An internal medicine physician shares her experience with burnout and gives insight into the five levels of becoming "me-powered."
It has been almost two decades since I burned out. And, without hesitation, I can say that what I once thought was the biggest failure I could ever imagine was, in fact, one of the most pivotal and important milestones of my life. On June 17, 2004, the universe sent an unmistakable message: The lack of alignment within me was my biggest obstacle. To overcome it, I needed to shift from sourcing my energy and validation from others to being powered by me.
Patterns began to emerge. Rather than viewing crises as something to avoid, a failure, or an adversity, I noticed that they served a much higher purpose. In fact, as a physician, I repeatedly witnessed the power of crises to crack open people’s hearts and minds—and fast-track them to emotional and spiritual alignment. People in a crisis were able to immediately identify and prioritize their highest values. The clearest example of this came through physical breakdowns on individual, community, and global levels. In crises, people suddenly discovered the power of what they had faith in, found the courage to make much-needed change, or shifted into selfless service to others.
How Crisis and Burnout Change People
On an individual level, I observed it in my patients. I remember a 63-year-old gentleman who, moments earlier, had declared, “I’m not religious. So please don’t have a chaplain or anyone like that visit me, okay?” I smiled and nodded. “Sure, no problem.” A few moments later, he developed crushing chest pain. Without hesitation, he put his palms together above his chest and began crying out, “Am I going to die, doc? Dear God, please save my life!”
On a community level, when divorce broke a family apart or a loved one was diagnosed with cancer or unexpectedly passed, I witnessed their community suddenly find time (in their otherwise busy lives) to deliver meals, babysit, and organize candlelight vigils. The invisible connections between them and being in service to one another became their highest priority.
On a global level, conflict or any natural disaster can mobilize millions of people to donate their money, time, and energy to those in need—often people they’ve never even met. These events initially cause shock and devastation but often transform and awaken people to new ways of connecting to themselves and one another.
During burnout, my inner GPS began to speak louder than the voices around me, unraveling what I once held as truth. And new possibilities began to emerge.
What if doing more with less isn’t the eternal goal? And, instead, it’s about living more aligned with my highest values and worrying less about society’s measures of success?
What if faster isn’t always better? And, instead, sometimes the wisest decision is to slow down in order to speed up?
What if success doesn’t require struggle? And, instead, a choice is right because it’s easy and results in a net gain of energy?
Burning out put me on the path to discover my true calling. In my private practice, I partner with clients to heal their stress and get them off medications, rather than on them. In my company, Intuitive Intelligence, I share these principles as an author, speaker, executive coach, and organizational consultant. It’s been a joy to bridge the science of medicine with the art of communication to bring true health to patients and organizations—awakening people to their power and then empowering them to live it.
Now you, too, have the tools to reverse the crisis of burnout and make choices according to what matters most to you. Here is a guide to identify your progress.
The 5 Levels of Becoming Me-Powered
Level 1: Other-Powered
One hundred percent of your focus is external. You react based on the opinions and emotions of those around you. You’re tuned in to data from your colleagues, friends, family, and the outside world and are disconnected from the data that comes from within you. You’re unaware of your body’s physical clues. You use familiar coping strategies, such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or taking on even more work to override any unpleasant signals. You use your thoughts to silence your body and emotions. You might even push through uncomfortable relationship dynamics by either avoiding conflict, succumbing, stewing, or bullying to get what you want. You power through your day and are surprised when you collapse on your bed at night. You’re running on fumes.
Bottom line: Your attention is other-focused, and you may find yourself experiencing a net energy drain across multiple levels. This is the danger zone and the fast track to burnout!
Level 2: Me-Conflicted
You’re focused on external data, but you’re beginning to notice your internal cues. You may receive your body’s stress signals, but you may not be clear on what they mean or what to do about them. Even if you do know what you want and value, you might hold back for fear of repercussions or judgment. You continue to choose the short-term high (e.g., avoiding saying no, powering through alone) at the expense of your long-term wellbeing. You’re most likely to take action only when you’re forced to (e.g., getting sick; losing an opportunity, a job, or your partner). You endure and may even view soldiering on as a badge of honor.
Bottom line: You’ve become an internal observer—aware of when you’re out of alignment with what you value. You still aren’t prioritizing yourself, so internal conflict is likely your biggest source of energy drain.
Level 3: Me-Aware
You have an inspired practice of quieting your mind and listening to your body, heart, and spirit, and you may even tune in at a designated time (through running, cycling, yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, reading, therapy, coaching, personal development groups, etc.). But when you’re outside your regular practice, it’s difficult to maintain this level of awareness. One of my clients described this as feeling Zen on her yoga mat and experiencing road rage on the way home.
Bottom line: You’re on the right track as you embark on the journey of self-care and have moments of clarity and integration.
Level 4: Me-Aligned
You’re aware of when your body is talking and can recognize when something is off. You might even make an extra effort to recharge. You decipher your thoughts and emotions, giving yourself space to acknowledge them. You are open to feedback, take personal accountability of your part in a situation, and draw healthy boundaries. You are more consistent—in certain arenas of your life. However, your level of alignment may shift depending on the environment you’re in (work, home, social, etc.) and the amount of perceived risk involved by speaking your truth.
Bottom line: You’re well on the path to healing burnout and living an aligned life.
Level 5: Me-Powered
You know your highest values, make decisions based on them, and take action according to what you stand for. This is true in all your roles and relationships, including the one with yourself. You are not only in tune, you also adjust naturally and organically to both your emotional and physical signals. You’re open to feedback, but you listen to your own heart slightly more than to the voices of others. Your physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual energies are aligned as your internal power source.
Beyond your inner alignment, you are also able to hold an expanded perspective. You integrate both internal and external data within yourself, partnering with others, and honoring the interconnectedness of our world. You seek win-win-win outcomes.
You, my friend, have officially become me-powered.
Bottom line: You’re well equipped to navigate an ever-changing, sometimes tender, and aching world.
Depending on where you are, what’s happening in your life, and what roles you play, you may fluctuate among these five levels. That’s perfectly normal. Be kind to yourself.
Adapted and excerpted from Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life by Neha Sangwan, MD, pp. 333-336 (McGraw Hill, September 2023).