👋 From a State of Burnout
Recently I dealt with my most stressful work event ever, a dramatic ordeal that went south in a way nobody anticipated. The only thing like this I had experienced was a lawsuit over my grandparent’s estate some years ago, and even then, I was one generation removed from the worst of it. In this case, I was at the epicenter. It was like a bad date on a boat with no land in sight. The waves never let up. It was relentless.
While this was happening, we were having some intense conversations at work about our company direction. Futures to contemplate and prepare for, commitments to be made. Big picture things with a lot of factors to consider.
At the same time, I got my first real negative feedback for a class I taught with my favorite non-profit. All at once, there were a glut of decisions to grapple with, actions to reflect on, and challenges to ride out.
As it all started to stack up, I knew I needed to be taking care of myself. I joined a barre studio and started going as much as I could. It felt like the only time I could stop thinking about work or the complications that were on my plate. But the studio was a bike ride away from work and home, so going consistently was adding a lot of commuting to my week. I was out and about so much, my feet throbbed as I collapsed into bed at night. I noticed that while I could plié with the best of them, my mental state deteriorated. I started to feel exhausted all the time — short-fused, frustrated, uninspired and unable to focus. So began my textbook burnout.
It’s been a noticeable change because for the past year, I have been so damn inspired. At work I was noticing opportunities to improve our services, markets we might expand into, new ways of looking at what we do. Personally, I was connecting with friends and family on a deeper level and in tune with myself. I was relishing my energy and focus and drive. Writing, cooking, connecting, dreaming. Burnout dulled the sparkle on everything that had been so magical.
It’s humbling to recognize that we need rest. Our bodies don’t really care about productivity, deadlines, other people’s expectations. Although I’m a real snapping turtle lately, this experience is helping me empathize with people who aren’t acting their best. I don’t know what they’re going through. I’m not as self-righteous in what I expect from others. It’s great to aspire to excellence but we are all just human.
And when we’re run down, we often don’t make optimal decisions. Last weekend, for example, on the eve of my first real day of rest in months, I decided to start American Crime Story: The Murder of Gianni Versace (which, side note, is phenomenal, but not exactly calming for frayed nerves). It was so good, and I was so immobile from exhaustion, that I stayed up watching until the sky began to lighten, finally going to bed at 6:30am. Obviously, this wasn’t the best way to begin the recovery process. I was even more worn out on Monday morning than the previous Friday night.
Intentional, healthy decisions are incredibly hard to make from the throes of burnout. Mine made everything feel half-empty and brought forth a good ol’ fashioned nihilism. Work seemed like just an obligation, people were all exhausting, the flowers on my walk to work seemed a bit superficial. I started thinking really terrible thoughts about myself. I mean, I couldn’t even rest properly for fuck’s sake.
But even from this state, I can see this is a part of a larger process. I won’t let a stressful pile up derail my progress. Now is the time to keep good habits going, but perhaps by recognizing that rest is as much a part of a full, rewarding life as bold action. I need to (nay, I get to!) incorporate rest into my life plan.
We are all human, we all have physical limitation in what we can handle. Breakdowns are a part of growing and having ambition. It’s okay to sometimes miss a target or disappoint others for the greater purpose of keeping ourselves healthy in the long run, as difficult as it is in the moment.
We need rest. We need downtime and free time and quiet time. We need to get away from our to do lists and the never-ending needs of others. Just like thirst, when our bodies start demanding it, it’s almost too late. At this point, it’s even harder to put into place.
Personally, I’m queuing up “no” in my vocabulary and taking some time off work this month to recuperate. I’m pausing the gym membership. I’m asking friends to join me in nature or for other restorative, restful activities. I’m making plans off the screens so I don’t start another binge session that leaves me bleary. And I say to you, I support your daring AND your rest. To get the most of the one, you need a solid, consistent practice of the other.
After all, what’s the point of wild success if there’s no energy left to savor it?