I’ve been burned out before. I do everything I can to make sure I never have to experience that feeling again.
Five years ago, I was a third-grade teacher. (Every parent who’s been trying to homeschool their kids right now knows what I’m talking about.) I was trying my best to show up for my students every day. To remain fully present to each child and to foster moments of delight and discovery in my classroom.
But I felt a bone-deep exhaustion that no amount of sleep could fix. An uncharacteristic pessimism that hovered underneath the surface. A nagging sense of inadequacy that diminished my ability to connect with others.
It wasn’t necessarily that the work was too hard, or that I had lost my passion for teaching. It was the culmination of things—unhealthy boundaries, a lack of support from my principal, and a work culture that praised self-sacrifice. I mean, if you aren’t here on the weekends or work less than 60 hours, do you even care about children?!
The true cause of my burnout was buying into unrealistic expectations. Doubling down on my over-functioning tendencies and convincing myself that my constant state of stress was normal.
I lasted five years, but I finally found my breaking point. Driving home after a particularly challenging day, I named my burnout for what it was. I promised myself that I wouldn’t remain in the familiar at the cost of my joy. Life was too short to be this anxious and worn out. Something had to change.
I took some drastic steps to heal and recover from burnout. I traveled, rested, and reimagined a career that felt more suited to my wellbeing. My freelance business slowly grew into a marketing agency. As I recovered, I found new ways to teach and connect. Those old habits of perfectionism and over-functioning didn’t go away, but they weren’t dominating my life.
Fast-forward to March 2020. As the reality of a world-wide pandemic set in, and I went into overdrive.
I was on multiple Zoom calls and attended every webinar available.
I was working late into the night, creating resources for other business owners.
I said yes to every opportunity and answered every call.
It felt really good to pour myself into tangible efforts of helping others. Until it didn’t.
Around mid-June, I started feeling that familiar bone-deep exhaustion. Pessimism crept back into my thoughts. I couldn’t shake the feeling of inadequacy, no matter how productive I was.
I recognized my red-flags of burnout quicker this time. I was able to name my feelings of burnout and reset my boundaries and expectations for myself. I stripped all non-essential activities out of my schedule. I gave myself permission to be less productive for a while. I started seeing a counselor and increasing my routines for mental wellbeing.
I share all of this with you because I have a hunch that I’m not alone in feeling burned out. I bet you’ve also been feeling this chronic stress and pervasive anxiety. The word “burnout” has been cropping up in many of my conversations. Business owners, nonprofit leaders, mothers, teachers, healthcare workers...I think it’s part of our collective experience right now.
Here’s the reality—sometimes circumstances are beyond our control. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, increasing division in our country, and reckoning with our systemic racism, we are going to face chronic stress and anxiety. We have to go through the stages of grief, even when our losses are ambiguous and ongoing.
The funk is normal, and it’s not something we can just snap out of through positive thinking and self-care.
But I do believe it’s possible to avoid remaining stuck in Burnout that sucks the life out of you. It requires self-awareness to know your triggers and your knee-jerk responses to chronic stress. Here are a few of the common symptoms I notice when I’m headed towards burnout.
Burnout Symptom #1: Doubling Down
Oftentimes, my first response to stress is doubling down on my efforts to live up to my ideals. I believe the lie that if I just work a little bit harder, cross more things off my to-do list, say yes to more things, then I’ll feel better about my circumstances.
For me, doubling down looks like creating ambitious goals for being perfectly productive. I push myself to finish projects early. I obsess over getting to inbox-zero. I skip breaks and chase the end of my to-do list. And even though it feels good in the short term, I inevitably wake up the next day feeling more exhausted. My creativity and drive wane and I am left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at myself.
Try this instead: One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid my tendency to over-function is to be brutally honest about what I can reasonably accomplish in a day. Rather than having a running to-do list, (which never gets fully done, leaving me feeling frustrated) I pick two or three projects to focus on each day. I schedule out time in my Google Calendar where I’m committed to working on those projects without distraction.
This way, success is no longer tied to finishing a task, but rather in sticking to the time I’ve committed to focusing on an important project. Ironically, I actually get way more done this way! But, the point is to shift the ways I’m measuring my success, and side-step my perfectionistic tendencies.
Burnout Symptom #2: Numbing
Once my over-functioning tendencies wear out, I swing to the other extreme and seek out activities to numb my anxiety. This usually involves a lot of Netflix and probably a glass or two of wine.
It’s easier than ever to numb right now. The most obvious vice is our screens. One study of 2,000 Americans revealed we’re spending an average of six hours a day of screen time since the pandemic started. Six hours! In the early months of the pandemic, Facebook use was up 27% and video streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix were also up by over 15%.
I’m guilty of mindless scrolling on social media. The allure of getting sucked into another binge-watching session or falling down the rabbit hole of YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but when it becomes my default activity, I always end up feeling gross. The uncomfortable feelings I’m avoiding don’t disappear, they just come out sideways.
What are your numbing vices?
Try this instead: It’s not realistic for most of us to completely cut off our social media or swear off Netflix. But, I’ve been asking myself this question “Do I like the reason I’m doing this?” I want to hop onto Instagram to be inspired or genuinely connect with people I can’t see in person right now. I want to watch a show that makes me laugh or think, without watching to the point where Netflix asks if I’m still watching. If I can pause long enough to question my motivation, I’m more likely to make a healthy choice. If I’m still craving a distraction, I can set realistic time limits, so I avoid getting sucked into the vortex.
Burnout Symptom #3: Blaming
One of my biggest red flags that I’m heading into burnout territory is feeling resentful. I roll my eyes at a client’s unrealistic expectations. I feel frustrated at how other people aren’t anticipating my unspoken needs. I get sucked into “us-vs.-them” rage towards the people who don’t think, act, or vote like me.
Especially when things feel uncertain and stressful, it feels good to have an enemy to blame. We default to black-and-white thinking and a scarcity mindset. But just like my other burnout symptoms, blaming others offers short-term relief with toxic side-effects.
I am responsible for my establishing and communicating my boundaries. It’s my job to speak up for what I need. I am responsible to be the change I want to see in the world. Blaming others for the feelings of burnout doesn’t fix the problem.
How can you release that knee-jerk response of blaming?
Try this instead: Build curiosity into your day. Recently, I’ve been taking five minutes at the end of my day to reflect. What moments were lifegiving? Which parts of my day were draining? Why? How do I want to respond tomorrow? What do I want to say yes to? What do I need to say no to? When I find creative ways to switch out of auto-pilot throughout my day, it’s easier to find a sense of agency.
Feeling burned out? Know that’ you're not alone! Listen to this amazing article on why Our Brains Struggle to Process This Much Stress
Understand The True Financial Cost of Job Stress
Listen to Brené Brown’s super helpful podcast with Emily and Amelia Nagoski on Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle