18. Preventing Burnout Through Intentional Living with Sherry Walling

Are you feeling burnt out at your school? In this motivational episode, Sherry talks about how burnout does NOT have to be a part of your job description as a school leader. Through a mindful and intentional approach towards work and life, you can not only overcome a toxic burnout cycle but actively prevent it. Sherry also discusses the importance of integrating mental health resources into your schools’ teams, as well as incorporating play and movement. 

About Sherry Walling:

Sherry Walling, Ph. D., helps smart people do hard things. She is a clinical psychologist, speaker, podcaster, best-selling author, and mental health advocate. Her company, ZenFounder, helps leaders and entrepreneurs as they navigate transition, loss, conflict, or any manner of complex human experience.

Find Sherry Walling:

Show Notes


A Circle of Quiet, by Madeline L’Engle

Motherhood, Lisa Marchiano


Show Transcript

Tara: Today we’re joined by Dr. Sherry Walling. Sherry helps smart people do hard things. She’s a clinical psychologist, speaker podcaster, best-selling author, and mental health advocate. Her company Zen Founder helps leaders and entrepreneurs as they navigate transition loss, conflict, or any manner of complex human experience. Hi Sherry. We’re so glad you’re here. Thanks for joining us. 

Sherry: It’s so great to be here, thank you for inviting me.

Aubrey: Yes, and we are excited you’re here and I’d love to know a little bit more about you and maybe your journey. Could you please share? 

Sherry: Sure. So I spend my life really helping and supporting high-functioning ambitious world-changing people. So these are people who are running businesses, running schools who are working in medical facilities and who need a little bit of help sometimes to have a safe place, to sort of process the darker, harder, shadowy parts of our lives. I think all of us need a person like me and it’s really my privilege to be able to come alongside people who are doing amazing things in the world. In addition to my professional life, I am a mother and I’m a wife of an entrepreneur and I have a wrinkly little Shar Pei, and then I also have a side life as a circus artist. So lots of things to talk about. 

Tara: Yeah, I follow Sherry on Facebook and I get to see her acrobatics and it’s really amazing and she’s graceful and so talented in many ways.

So it’s really fun to check out as well. And I’d love to talk about that as a side conversation and how you got into that, because it’s pretty fascinating. So through the lens of our podcast, Sherry, we talk about mindfulness with people who work in schools and how it applies to their jobs and what they do, oftentimes with many things on their plate it’s hard to be mindful when you’re going in a million directions, but that term mindfulness, I think, is it’s kind of, it’s almost become a cliche.

It’s I hear it so often. And when we chose it for the title of this podcast, we talked about that a little bit, we talked about talking to our guests about what mindfulness means to them. And so I wanted to start with that with you, because I’m sure that’s something that you deal with a lot as well.

How do you define mindfulness and where does that fit into what you do? 

Sherry: Yeah, I think about mindfulness as intentional attention. So it’s the decision to direct our mind, our inner resources to something specific and the way that you phrased that question Tara, I think is really insightful.

People in schools as all of us experience that there is really an onslaught of sensory data all the time, lots of noise, lots of thoughts that we’re thinking, lots of things around us that are always competing for our attention. So mindfulness is the decision to direct our attention specifically towards something that creates a sense of calm or creates a sense of, kind of internal awareness. So we’re directing our attention when we’re being mindful.

Aubrey: I really appreciate you sharing that because it’s so hard in this day and age to really embrace that, I think, and especially our audience of independent school leaders, they’re being bombarded left and right with so many different things.

So taking that time and being really intentional about your focus and everything is often more challenging than you would think in this space. 

Sherry: I just have a lot of empathy for how challenging it is, to do a good job at our work.

We’re really being asked to respond to a lot of things at once. So we’ve got a kid in our office. We’ve got a parent on the phone. There’s something happening on Slack. Maybe we’re on Twitter. Like there’s just a lot of electronic stimulation, not to mention being in a building where there are lots of humans moving around.

So the demands on our cognitive resources to attend to multiple things at one time, I think are really extraordinary. And that’s not really how our brains are designed our brains, our brains aren’t designed to multitask. Although most of us as parents believe that’s just the reality that we have to live in. Our brains don’t like to shift really quickly between different things and our brains don’t like to attend to more than one stimulation at once. So I think the modern era and the technological nature of many of our lives is really requiring something of us that is kind of fragmenting or really sort of can fray the health of our actual neurons. So our brains are being asked to do a lot. 

