On depletion

Sonja Blignaut
6 min readJan 30, 2021
Photo by stein egil liland from Pexels

I love to write; it is one of the primary ways that I make sense of things. Last year I felt that I never had the time or inspiration to write, so over the December holiday, I started a series of posts intending to explore various fields I have been interested in for a while. In the first post, I made it known publicly what the themes were and intended to write a series — hoping this would create an incentive and help me keep going. I wrote three posts, everything was going well … and then came the second week of January, and I just ran out of steam.

I was right back where I was last year, I just couldn’t motivate myself to write or even do the interesting reading and research. I found myself mindlessly binge-watching series on Netflix when I should be writing, and then beat myself up over it afterward. No amount of self-talk or “guilting” was helping. None of this made sense until a friend sent me a link to this blog by David Lapin.

He writes (unless stated otherwise, all quotes below are from Lapin’s post)

“We are currently in the toughest phase of our pandemic experience. To explain what I mean, consider two different states of being: fatigue and depletion. Fatigue is when a muscle or the mind has been used almost to the point of failure and it requires rest to recuperate. Contrastingly, depletion is when our inner resources of energy have been drained — and this may have no connection to exertion. One can be depleted without feeling tired. And one can be tired without feeling depleted.

But here’s the problem: Because fatigue and depletion can feel the same, we often misdiagnose our condition. We think we are fatigued, so we rest. But in fact, we might be depleted, in which case no amount of rest will restore our inner resources. When we are depleted, we need restoration rather than rest or relaxation.”

Reflecting on this, I realised that this was true for me. I never realised just how much this pandemic had drained my emotional and spiritual energy. I had endured strict lockdowns and adapted to remote working. I kept two businesses going, spending hours and hours on Zoom doing team meetings, workshops, interviews, and webinars. I even managed to crowdsource and publish a book. So I guess I had proven myself to be adaptable and resilient and able to keep functioning in the midst of all of this. But at what cost? To keep going, a tremendous amount of anxiety and grief had to be repressed. In 2021, things got worse. South Africa was in the grip of a second wave and facing a new variant of the virus: COVID19 death statistics became faces and names of people I knew. The SA government’s COVID19 application, silent all of last year, suddenly started alerting me of possible exposures, creating anxiety even though I know I am always careful. The virus and the heartache were getting closer, and keeping the emotions at bay takes a lot of energy. I had allowed myself to become depleted. I couldn’t write, because I was running on empty.

“Consider an empty glass of water. You can rest it for as long as you will, but rest won’t replenish its contents. Similarly, your body and mind are just containers. Your emotions, your intellect, and your spirit are the contents. You can only give emotional, intellectual, and spiritual output when your container is overflowing with content. This means you always need more emotional, intellectual, and spiritual input than output. If you continually draw from your content, you quickly become depleted.”

When I think about the people I interact with, especially those in leadership positions who have to contain others’ anxiety, the only conclusion I can come to is that this sense of depletion is pretty pervasive. I don’t think we have fully acknowledged our grief and fear. We have to keep going, so we push those feelings aside and put on a brave face. We complain about the masks we need to wear to protect us from the virus, and yet we willingly suffer behind “I’m ok” masks that may end up costing us our mental wellbeing.

“This is why I think we are in the toughest phase of the pandemic, because we aren’t just exhausted — we are depleted. We are depleted because our usual channels of restoration are not readily available to us anymore. We are normally restored by human contact through the exchange of energy and discourse, even in the form of passing interactions with other travelers at airports, servers at restaurants, or attendants in stores. Virtual meetings keep us going, but they don’t restore our inner energy. Moreover, on a Zoom call, we’re interfacing with a screen, not a person.

So how do you know if you are fatigued or depleted, and how do you treat depletion?

Fatigue generally applies to your body and your mind. Depletion generally applies to your emotions, your intellect, and your spirit. Depletion can give you the feeling of physical or mental exhaustion. But you know it’s not fatigue you’re suffering when rest and relaxation don’t replenish you.

The way to treat depletion is with restoration, not with relaxation. While relaxation is a passive state of “not-doing”, restoration is a deliberate, active choice of activities different from your routine activities, which add instead of consume energy.

Here are some examples of restorative activities: regular prayer or meditation; walking in nature and pausing to notice all the sounds, sights, and textures around you; reading something beautiful or inspiring rather than useful; physically meeting and spending quality time with loved ones for nothing more than connecting and sharing; listening attentively to music that is harmoniously complex and rich in sounds and themes; applying your mind to a challenge unrelated to work; regular journaling.”

So I am trying hard to focus on intentionally engaging in restorative activities. Part of this is learning what those are for me. One of the gifts of these times is they confront us with the fragility of life. Life is too short and too precious to waste it on things that don’t matter.

So, I focus on reintroducing healthy boundaries, especially around my time. There is no need to fill my weeks with back to back Zoom calls. There are very few things that can’t wait a few days. I don’t have to be in every meeting; in fact, not everything needs a discussion. I am learning to better use technology to cut back on unnecessary meetings. I schedule time in my diary for exercise and having an afternoon coffee break. I don’t always stick to it, sometimes I feel a bit guilty about it, other times life’s urgency keeps intruding, but now I am aware of these compromises.

I am also spending more time outside in our garden, noticing the messy coherence of nature and the beauty in small things. While stuck here in lockdown, I found myself longing for beautiful and wild places like the fjords of Norway and the wild Atlantic way in Ireland. I realised that my soul is longing for beauty. So I am seeking it out wherever I can find it: I make time to read poetry and lose myself in the beauty of words; I take time to watch storm clouds brewing and sunsets paint the sky; and in all of this I am practicing to be present, to just be in the moment and not dwell on everything that needs to be done.

“Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty. …

In the experience of beauty, we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that the embrace will hold us. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”

John O’Donohue: Beauty — the invisible embrace.

If any of this resonates with you, why not share the practices that you find restorative? Maybe we can help each other find new ways to keep this depletion at bay.



Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist. https://complexityfit.com