Bouncing Back From Burnout
Last week I experienced a sharp glimpse into what my life used to be before I learned how to recognize and combat burnout. I was nearly sleepless for 5 nights, waking up with nightmares, voices resounding in my ears. Too much energy to sleep yet too little stamina to do much else. To do lists piled up. Shame and self-doubt set in. Fear of failure loomed over my head. I had pushed myself to the limit.
I’ve hit MAJOR burnout (like debilitating burnout) about 3 times in my life. Each time was a critical moment, a crisis, a breaking point where I had the choice to keep crashing or shift my way of living entirely.
Many of us don’t realize that our bodies speak – LOUDLY.
Not just telling you when you’re hungry or tired but also letting you know when you must. stop. now. - when something major needs to change. This can show up as fatigue, depression, autoimmune reactions, pain, sleepless nights, anxiety, and so much more.* These are often the cause of or at least related to trauma or other life circumstances that make things even worse.
The first time I experienced burnout was in college. I thought that I had to be the “best”, that I had to graduate with honors and do a full independent social-cognitive research project. It essentially meant I was taking on a part time job on top of my part time job on top of my full course load. So I sacrificed everything to make it happen. No sleep + debilitating anxiety + boatloads of academic pressure + 8 shots of expresso a day = winding up in the clinic for dehydration after passing out. It felt like my brain was broken, I couldn’t think or function for weeks. I wound up completing my project with honors, but not without immense damage done to myself and all my relationships. It wasn’t worth it.
I promised that I would never let something feel so important that it could come between me and my health.
Flash forward to my first salaried full-time job. I was a crisis counselor working in the NYC mental health system, on call 24/7. I hadn’t yet developed strong strategies for self-care. I fell sick a lot, slept very little, ate poorly, and had an undiagnosed autoimmune disease. I went to work at all costs. At the same time, I was coming to realize I felt sick by the way people were treated in the system. I was angry, stuck and complicit in the cycle of oppression. I burned out again, this time with even more severe consequences to my physical and mental health. I was incapacitated and unable to work full-time for a year. It was only when I was completely destabilized that I started to see all the ways in which:
I was addicted to productivity as my sense of self-worth, to receiving “gold stars” for being a “hard worker”, to a system that profits off of my own self-sacrifice.
A few years later, with a few more certifications under my belt, I co-founded a non-profit mental health training institute and wound up launching my own businesses working full-time for myself. I got so caught up in trying to prove to myself that I could make it work as a counselor outside the system that I spent almost every waking hour working on my website, my business strategy, and working with coaches. *Shockingly*, I burned out again, finally realizing that it didn’t matter what I was pouring myself into – a regular 9-5, activism and community organizing, or my own creative projects – none of it would be sustainable if I kept sacrificing myself for my work, not setting boundaries, and refusing to put my health first.
The final realization came, more recently, when I was deep in my practice of inner-child work. I went back in my subconscious to sit with my younger self and ask her “What is it that you really need? What can I give you?” I was struck by how clearly I saw her learning over and over again that achievement would buy her “love” thinking:
Maybe if I just do ___,
If I get better at ____ ,
If I get ____ award, or
Become the best at ____.”
All the way up to the adult that thinks if one day she runs a highly successful non-profit and writes a best-selling book and has a line of clients waiting outside her door THEN she’ll be loved. Sound familiar?
But none of that’s true, because the love she was craving was simply not there – and it would never come from the outside.
In our society we are taught to revere self-sacrifice and productivity. We get rewarded and valued based on our output.
We replace love with praise and creativity with achievement.
And for what? It’s time we get real with ourselves about why we burn out. What is it that we think we’ll gain? Fame and honor? Security? Love? Assurance? Validation? Even if we are working towards something we really desire, is the process of killing ourselves slowly worth that outcome?
A solid "work ethic" means putting your needs first, not giving more than you have, setting super strong effective boundaries (whether you work for yourself or in a team).
So when you notice yourself burning out, don’t fall into shame or blame.
Take it as an opportunity to:
Go back to basics. Think about what you need in terms of food, water, sleep, community and social interaction, alone time, meditation.
Think about the things you have been neglecting, that maybe no one ever showed you how to do or you didn't have the resources for growing up (Did you learn how to cook nutritious meals / take regular trips to the grocery store or did you grow up on fast food? Do you ever take a full rest day or at least a few hours to do nothing or were you taught that resting is being lazy?)
Find new small ways you can care for yourself that actually get you excited. This is limitless- think creatively. This doesn’t have to cost money. Make a list of things you love, find ways to do them even more.
Get clear on your limits. What will you and won’t you do? What sacrifices are you making that are harmful for you?
Set even stronger boundaries. What weekly self-care activities are non-negotiable? Are they in your calendar?
Anticipate push back (when you shift a boundary, others may question it or push back saying “but you usually stay late after work…” etc. Come up with a clear response to show you’re not budging. Practice in the mirror.)
*A note on burnout and mental health: In my own experience and from working with many clients, the extreme stress and overwhelm that precedes burnout, can actually cause a whole host of extreme mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences that often get labeled or diagnosed as mental illness. What’s the line? Well, sometimes it’s a matter of severity, but really there isn’t a clear line. It’s all interconnected. One thing I encourage folks to reflect on is who gets which label? The sad reality is that people of more privilege in society get the label “burnout” and are told to rest and take a vacation, while those who are more marginalized get a life-altering diagnosis and very little support.
Wherever you're at, if you find yourself struggling - whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not - always always feel free to reach out to me. Hit "reply" and shoot me an email. I'm here for you.