our priorities; our priorities seem self-defined. Our relationships often suffer—both personal and professional. We feel we have fewer resources to act on our creativity. We feel we have fewer resources to autonomously make decisions about our professional lives. We feel we have fewer resources to pursue the development of skills that we find personally and professionally meaningful (including mentorship/coaching). We feel we have fewer resources to make an impact on those around us, and to think seriously about our legacy. Our exhaustion often feels meaningless. In other words, we have less control of our time and our impact.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that your anxieties are becoming unmanageable and you’re concerned about leadership burnout (or business owner burnout or executive burnout). You no longer want your personal and/or professional life to be reduced to simply navigating whatever produces anxiety because this approach only exacerbates your issues: missed opportunities, frustration, and a growing feeling that you’re falling behind. You appreciate that “growth” doesn’t consist of just acquiring some impressive new thing (e.g., promotion, vacation home, luxury car, partner, etc.) that will earn you recognition and “fix” your own feelings of inadequacy. Instead, you define “growth” as something that also produces meaningful impact, freedom, and a new and more complete sense of yourself. 

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Whether we like it or not, our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions determine so much of our lives, but only because we avoid them.

The Anxiety of Freedom:
3 Steps to Achieving Meaningful Growth, Impact, and Freedom

What follows are three ‘stages’ of becoming meaningfully free. This process does not follow a linear path. You’re never “finished” any of these ‘stages’. Rather, they each are deepened as you continue to grow and (necessarily) become more capable and resilient, confident and self-connected, fulfilled and free. Every step forward produces new possibilities. 

(1) Experience Your Innate Calmness & Resilience
Running From Your Anxieties Means that Your Anxieties Are in Control

Resilience and inner calm are not things that we must “obtain” from some place outside of ourselves. We already have them. We need only figure out what we’re doing that is preventing us from experiencing them. 

 

But simply wanting to experience inner calm and resilience isn’t enough because the simple exertion of willpower isn’t enough, especially when the source of this willpower is the anxious individual looking to “get rid of” something in/about themselves. In these instances, our anxieties are in control. The habitual self who needs to feel secure is in control. And this habitual self who is in the habit of reaching for security cannot grow.

 

This basic habit—of avoiding our anxieties—produces and reproduces self-sabotaging behaviour, feelings of isolation and meaninglessness, and the relentless craving for whatever ‘next’ thing we feel we need in order to finally feel “at peace” and “complete”: more money, fame, love, attention, status, respect—the car, the house, the job, the promotion, the partner, marriage, the child, retirement, and even spiritual enlightenment. When we are no longer running from ourselves, our attention is no longer consumed by a future ideal that we think will fill up our sense of lack (which tends only to exacerbate our lack rather than free us from it).

 

But we cannot turn off these basic desires—to avoid anxiety and to seek security/control—with our will. This is why we need a practice to bypass the habitual self’s desire to unthinkingly escape discomfort. In other words, we need a practice for freeing ourselves from the the unconscious habits that keep us stuck in anxiety and self-sabotage—the ‘old maps’ that are determining our thinking, acting, feeling, and even our perceiving. And we need a practice to train our capacity for deep, meditative focus which, apart from being pleasurable, provides a radically different perspective on our thinking/mind, improves our productivity, and allows us to respond sensibly to the infinite demands on our attention. And as we change our relationship with anxiety, we train our capacity for deep, meditative focus which, apart from being pleasurable, improves our productivity and allows us to respond sensibly to the infinite demands on our attention.

 

What practice is most effective for helping us bypass our habitual self? Learning to sit with our anxieties ensures that we won't waste our life running from them. Acquainting ourselves with our inner calm and resilience allows us to develop a radically different relationship with anxiety: anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating, and moments of rest/downtime don’t have to be anxiety-producing (by reminding us about what we’re not doing or what we could or should be doing in order to continue to grow). And we don’t have to feel compelled to constantly be “busy” just so we can avoid the anxiety of not having something—anything—to occupy our attention (and perhaps the anxiety of not being able to tell others that we are “busy”).

 

This is important because anxiety is a non-optional part of growth. Perhaps the simplest way to deal with anxiety is simply to be willing to feel it. Simple, yes, but certainly not easy. (And always made more difficult by craving some state of being that we think is on the other side of our anxiety.) Running from (or trying to destroy) our anxieties just means that our anxieties are in control.

