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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Spiritual Burnout

I recently accepted a position as an Indigenous Culture & Student Support Worker (ICSSW) with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District. It sounds fancy, but the broader scope of my job entails providing Indigenous students with academic support and social-emotional support, in addition to providing Indigenous culture and worldviews in curriculum development. Actually, it is fancy, and I’m unbelievably honoured to have been offered this position as an uninvited guest on the unceded snuneymuxw territory.

On my first day, I met with Jessica Giesbrecht, the District ICSSW Coordinator, and I remember her looking me directly in the eyes and telling me not to let the job get away with me or I’d burn out. She sternly told me that if I was like her I’d attempt to take on every project I thought about, but that level of work and excitement can’t be sustained. I nodded eagerly, agreeing wholeheartedly with her advice and promising to implement it. Sadly, it didn’t take more than a few days before my new job swept me under.

Working with Indigenous students poses an emotional burden that many people, if not most people, aren’t ready for — including those of us who already know the level of intergenerational trauma our children inherit. Whether it’s children that deal with family addiction, parental absenteeism or even the financial stress they shouldn’t even be aware of at their age, there’s no shortage of trauma or stress for our children. Being someone who has dealt with various instances of trauma throughout my childhood and adolescence, I went in knowing I would encounter kids who needed the support I wish I’d had at their age. I was eager to lend my experience and assistance.

At this point in my story, I feel an immense need to pause and clarify the intentions of my story. More than anything, I want to reiterate that while we encounter intergenerational trauma in most Indigenous communities we also encounter even more intergenerational resilience. I never want to stereotype our Peoples and our Nations as needing saving or being broken in any way. However, while we are resilient, strong and sovereign Peoples, communities and Nations, we cannot ignore the colonial damage that we are dealing with at this point in history. I need to stress this concept and drive home the fact that we are very capable of healing ourselves, as is shown in Indigenous communities all across Turtle Island. That very power to heal ourselves is something we continue to use, and it’s explicitly part of the reality of our children and the emotional and spiritual baggage they bring to our (colonial) places of learning.

I entered my new position with this Knowledge and with a heart eager to do good work for the Indigenous families in this school district. Being naive is something I’ve always known myself to be, but I’m consistently astounded by my levels of naivety. By the end of the first month, I was already working through my lunches, too engrossed in my big plans to stop and eat. I couldn’t have a personal conversation without it spurring more plans for school district change in my mind. Every moment of my life was filled to the brim with curriculum development, ideas for group work, and opportunities to educate myself further. Even my low-intensity cardio at the gym became a time for me to power through decolonial books and catch up on emails. I felt like I was on fire, following in my Grandma’s footsteps of advocacy and Reconciliation. Did I tell you I’m naive?

At the start of December, I felt my first anxiety at work. I wrote it off as the general anxiety that I always have, and planned some self-care sessions. Looking at my planner, this is the time when I started to add the note “stressed” in my mood section, and when my immune system began to wane. Instead of stepping back from even one of the many responsibilities I had taken on, I rationalized that I only had 2 weeks until the holidays. I told myself that my students needed me, and hunkered down for a tough push to the final day of school this term. Unfortunately, the last two weeks only handed me trigger after trigger, and with the privacy of my students in mind, I can’t delve into them even here.

During the last week of school, I couldn’t even watch my niece and three nephews in the evening anymore. By Thursday, I had completely shut down. My panic attacks were out of control and I felt myself dissociating frequently. More than that, I felt so stupid. I lecture about spiritual self-care and about carving out time to take care of yourself. I saw myself actively writing in my planner to carve out healing time. I felt the exhaustion building and building, but I continued to pump the gas because I wanted to feel like I deserved this amazing job.

In my workshops and podcasts, I teach about the colonial mentality of needing to measure your performance against an unattainable metric. I rage against the shame and oppression that colonial workspaces and mentalities place upon individuals. I advocate for spaces to be safer and host Cultivating Safe Spaces to teach businesses how to build that safe space. Yet here I am, fighting the shame I instinctively felt when I couldn’t perform like I wanted to (like a machine that doesn’t need rest). I’m sitting with the realization that even as I fight for people to accept these teachings and implement them, I refuse to implement them for myself. It’s a painful realization, but it’s one I needed to drop in my lap before I went into the next school term.

Reconciliation is a daunting topic, and I understand the conversations around how scary it can be to enter the Reconciliation and LandBack spaces. I understand that people want to close their eyes to trauma and want to keep their hearts light with ignorance. We talk about this mental block often, and the impacts it has on Reconciliation and our ability to heal as Nations. What I’ve learned is that there isn’t enough dialogue around how harmful our unfettered excitement to participate can become to our health. Of course, I don’t mean that in a sense that Reconciliation dialogue is unhealthy — not at all. I should clarify that unfettered excitement can be harmful in many areas of your life, not just Reconciliation dialogue and action. Imagine working out as hard as you can every day for the rest of your life, with no days off. It doesn’t matter how much you like to exercise or the fact that exercise is good for you, if you’re pushing beyond your limits every day it will eventually harm you. Likewise, running head-on into Reconciliation and LandBack day-in-day-out at full speed is harmful, no matter how excited you are to participate in change.

This is the part where I reiterate that sometimes my naivety astounds me because I know this. I teach this. Yet I allowed myself to be blinded by the high I got from working on something so big as decolonizing education. I let my excitement trick me into neglecting my Spirit and the healing work I need every day if this is going to be the path I walk. It’s an embarrassing lesson to learn, but I’m eager to share it with you all. As much as we need these conversations and actions to heal our Nations, we can’t contribute once we’re burnt out.

My hope for you is that you find a healthy balance of contribution and healing and that you maintain that balance despite the eagerness to contribute even more. A small amount of decolonization as often as you can manage is better than one lump sum that burns you out for months or years to come. Now if only I had started the school year with that lesson….


Jen Greenway


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