Transitioning With Liz: Reflection #1 Burnout & Gut Health

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

The career transition column by Liz Weldon


There were many things over the years that contributed to the final decision to leave. Certain moments stand out in my mind in particular that made me realize I wasn’t in the right place anymore. These moments provoked strong emotional responses that I look at as signs along the way that I needed to make changes. They were all opportunities to learn about myself and what I needed to shift in my life. Though sharing them is terrifying, and there is part of me that is embarrassed for my emotional struggles, I hope sharing here normalizes our difficulties and can maybe help others feel less alone if they have conflicted feelings around dance and transitioning.


Photo by David Monson

By the end my body was struggling. I was having really bad digestive issues. I think I probably had adrenal fatigue. When you’re in a prolonged state of fight or flight, and have intense anxiety for long periods of time, it can create a lot of issues within the body. By the end of my career I felt totally maxed out, drained, and unhealthy. Even though I was fit, and maybe looked healthy, the amount of stress had created internal issues in my body. I felt like if I didn’t stop I would start to have more serious health conditions.


Our bodies also hold the energy of our emotional traumas. I felt like my body was holding emotional trauma that was affecting my dancing and I wasn’t able to dance at a level I knew I was capable of. It was clear that my body needed a break. I felt I would get injured, or my health would continue to decline if I kept pushing it. (I should also say I am not a medical professional and these beliefs are based on personal research)


I was also exhausted from trying to prove myself and never feeling good enough. Even though I had been in the company a long time, I still felt like I was trying so hard to progress and prove my value.


I remember seeing a second company performance that made me very emotional. When I saw the beautiful, talented, and strong young girls who were coming into the company, I felt that I couldn’t keep up anymore. They were far more talented and capable than I would ever be. Seeing this particular performance was a realization that my time was coming to an end and these girls would soon be getting the opportunities that I hoped to get in my career. I went home feeling very emotional after watching that performance.


I was already starting to mourn the end of my career, which in some ways was very cathartic. It helped me to let go of some of the pressure I was placing on myself and be happy for the next generation of dancers.


Close-up by Kay Tien


Illustration by Mel Tan

SITUATIONAL CONTEXT OF INDIVIDUAL BURNOUT

A problem suffered by many in silence with characteristics that include:

  • Overwhelming exhaustion

  • Feelings of frustration, anger, and cynicism

  • A sense of ineffectiveness and failure

In the research, "Prevention of burnout: A new perspective," Christina Malasch and Julie Goldberg explain that the themes of imbalance and conflict play into a majority of burnout experiences within the situational context. With the high work demands of a dance company and the lack of resources (injured dancers and so on) to meet those expectations, these all create the ripe conditions and breeding ground for burnout to occur. Not to mention the cultural context and additional stressors of social, political, and economic factors that also shape one's workplace. The reality of burnout for dancers only seems inevitable.


UNDERSTANDING BURNOUT

Malasch and Goldberg continue to explain burnout as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.

  1. Emotional exhaustion is a result of work overload and personal conflict at work, snowballing into an inability or lack of energy to face these issues.

  2. Depersonalization is the negative or detached response to others, resulting in a loss of idealism in the workplace, and develops in response to the emotional exhaustion as a coping and defense mechanism.

  3. Reduced personal accomplishment refers to a decline in feelings of competence and productivity at work, linking to depression and the inability to cope with the demands of work. A lack of social support and opportunities only continues to exacerbate this process.

While research is still ongoing on burnout preventions and solutions, Malasch and Goldberg suggest that modification of worksite stressors and changes to the individual can help to alleviate and reduce the prevalence of stress.


TAKEAWAY

These developing burnout approaches all lead to the same overarching issue: the management, operation, and leadership of a dance organization. While there is no immediate solution to reduce the stress inflicted upon dancers, our industry needs to closely examine its practices in its hiring, firing, casting, and annual evaluation of dancers. A process that should be just, moral, and ethical, where decisions are made based upon competency and potential, not favoritism and nepotism. Burnout is not a unique issue suffered by Liz alone. I, myself, have suffered from this issue, and so long as the industry views dancers as expendable, we won't be able to break the cycle.


THE GUT HEALTH LINK TO MENTAL HEALTH

There is overwhelming evidence that links gut health to an individual's overall mental being. In "Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis," imbalance, or dysbiosis and inflammation, has been linked to the cause of several mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.


TAKEAWAY

There will always be moments of stress in the workplace where you might have to up the ante; the takeaway is that your body shouldn't always be in 'flight or fight.' Whether the research speaks out to you or not, the matter of fact is that pushing yourself to the brink of burnout only works against your body's equilibrium, and you'll be sure to suffer the consequences. So as much as we willingly give ballet leadership reign over our lives, let Liz's experience of stress and gut health (or lack of) be a warning that points back to the prioritization of your health. After all, at the end of the day, if you don't have your health, what do you have?

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