Aubrey: So that’s so interesting you say that because my next question probably goes along nicely with this, as you know, as a clinical psychologist and a mother, what challenges do you think, and maybe it’s something you just mentioned, schools are, especially private schools are facing today in relation to running it, you know, schools as businesses as well.

Their main goals are helping students grow and learn. So can you, do you sense some challenges there that probably are experienced by the entrepreneurs as well. 

Sherry: Well, I think there are many ways to answer this question, but I’ve been very aware of the return to school in post-pandemic or mid pandemic space and the extra, just demand of protocol. And how do you effectively keep kids safe to mask or not to mask, the political polarity around those questions. I think, you know, many people who are called to be leaders in schools want to help kids grow, want to make sure that kids are learning. But are also being asked to dive into really big and important and stressful and political questions that are kind of outside of what may be the heart of why they started in their vocation in the first place, but are important and they’re stressful. So again, I think that distraction and then demand to also sort of function as a medical officer and a PR person, and still make sure that math happens sounds just extraordinary. 

Aubrey: Absolutely. I don’t think you could have said it better because really no one signed on for all those different roles.

But that’s where we’re at right now. Definitely. 

Tara: And I think we were talking a little bit when we, before we started recording, but we talked about how entrepreneurs can be similar to people running a school and doing marketing and trying to get people to come in and choir and visit and enroll in the school, and the challenges that they have in growing their school, like growing a business, what are some of the similarities, and what are some of the techniques that you help entrepreneurs deal with that would also apply to schools in terms of managing that range of responsibilities and stressors?

Sherry: Okay. I think acknowledging that you’re wearing lots of hats in rapid succession is a really important starting place. And then having some structures in your day in your calendar and also in your inner life that help you to really hone in on what you’re doing at any given time. So starting the day with what are the one to three most important things that need to happen today, giving yourself that kind of mental clarity to know, okay, I gotta do this.

Gotta send this email to parents that is a top priority, and I need to really immerse myself in that in order to be able to do it well. And when that’s done, then there’s the freedom to shift the freedom to sort of think about the next thing. When we look at everything all at once, it can be drinking from a fire hose.

So the sense of some internal structure to say, this is first, this is second. This is third. And with each of those things, I’m going to shift a little in the role that I’m playing in the identity that I’m taking on, but I’m going to do it intentionally. I’m not going to do it with whiplash. I’m not going to do it like I’m in a blender.

I’m just going to do it intentionally and specifically.

Aubrey: That’s such an important reminder as we tend to do the whiplash from back and forth from an email to jumping in, to do fundraising, and then having to deal with COVID protocols and everything like that. That is a very important reminder. Thank you for sharing. I’m curious, you know, as we’re thinking of this audience of people who work in schools what sort of advice would you give them when it comes to applying a mindful approach to their work. 

Sherry: I think one of the things that happen to all of us in our careers, but especially people who are working in schools and probably especially during this time in the life of a school, is that I think it’s really easy to get far away from what drove us to do this work in the first place.

And so I think one of the things that we know from the body of research about burnout that puts us most at risk for burnout is when there’s a big space between how we spend our time and what’s most important to us. So part of being mindfully present in your work is staying really closely attached to the why, to the motivation, to the drive that got you here in the first place.

When we keep that front and center and really close to the heart of how our day looks. And if that for you means making sure that teacher quality is high, or if, for you means watching children really learn. If it for you means making high-quality education accessible to people of limited financial needs, whatever that is for you.

And it’s might be a little bit different for everyone who’s listening, making sure that’s front and center of your work life every day in some way. There’s going to be lots of other things that you have to do, but staying really close to the heart of the why and the meaning I think is really helpful and important.

Tara: Yeah. I think burnout is also a term that’s used a lot right now, too. And so I’d be interested to hear a little bit more about what you’re seeing happening in your audience and with people that you help in terms of burnout. Have you seen it increasing probably with COVID?

Sherry: Yeah. Burnout is like, is the other epidemic. And burnout is something very specific. You know, I think it’s one of those terms that we talk about a lot and it really has made the rounds in pop psychology, but it is also a formal diagnosis. Something that has, you know, 40 years of research behind what it is and what it looks like and how you prevent it and how you heal from it.

So just really quickly, burnout has three components. When we talk about what burnout is. So the first is physical and emotional exhaustion. That’s probably the one that we most often associate with the term burnout. Like my spark is gone. I’m just sort of running on fumes. That sense of being really tired and having less emotional energy and passion is that physical and emotional exhaustion. And then the second component of burnout is a lack of sense of personal efficacy. So you feel like you’re working really hard and nothing is getting done. Like you have this kind of subjective sense that all of your effort is for nothing, which I’m sure all of us can relate to on one level or another. And then the third component is a sense of detachment and cynicism. And so this one really, I think is a hallmark of how burnout can show up. When we have jobs that we work really intensively with other people, as I imagine most school leaders do is instead of the passion that you have for the children and family that you serve you’re beginning to sort of roll your eyes and feel like, oh my God, this kid again, like it, you just, you lose that sense of softness or empathy, and it’s replaced with cynicism and it’s also replaced with a sense of detachment or isolation.

Like I’m in this alone. My staff is incompetent. They never, you know, do the things that they’re supposed to do. Like you just get this edge to you. So when you see those three in combination, it’s a really sort of painful experience for school leaders and for any leader who is oriented toward caring for others.

And it can cause significant neurological changes in the brain. And so it is something that we want to take really seriously and be really aware of. And unfortunately, I think for many of us in this day and age burnout, it’s pretty normalized. Like everybody’s burned out, you’re burnt out, I’m burnt out, and we’ve been a little bit cavalier with accepting that as the reality of what it means to be a school professional. And I think we have to be really careful around that, both for our own individual neurological health and for what that means for the schools that we’re leading in, the communities that we serve when we’re basically saying like, oh, it’s okay to be isolated and detached and passionless and cynical. Cause I don’t think it is. That’s not how I want to spend my adult life. 

Aubrey: So that’s so interesting because this past year, more than a year, I witnessed a lot of this in schools because it’s just been having to go push through pivot. And it’s really eye-opening. So for those people out there who, when you were talking about, you know, the definition of burnout who might be in this.

What are the next steps? Just understanding, identifying, Hey, this might be a problem. And I’m just curious, because I do know that a lot of schools and a lot of school leaders have been going through a lot of rough times and I’m, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. 

Sherry: Yeah. So. Like frontline interventions and they’re all a little tricky cause they all require time and time is the tight commodity when you’re a school leader,

and especially if you’re also a parents or have other commitments outside of that work. One of the things that’s most helpful in preventing burnout and in turning it around is really having rich social relationships. So this is why the pandemic has been horrible for us because we can’t hang out with our friends in the same way.

We don’t have that ability to, you know, go on a walk with friends or meet people and have a meal together. But that is one of the things that really is robust in helping to protect our mental health. So social support is what we call it more formally. I think the other thing that I mentioned before is really returning to the meaning of why we’re doing this work, that can fuel us through a lot of hard things.

When we really are in touch with why our effort is important. So that’s some internal work that can be done. I do think that therapy is really helpful. And of course there’s lots of innovation in therapy right now in terms of having that be accessible during the day accessible remotely. So gone are the days when you had to drive 45 minutes park, get out, go up to your therapist office and like do the whole rigamarole.

I mean, you can just sort of find a storage closet somewhere and lock the door and get on better health. Get in touch with a therapist. So that’s more accessible than it’s been historically. I would say also in terms of really helping to prevent the development of significant burnout is movement, it’s exercise.

It’s really taking care of the basics of the maintenance of our bodies, which again, when time is scarce, sleep is often the first thing to go, but sleep is often one of those things that will really help protect us from some of the neurological sort of decay that can happen with burnout. So sleep, exercise, nutrition, and then the last and least popular thing is that if someone is truly in burnout, we, as I mentioned, are seeing neurological changes in the brain that can be reversed, but it’s very hard to reverse them without significant rest, which is also why I think we’re seeing a lot of people quitting their jobs and changing their story because.

They can’t find a way to reset in the context of the job that they have. So I hope that’s not the case for people who are listening, but sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s sort of the big move that says, I need to take four weeks off. I need to take a formal sabbatical or I need to take a medical leave to really help your brain to begin to reset. And there’s not really a substitute for that. Once we begin to see those neurological changes take effect. 

Tara: Yeah, I’ve seen that happening too. It’s hard to see people go through that. And I want to ask you a little bit about that too because of course, we don’t live in bubbles. And so the people that we’re talking to in schools, they are teams of people. They have coworkers. And so I wonder. Within schools, how to have this conversation within the administration to talk about this a little bit and the tools that might be out there, the resources that are out there, and how to spot it when it’s happening, not to you, but to your colleague. 

Sherry: I think one of the things that we spot most easily in each other is that sense of cynicism and detachment that I talked about.

So that’s a teacher who’s really sort of short-tempered with a student or a snide comment or a place where there’s a lack of compassion where maybe in the past there would have been more compassion. So we see those kind of edgy, more irritable looking behaviors ,and that often can lead to discipline issues or things like that.
But often really burnout is the underlying cause. And so I think in context where we have a little bit of an ability to have some structure and support to tap out. So if you’ve got a teacher or somebody who’s working with a student, who’s really struggling to walk away in a graceful way, and to have support from the other staff members can be really helpful.

So people don’t feel stuck in an interaction where they don’t have any more internal resources. I think that we as communities and as school communities can also be really proactive in terms of helping people understand what’s happening from a mental health perspective, giving lots of language around burnout, around depression, around anxiety, and helping put in place. Some of those preventative measures, which can be movement breaks that can be times for connection, increasing even the level of playfulness that exists among colleagues can be helpful in kind of preventing burnout. So creating an environment where we’re acknowledging that this work is hard and it takes a lot of emotional resource and a lot of energy.

So how do we as a community refill those, how do we play well, well, how do we interact well, how do we create moments of lightness that can help to counterbalance so much of the heaviness that we face on any given day? 

Tara: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think sharing this podcast episode would be a good start for them to share within their school.

Aubrey: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, I think I really appreciate you giving kind of the tools for what they can start, not only looking at, but also looking to prevention instead of just waiting for something to happen. At which we know in, in this school environment, That’s a lot of that burnout happening.

So, thank you. I appreciate that. Now we’re going to switch to one of my favorite parts of the show, which is where we ask all of our guests of rapid fire questions. So, I would love to kick us off with this first one, which is what are the most important things you do to grow personally and professionally?

Sherry: It might be surprising, but circus is really an important part of my growth. It is where I use all the other parts of my brain. So if my day job is. Listening intently. And it’s very verbal circus is a place where it’s, I’m using my body, I’m using my proprioception, but I feel like my brain is getting more robust and more diversified.

Also it’s nice to have strong muscles. And then I have like a community of people that are very playful together.

Tara: I want to hear a little bit more about the circus. How did you get involved in doing the acrobatic work that you do? And. Finding a community of people who do that type of thing, were you a gymnast?

Aubrey: And I want to join! 

Sherry: You know, I was not a gymnast. I didn’t really start until I turned 40 and I moved from California to Minnesota and realized I was desperately in need of an indoor exercise activity.

Because in California I’d done a lot of running. I’d done some surfing I’d, you know, been active and loves to play outside, but Minnesota is not so conducive to that in the winter. So I took a yoga, an aerial yoga class was my entry point. And I’d been practicing yoga for a number of years. And aerial yoga just involves a fabric which allows for a deeper stretch.

And I just really loved it. And I thought I want to do more of this and turns out that the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where I now live has a very robust circus community. And I started with aerial fabric and Ariel slang. And now I really like flying trapeze. And so the things just sort of build on each other in terms of understanding your body in space. And then not also, I think having kind of the muscular support to be able to do lots of different weather handstands and acro balancing or using aerial fabrics. And again, like I started when I was 40, there’s nothing magic about me that made it so that I could do this, I just really loved it and gave a lot of my time and attention and energy to it. 

Tara: How much time do you use, would you say you spend a week there doing? 

Sherry: Yeah, I I probably train, I, well, I train every day. Well, I actually, I take one or two days off a week just to let my body rest, but so I trained probably five days a week, probably two hours a day.

So usually like an hour of yoga or weightlifting and then an hour of circus training. 

Tara: Wow. Well, it’s truly beautiful. I remember going to see Cirque de Solei many years ago, and just being brought to tears by the beauty of people doing that. What do you call it? Fabric?

Sherry: Yeah, Aerial silks. 

Tara: Aerial silks is beautiful. 

Aubrey: So yeah. I have to say, I’m going to totally look into this because I’m just blown away, it’s like art and it’s movement and it’s strength and beauty all put into one. I’m just so thrilled by this. And what a great combination that you’ve found this, and then this is become that outlet and that support and everything for you.

Sherry: And I think it’s, I mean, from a mental health or anti burnout perspective, it is so important to have something as a grownup, as a working professional, as a that’s just your playground. And it’s the space where you get to go to express yourself, to grow, to, you know, develop those muscles,

and I really believe in it from sort of the bottom of my toes that we should all sort of have something in our life that we’re passionate about and is in addition to our work and family responsibility. 

Tara: Yeah, I can’t even do a cartwheel, so I can’t imagine. Oh my God. Never learned to do a Cartwheel. My daughter didn’t either. I passed 

it on.

Aubrey: My daughter. Daughter’s trying she’s six and her face it’s it’s mostly just a flop with the legs, you know, over, I have to say people who think like, this might be easy. I remember for, I went on my honeymoon and we went to Costa Rica and we were doing like trapeze or something like that.

And I was like, oh yeah, everyone’s doing it. It’s going to be so easy that I grabbed onto it and swung out and promptly fell. It takes like it takes strength. Yeah. 

Sherry: You got to hold on.

Tara: A lot of upper body strength. Yeah, sure. Yeah. Thank you. All right. Well, I know this is not the circus Acrobat. Podcast, but I appreciate your sharing that okay, here come the rapid fire questions.

So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in a high school curriculum, what would it be? 

Sherry: Ooh. And a high school curriculum. I was thinking about this for grownups. Well, I’ll just go with the same answer. A Circle of Quiet by Madeline L’Engle. 

Aubrey: I don’t think I’ve ever read that before. I’m intrigued. So I’ll put that on my list.

Sherry: Yeah, it’s one of her non-fiction books. She’s the one who wrote A Wrinkle in Time and that series. Yeah. It’s just beautiful. It’s very, it’s beautiful. Um,

Aubrey: So the next rapid fire question is what is one app you couldn’t live without? 

Sherry: My podcast app.

Tara: Which one do you use? 

Sherry: I don’t know it just says Podcasts on my phone. 

Tara: All right. Next question. What are you reading right now? 

Sherry: I am reading a book called a Motherhood that I heard about on another, on the SoundsTrue podcast, Insights at the Edge, and it’s by a woman named Lisa Marciano. She’s a Jungian analyst, so it’s a way of thinking about motherhood that’s involves dream and story. It’s also beautiful.  

Aubrey: I will have to check that one out too. Now our last question is one. What is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?

Sherry: I think the thing that comes to mind is the invitation to really love your life. And I think when we are grownups with big jobs and lots of people relying on us, it can feel really easy to carry the weight of all of that. And we can do that. It’s good to do that. I think there’s also a need for grownups with big responsibilities to also be very joyful and to cultivate lives that they love so that our children can see that, you know, it’s not on downhill, there’s a lot of joy and fun to be had all throughout life. 

Tara: That’s great advice. My kids are grown and I think I missed the boat on that, but I love that finding joy is super important. Sherry, it has been joyful to have you with us today. We really appreciate all that you shared all your knowledge and advice where can people find you online?

And you want to tell us about your books as well. I’d love to have you share that. 

Sherry: Yeah. So I have a one book out called the Entrepreneur’s Guide of Keeping Your Shit Together, How to Run Your Business Without Letting It Run You, which probably would have some helpful carry over for the people who were running schools.

And then I have a new book coming out next spring called Touching Two Worlds, which is a book about grief and being a high performer in the midst of significant grief. So that’s coming out with the publisher Sounds True. So to follow you know, the books or learn more about the work that I’m doing, you can go to sherrywalling.com.

Or my business site is zenfounder.com, which is also the name of my podcast. 

Tara: Yeah, that’s a great podcast. Thank you again for joining us. It’s really been a pleasure. It’s good to see you again, Sherry. Thank you, Sherry. 

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