Working as a volunteer in any community can be incredibly draining. This is especially true when you are emotionally committed to bettering society at large through your efforts. You may find that you become quickly irritated or snap at friends, family or colleagues. Conversely, you may begin to see the community for whom you are working in a negative light and in turn begin to make harsh or destructive statements about them. I know because this is what happened to me; and although I did not realize it until just recently, I need to admit that I am burnt out.
I have always been attached to volunteer work and my involvement in community engagement long precedes my conversion to Islam. It is my passion for Islam and community that brought me to working within and for the Muslim community in my hometown of Regina. Although I love to be involved, working with people can, at times, be quite heavy. I think people can see that I have been tired and frustrated for some time, and to be more specific, I have been down-right angry (I am not very good at hiding my feelings although I am slowly learning). These emotions have little to do with my iman and everything to do with the Muslim community. Or shall I say, seemingly lack thereof. I personally do not have any complaints about particular individuals. This has more to do with the way Muslims (in general) are perceived and how we often (mis)represent ourselves and in turn Islam. We do haram and claim it is halal, we call other’s out for doing something haram even if it is halal. We make fools of ourselves. We insult and degrade one another. The list goes on and on, and for what? It is really just all a waste of our time. And so, the Muslim community is to blame. Or so I thought…
For the last few years I have been increasingly feeling detached from the people around me. I have had many very close friends leave me (they moved away) and there was a dramatic death in my family. Furthermore, I have simply been overworked by the day to day hustle and bustle of life. I have been surviving. Treading water and struggling to keep my head above water. My lowest point, however, is when I removed my hijab about one month ago. I know that some people think that I just wanted to have fun or be beautiful but it was neither. I was suffering deeply and I needed to protect myself the best way that I knew how and that was by blending in and disappearing.
There are many reasons for which I finally took it off and for me it was a lesser of two evils. It was a matter of losing my physical honor or losing my heart. So I made the painful decision to take it off and take in as many lessons as I could. After all, when God ﷻ brings you to your knees you had better open your heart to receive. And so I did. And so I have. I am not going to disclose all of my lessons in this post. I have decided to spread them out and get as much use out of them as possible but I will share this: suffering is a necessary part of the human condition. It is painful and it sucks. Big time.
Through this journey, I have come to realize that our suffering is actually something that is beneficial and good for us because it connects us (all of humanity) in ways that we can never understand. When we see suffering as a gift rather than a punishment, we open ourselves up to the many lessons that God ﷻ has provided. We can become humble and aware. We can become more compassionate, more loving, more merciful because we know how it feels to be denied. And this, to me, is how we are each individually connected.
Now when I say that I opened myself up to receive, I am not playing. As soon as that intention was made, I found myself at a founders meeting in Winnipeg to create the Federation of Canadian Muslim Social Services. Here I was given the opportunity to ask professionals in the field of community engagement what they do to prevent burnout. Not only that, but I was delegated to a position on the executive board. Here I was, scum of the earth (or so I felt) and God ﷻ had entrusted me with this niamah. It was a very humbling moment for me to say the least. In addition to this, I was assigned to research burnout and self-care for my final essay in one of my Social Work classes. This was no fluke, accident or coincidence. This was me being told to wake up and look around. I bought a ticket to “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” (streaming). And I was patient. I knew that I couldn’t keep my faith and continue on such a destructive path. So the niya was made and the dua (I believe) was accepted. When something is meant for you, it will happen, God ﷻ puts people and events in your path to make you better, to make you grow. You have but to listen.
What I have come to realize, even just today, is that my world is no more beautiful or ugly than that of any other person. It is my perception that creates the magnificence or the suffering. My community is not to blame for my misery. It is me. The world around me is simply a reflection of myself. Of what is happening inside. Therefore my problem is actually not my community. My problem is the disconnect I have from my community. It is a relationship that has to be rebuilt and in a lot of ways it is a relationship that has to be repaired. The following quote sums up how I feel and I love it. “Trials prepare the believers to prevail on earth…. It was said to Imam Al-Shaafa’i: ‘Which is better, patience or tests or prevailing?’ He said: ‘Prevailing is the level attained by the Prophets, and there can be no prevailing except after trials. If a person is tried he will become patient, and if he remains patient he will prevail.’”
Within 5 days of listening to the “Knowledge Retreat” online I put my hijab back on. The battery pack is filled and inchAllah will keep me going until Ramadan; if I live to see the next that is.
Burnout has 3 characteristics:
- Emotional exhaustion – sleeping, lethargy and apathy
- Diminished personal accomplishment – apathetic in engaging in activities that once made you happy.
- Depersonalization – seeing others as objects, negative/cynical attitude towards others, making negative comments. This is a coping strategy when you feel overburdened by the situation at hand
- Unrealistic expectations – you want to save the world
- Too involved emotionally and psychologically – you are always thinking of bad situations and cannot leave them alone.
- High conflict – engaging in community work (especially social work) means working with people. Depending on the nature of the work you may be engaged in high conflict situations ie: working with survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse.
- Role overload – there is too much to do; where to start? Where does it end?
- Ambiguity in direction – undefined goals
- Lack of support and positive feedback
- Lack of solidarity within the community
Signs of burnout
- Distraction in prayer/ leaving the prayer
- Easily agitated with your family
- When you go home you can’t leave work (learn to draw the line)
- Need someone around you to tell you what you need to hear
- Look at your niya (return to the essence of why?)
- Learn to use yourself as a resource – who do you know that can help you? What are your strengths? What resources (tangible or intangible) do you have at your disposal?
- Understand shared power – You don’t need to save the world. Learn how to delegate. Let go and let others take the reins.
- Focus on practical goals – slow and steady wins the race
- Find a support system – Family, friends, colleagues, other professionals
- Healthy lifestyle – eat a healthy and balanced diet, exercise regularly (even if it’s parking farther away at the grocery store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator). Go to the doctor for your annual physical. Other suggestions include: take a hot bath; read a book; go on vacation; Pray; Make dua; Just Breathe.