Last night I had a dream… I was at work, and getting ready to lead a tour of the museum. I opened the door to a horde of visitors, a virtual sea of people crowded along the driveway that runs in front of the small museum for which I currently labor. I remember feeling the stress and tension of coping with what appeared in my dream’s eye to be at least a hundred people swarming the front door.
Keep in mind our average tour size is between 15 and 20 folks, 30 people on a single tour is too many given the size of the museum and the structure of the guided tour, so the prospect of a tour with 100 people is akin to arriving in New York City’s Times Square completely naked.
I tried to organize them. I tried to take leadership, and start the tour with the welcome and rules for the museum. But there were too many of them. They were all talking at me, and I couldn’t hear myself when I spoke. They were being rude, completely disregarding my instructions and making rather disparaging comments in, quite frankly, entirely too loud voices. Some pushed past me to get inside the museum, even though I kept yelling that I was the tour guide, and they couldn’t enter the building without me in the lead. I had visitors calling out questions more rapid fire than one of those … you know… military type machine guns that can shoot 4,000 bullets in 5 seconds.
It was a mess. I was in a panic, and doing everything to just maintain some kind of basic control.
Then, luckily, I woke up.
Now, I could easily discard this dream as a by-product of my ever present anxiety, and as Idina Menzel so powerfully put it, let it go. But this dream is not a one-time apparition. This is a recurring nightmare. I have this “bad tour” dream anywhere from 3 to 5 times per week. Yes, half of my nights are spent battling uncooperative visitors, rude guests, and swarming crowds…
No wonder I suffer from excessive fatigue.
And I haven’t thought much about these dreams, even though they have been ongoing for months, because I always brushed them aside as manifestations of my anxiety. But then I trudged through these past couple of weeks. They weren’t bad days, per se, but weird days. Off days. I haven’t felt like myself (as I have known her) for several, several days.
I have noticed that my excitement at leading tours has dropped. A lot. It’s tanked, actually. Five years in, and I still get a little nervous before we open the door for the first tour. Each and every time. Nervousness that can sometimes be strong enough to make me want to throw up my hands, run around in circles screaming like a mad clown, and then bury myself in the museum basement. Not a nice visual, but you see, I have always been shy. In my younger days, I was painfully so. As in flushed cheeks, stammer, eyes downcast, trembling hands. Even when talking to just a few people, it was all I could do to string together enough spoken words to formulate a sentence.
As I’ve aged, I have definitely “come out of my shell.” Years working in public service will do that to you. And now if I were to tell someone I consider myself shy, they would laugh in my face. You, Rachel?!?! But you’re so friendly! And outgoing!
I know that is what most people see now, but it has taken a lot of years to become even remotely outgoing, and it is still an effort to be so. To this day, I still have a tough time in certain situations. If I’m around a large group of people I don’t know in a social setting, for example, or a new member on a professional committee or team; I can clam up so tight the Jaws of Life can’t pry my mouth open.
So why do I lead tours?
Because for all my innate shyness, I love the teaching. I love watching people, especially kids, brighten when they see and understand, and when I know that my interaction has affected their day… and their life. When they have found a new experience, or learned something new, or felt a new shift in their outlook, because of me.
And generally that arm-throwing-up-screaming-like-a-clown nervousness only lasts for a few minutes. Once I get started on a tour, it melts away like snow, and I am in my element. I get into the teaching zone, and the only thing that matters to me are the people in front of me on that tour.
But these past couple of weeks, the clump of dread that sits in the depths of my stomach as the minutes to the first tour start ticking down has not disappeared when the door opens. It sits there, and weighs me down, making every tour, regardless of how great it should be, feel like basic training. Each step feels like it’s the 10,000th one I have taken that day. And my “I’m done” point has started coming earlier, and earlier, and earlier…
To call it a struggle is an understatement. All the more so since I have been trying to understand why. What has happened in these past couple of weeks to make me feel so unmotivated?
And then a word popped into my head: burnout.
A word I used in my previous blog post because I thought it was the cause behind my recent lack of interest in cycling and crafting. But now I wonder: is that burnout? Or am I so exhausted from job burnout, I don’t have any motivation for activities that require any real physical output?
It struck me, so I turned to my trusted Wise One: the almighty Google. A quick search for “job burnout” yielded, you know, 785 million hits, but there was one that caught my eye right away: Preventing Burnout – Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies. I read through the signs “you may be on the road to burnout,” and felt an eyebrow raise (if I could, you know, actually raise only one eyebrow, which I can’t…)
Every day is a bad day. Yeah, kinda. Not horrible, but not as great as they have been in the past. You’re exhausted all the time. Do I get double points for that one?? The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming. Not dull, no, but overwhelming yes. As enjoyable as I have found tours, I feel an oppressive amount of pressure too. Most of it I know I heap on myself, but it’s there nonetheless. And it makes tours overwhelming. You feel like nothing you do makes a difference, or is appreciated. Although I know deep down in my bones this feeling is not true, sometimes I feel it anyway. Yes, I feel like I am working so hard to make the tours a great experience, and it’s still not enough…
And then as I read through the “The difference between stress and burnout” segment, I came across this line, and the proverbial nail was proverbially pounded into the proverbial coffin: Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. Yes, yes, yes. I don’t like to think I am “beyond caring,” but the “feeling empty” and “devoid of motivation”?? Oh yeah!
And that is when I flashed on all the “bad tour” dreams, including the most recent iteration last night. Yes, they are manifestations of my anxiety. But maybe they are also manifestations of my excessive and prolonged stress (as burnout is defined by the article). Sounds funny, but I don’t think I have ever been fully aware of how stressed I am during tour hours. I am so occupied with the factors causing the stress, I don’t think about the fact I am stressed. But in addition to being “on top of my game” for each tour, the tours themselves are a back-to-back operation. Every 30 minutes, I am opening that front door to start another tour. On Saturdays, I could potentially lead 10 tours over 5 hours… doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when you’re the only person on site, and you’re trying to balance the great experience with the tight schedule.
Juggler I am not because five years in, and I have found that my attempts to provide the great experience often means getting off schedule, and trying to stay on schedule means skimping on the experience. And even without worries over hoping everyone enjoyed their 30-minute tours, so many variables weasel their way in to affect the day anyway. Like guests that lollygag, either when the tours are first starting (“can you wait just one more second? My [insert relative here] is in the bathroom and should be back any second now”) or during the tour itself (“Can you tell us more about this? And this? And this? And oh yeah, you haven’t mentioned this yet. Can you tell us [every last detail about the place, in detail]”). I love interested guests, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I’ll take them over the “zombies” any day. And if I could take the time to talk about the museum in detail, I would be happy to do so, but here’s where the balance with the tight schedule comes in to play. I can’t describe the museum in any kind of detail because I have another tour waiting outside… that I am supposed to start in 10 minutes, and this tour hasn’t even left the first room yet.
And the variables go on and on and on… it’s kind of like delayed flights at the airport. All it takes is one airport to have issues – bad weather, for example – and the entire system goes down. Same with these back-to-back tours. One snippet holds up a tour, and the whole day is off.
Ice this stress cake with guests that… well, let’s just say, missed a few lessons in Common Courtesy 101, and the stress, for me, goes up tenfold. It is demoralizing to work with people who are rude and uncooperative. And when you’re already stressed out, it only exacerbates that helplessness. That is when the question, is anything I am doing important, really pops up, bright and clear.
So has this weirdness dogging my heels these past few weeks come from burnout? I am inclined to say yes, but that I am not completely and totally burned out yet; however, I’m headed that way.
Self-aware? Check. Making changes? To-do….