 

We are then able to tell the truth about our situation—where we’ve been and where we are, who we are and what we [actually] want—and thus enjoy sustainable and meaningful growth in our levels of competence, confidence, autonomy, progress, and freedom. Being able to tell the truth about our situation allows us to interrogate our standards, which are often quickly revealed to be impossible. These impossible standards tend to reinforce our sense of inner lack, make us feel incompetent, and allow our (narratives about our) past “failures” to foreclose the possibility of a brighter future. 

 

As we become more capable of viewing our situation more objectively, we become more connected with ourselves. And it is our self-connection that reduces the likelihood that we will be consumed in/by the relentless pursuit of “more”.

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Perhaps the simplest way to deal with anxiety is simply to be willing to feel it. Simple, yes, but certainly not easy. (And always made more difficult by craving some state of being that we think is on the other side of our anxiety.)

(2) Experience Your Innate Fearlessness
Your Growth, Impact, and Freedom are Connected to the Things You Avoid

Fearlessness just is no longer running from our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions. Fearlessness just is no longer running from ourselves.

As we learn to sit with our fears and anxieties rather than unthinkingly react to them, we’re less trapped by them. And when we’re less trapped by our patterns of reactivity, there is more “space” to see our underlying patterns, and to articulate—by directly experiencing—how these patterns are producing and reproducing our destructive habits. We are also able to see the ways in which our attention is habitually and automatically pre-occupied. This allows us to assess whether we’re spending our attention on matters that reinforce our suffering or that liberate us therefrom.

 

Changing our habitual self requires confronting these hitherto unconscious habits, especially those that we develop and inherit in order to avoid painful thoughts/feelings/situations. Focusing our efforts on making our implicit habits more explicit will allow us to see how our flourishing is tied up in the tangled emotions connected to the things we avoid. Unless we become clear about the unconscious patterns that are determining our choices, we’ll often pursue remedial measures that further reinforce our problem (and thus reinforce our self-sabotage). 

 

Furthermore, confronting what we avoid about ourselves allows us to experience how/when our anxieties are in control. What situations trigger us? What do we do as a result? What benefit do we [actually] derive from this? Once we repeatedly see—actually see—that the actual benefits we derive from avoidance are not aligned with our objectives, new behaviours become available to us. But this doesn’t occur if we don’t directly experience the pattern; a purely intellectual understanding that a particular habit is “destructive” isn’t enough to change our behaviour. Simply studying the depths of our inner life alone is insufficient to live freely. 

 

No longer running from ourselves allows us to (finally) bring to light these tensions and hidden (often warring) commitments that have been preventing us from adopting new behaviours. These tensions and commitments remain unintelligible because we do not approach the (difficult) work of becoming self-aware; in other words, we don’t face ourselves. And when we don’t face ourselves, resources remain trapped in repressive habitual behaviours (i.e.,  our habitual ways of repressing our truth—in desires and fears and thoughts and feelings, including fear, sadness, anger, pain, excitement, etc.). Confronting our repressive habitual behaviours allows us to un-cover our own resources that allow us to overcome or transcend our existing ways of being in the world. Self-awareness just is becoming aware of the various factors determining our existing ways of being. Self-awareness is self-transcendence.

 

As such, we continue to shame ourselves for our failure to course-correct, and we continue to search for more/better “advice”. No amount of good advice will help us if we are bound by self-sabotaging patterns that prevent us from acting on (what could be) good advice or even requesting said advice. Self-sabotaging habits are often produced in response to the mere expectation of discomfort, the expectation that one will be inadequate to the demands of growth. We will not seek to expand our discomfort; a self who recoils from certain forms of discomfort is unlikely to grow into something they predict will produce these forms of discomfort.

Growth requires opening our (current) self up in ways that we don’t control, which may include abandoning the very strategies that have earned us success thus far. Fear is the primary obstacle. Unarticulated fears have the capacity to be most obstructive, but the process of articulating fears is unavailable to those who recoil from fears rather than remain with them. No longer running from our fears, we are more inclined to interrogate our own frustrations and standards, explore our habits and motivations, and honour our needs and inspirations. In other words, we are more inclined to being ourselves, being who/what/where we are, which means being less resistant to—and weighed down by—our discomfort and our (interpretations of our) self/past, and therefore freer to create/realize our “true” self in the world.

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This is what it means to become fearless: fearlessness just is no longer running from our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions.

(3) Experience Your Innate Ability to Control Your Time, Attention, and Life:
Your Growth is a Means for Being Yourself (and Not an End that Will Define Your Worth)

Our desire to find permanent emotional/material security (to finally be “at peace”) actually reinforces the basic sense of lack/anxiety that we’re trying to eliminate. In other words, the very quest for permanent freedom from our personal suffering might be the very thing keeping us from our deepest fulfillment.

But we want progress. We want to feel more competent and effective. We want to feel more self-assured; we want our growth/impact/freedom to give us a more complete sense of ourselves.

 

There are better and worse ways of pursuing progress: destructive ways reinforce our lack, and constructive ways provide us precisely with a more complete sense of ourselves—i.e., “fulfillment”. Constructive paths begin with the understanding that I’ll never get “there”; I’ll never accumulate anything in the world that will leave me feeling permanently secure in myself. But whereas every step forward can, indeed, reveal new ideals that I’ve failed to accomplish, every step forward can also disclose new possibilities for self-realization—i.e., for realizing myself in the world (with/through other people/things). When we focus on self-realization, our freedom and vision, goals, habits, and growth all become means for being ourself rather than ends that will define our worth.

 

When our objective is meaningful freedom (of time, of money, etc.), worldly success should come with the ease of being ourselves and being okay with ourselves, our own “true” self: the transparent site of our natural inspirations, values, desires, and strengths that allows us to explore what inspires us and develop/expand what we feel uniquely capable of doing something about. This is called our personal “Dharma”—i.e., our own nature, our intrinsic qualities/“properties”, what our existence “upholds” (or what we naturally hold up in/to the world). This is the self that remains when we don’t need anything. It doesn’t have to “cling to” or defend/protect itself because its primary goal is not to add weight to its image. Self-realization is self-expression, not self-aggrandizement; we’re not trying to accumulate more “self”.

 

Experiencing this “true” self doesn’t require sanitizing our inner lives of whatever (we think) causes our sense of inadequacy/shame. It doesn’t require ‘fixing’ all of our weaknesses so that we are immune to criticism. It doesn’t require achieving bulletproof mental health. In fact, the quest for any kind of personal perfection only reinforces our inner lack, and this includes the quest for self-sufficiency in the name of self-realization. Self-realization is not the process of developing the kind of self-sufficiency that eliminates our vulnerabilities. In addition to reinforcing our inner lack, our craving to be more substantial also reinforces our sense of separateness/isolation, which then motivates self-interested ways of being in the world—ways that keep us ‘stuck’ in identities, situations, and habits that produce and re-produce suffering. Our life/self isn’t a problem to be solved.

 

Growth for the sake of growth (and productivity for the sake of productivity) can leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, growth—and goals pursued—for the sake of expressing and developing the potentials afforded to and by our “true” self leaves us feeling more connected, capable, and free.

 

Being “in control” often just requires reducing the number of things that you feel compelled to control. Focusing on self-realization allows us to filter and focus our attention: we don’t waste our time putting out fires and/or shoring up personal weaknesses that have nothing to do with realizing ourselves. We’re not trying to ‘collect’ strengths with the hope that we’ll finally eliminate our feelings of personal inadequacy. Rather, focusing on self-realization calls us beyond our preoccupation with ‘fixing' ourselves towards connecting with ourselves. Excessive focus on our ‘self’ can cause us to remain firmly in the grip of our compulsions/anxieties/rumination. On the other hand, self-connection allows us to become aware of our intrinsic motivations, inspirations, confidence, values, standards, needs, vulnerabilities, etc.

 

And focusing on self-realization calls us to connect with our past and future in ways that allow us to be more effective and fulfilled right now. In our lived experience, our past is often just a repository of failures/incompetence and our future is an impossible ideal that just reminds us of our lack (and our sense of both past and future mutually reinforce each other). A more accurate/grounded view of our past reveals progress/competencies that make possible a brighter future (and, again, our sense of both past and future mutually reinforce each other). Confidence becomes more readily accessible, and doesn’t feel like a requirement before acquiring competence (which typically prevents us from ever beginning). We don’t feel as unsupported or as inadequate. And we are more present with ourselves, attentive to the myriad ways we’ve changed (and are always changing). Our different expectations about our future possibilities then affect how we use our time and attention right now.

 

A personal vision/mission that is aimed at ‘correcting’ our situation without ‘connecting with’ our situation—i.e., being “present”—is often infected with inner lack, the need for recognition, doubt, fear, and insecurity—and the need for a feeling of full confidence before even beginning, lest they be made to feel incompetent by any setback. A personal vision can be exciting to create but often ends up shaming us more than inspiring us—reminding us of what we haven’t accomplished and of all the time we’ve been “wasting”. In fact, we can waste our entire lives trying to realize a vision that was never truly ours to begin with, but which we assumed was a guarantor of a weightier ego. Without self-connection, even setting goals can become painful because of our history of seldom reaching them.

 

A personal vision is always a vision for self-realization—for realizing oneself in the world. Self-realization calls us to self-development through contribution/collaboration, instead of self-obsession through craving/comparison. Contribution and collaboration keep us disciplined and leave us feeling connected and free. Craving and comparison leave us feeling disorganized and stuck, isolated and resentful, and unhappy with ourselves, our abilities, our progress, and our lives.

 

A personal vision for self-realization based on self-connection is the result of connecting with our own intrinsic motivations, inspirations, confidence, values, standards, needs, and vulnerabilities—which requires no longer avoiding your own inner life. To realize something means to “become fully aware of” it and “to cause it to happen”. Self-realization is simultaneously understanding and creating the self in/with the world. And this process is never “finished”. This process—the mindful pursuit of self-realization—inspires us to grow beyond ourselves, to grow beyond the (imposed) need for recognition/status—to grow beyond the ego. Fulfilling growth is just the result of freeing ourselves from limitations imposed by our habitual self’s desire for recognition/security; it is the result of surrender, not pursuit.

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Growth requires opening our (current) self up in ways that we don’t control, which may include abandoning the very strategies that have earned us success thus far.

When “Managing Tasks” Feels Aimless and Meaningless:
How Anxiety Can Help a Business Leader Do More Meaningful Work, Live a More Meaningful Life, and Reduce Exhaustion/Burnout

Our anxiety shows us what we care about but perhaps didn’t realize we cared about. As such, anxiety gives us the opportunity to think seriously about how we’re spending our limited time and attention. We will never have all the “answers” to our most pressing personal/professional dilemmas, and we never know how things will turn out. And we cannot pause time or retreat to some place that is ‘outside’ of experience to “get everything right” before we continue living our lives. Regardless of our comfort level or sense of direction, we are required to move forward anyway, even if we have no perfect “justification” for doing so. These are non-optional dimensions of life. And as anxiety-producing as this often can be, no one else (but you) is responsible for how your life will turn out. It’s difficult to change your life if you refuse to own up to this responsibility.

What Can Go Wrong When Trying to Avoid Burnout (While Creating Higher-Quality Outcomes)

Your “stress management” practices should exceed stress relief and the effective management of insignificant tasks. “Stress management” or “burnout recovery” should be part of a larger plan that seeks to understand how to leverage your anxiety for what you truly want: growth, impact, and freedom. But this isn’t an intellectual process. In yoga, to “understand” something requires having a direct experience of it. You need an experience—a transformative one—that leads you to develop a different relationship with yourself and your life. To do this, you need a practice to experience your inner calm and fearlessness but also your anxieties and fear; you need a practice to interrogate your frustrations and standards, explore your habits and motivations, and honour your needs and inspirations—and, most importantly, to then leverage these realizations to create a simple plan for creating more meaningful growth, impact, and freedom. You don’t need permission from anyone or anything to be fulfilled; you just need an effective strategy for leveraging your inner life.

 

But the most important part of any process of achieving meaningful growth, impact, and freedom is ensuring that the ego isn’t in charge of the process. If we cannot monitor the machinations of the ego (and its deep self-preserving habits that are keeping us imprisoned), we remain stuck (and/or success feels empty)—and the only thing we will have accomplished is reinforcing the very problem we were attempting to subvert.

  1. The key to sitting with our anxieties is ensuring that we’re not ‘sitting with anxiety’ for the sake of accomplishing some goal (including “eliminating anxiety” or “achieving growth”).

  2. The key to confronting what we’ve been avoiding about ourselves is ensuring that we’re not trying to fix anything.

  3. The key to establishing self-connection is ensuring that we’ve put aside the need to become more substantial and secure. 

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Fulfilling growth is just the result of freeing ourselves from limitations imposed by our habitual self’s desire for recognition/security; it is the result of surrender, not pursuit.

What You Can to Do Right Now to Obtain a Different Perspective on Your Situation

Speak directly with Balrāj about your challenges. Schedule a free Clarity Call

 

Balrāj uses the wisdom of traditional yoga philosophy to help executives, business owners, and leaders leverage their stress to produce higher-quality outcomes. His expertise is in helping people become more meaningfully free.

 

He offers fully-customized results-based coaching, private meditation, and half-day online retreats. He is a yogi, psychological Vedic astrologer, and conversational hypnotist. To speak directly with Balrāj about your situation, check to see when he’s available.

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