on burnout

In the past week, I’ve been feeling exhausted by the end of the work day. Pace of work and levels of stress has ramped up once again. I was anticipating this before we started this current leg of the project, and was prepared to use what I’ve learned in the past few months in therapy to manage my emotions and stress levels to prevent another burnout.

Hoping to consolidate my learnings from experience in this post.

Post status: Incomplete; I’d like to revisit this again to update my thoughts

Epistemic status: High confidence of my own experience

what burnout looks like to me

Being burnt out is like a candle which has fizzled out. Working no longer feels exciting or motivating. The default is going through the motion of getting by day to day. There’s a final stage I’ve felt once in university, where my body has no way of feeling rested even after 8 or 10 hours of sleep each night, and I’m feeling tired by late evening at 6 pm or earlier. A kind of tired that sleep can no longer remedy.

Where do I even start? Burnout and chronic stress seemed so part and parcel of my being. I went through cycles of burnout and chronic stress. Looking back, it has been a pattern of always wanting to do more and working harder to (over)compensate for the feeling of inadequacy. Why I fought so hard with myself to keep going is a response to the guilt that I feel when I think I’m not doing enough to get to where I think I need to be.

I’m learning that I need to stimulated to a certain level to feel like I’m functioning optimally, and I get bored easily. Hence, the compulsion to seek jobs that don’t seem mundane to me, or taking classes where I’m not breezing through the semester. There seems to be an optimal zone, where the stress levels are okay - acceptable enough to know that I’m growing and learning - and the crash-and-burn place where it’s a no-go if I were to be sustainable.

Taking a step back - I noticed the following about my psyche:

  • I feel undeserving and lack the confidence to believe what I’m doing/ thinking/ feeling is right or valuable
  • I think working hard for something is the default way of achieving success, and I don’t always look for simpler ways to reduce my efforts or investment - hence, not optimising my returns.
  • I feared that if I’m not hard on myself, I’d have let myself go and I won’t deserve nice things. I’m not afraid of hardwork and stress - I felt these intensities of emotions were normal and I didn’t have a sense of what was ‘well’ for a very long period of time.

I came to a conclusion in one of my therapy sessions how the above connected: I don’t feel deserving of things - and would make myself work hard for it. But working in ways that aren’t sustainable and makes me give up on those goals easily… And because I’m so beaten up inside, I need a recovery period to heal and motivate myself to try again. It’s a cycle that repeats itself because failing to reach those goals makes me feel bad.

So if I were to intervene and put a stop to this cycle, I could possibly get better at preventing burnouts. First, I need to build self-confidence. Building my self-confidence then helps me to build my sense of self which in turns increases my feeling of deservedness. I deserve to be treated better by myself and not always holding the whip against myself.

signs to be aware of

The body knows what it needs and would provide signals for us to take action when something is out of whack. SP, my previous therapist, taught me a method in 2019 when I saw her after leaving the startup. I was burnt out from working mainly because I didn’t draw proper boundaries.

She got me to think of the signs in terms of a traffic light.

I reflected on how I felt in the past months, and tried to retrace what the signs were that something is not right. This is contextually driven and I’m including signs from various instances of near burnout.

When everything feels okay and good

  • Feel well-rested and recharged
  • Look forward to work and face the challenges that may come along
  • Motivated to exercise and keep up with self-care
  • Socially engaged
  • Feel balanced enough to keep up with reading habits

The not-so-obvious signs that would need addressing before it turned red

  • Fatigue: feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling unrested: bad quality of sleep, having lots of bad dreams
  • Lack of self-care: low motivation to keep up with self-care and routines which made me feel good
  • Withdrawing socially: having no energy or interest to meet up with people
  • Racing thoughts: mind is caught up with thoughts about work even when I’m trying to rest

Something needs to be done, time to reach out for help and support

  • Feeling jaded and indifferent/apathy for the work I’m doing
  • More irritable, angry and critical
  • Feeling not like my usual self, and becoming cold towards others
  • Drop in quality of work
  • Unable to think clearly; mental fogginess

managing stress levels

A book on this topic that’s very helpful (and very wonderfully feminist) recommended by Steph: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Most of the following are talked about in the book.

regularly complete the stress cycle

i.e. recharge and relieve stress

Stress continues to reside in the body without a physiological relief. We experience stress every single day - and I’m wired to experience stress more easily and more intensely than usual so I will need to be even more ritualistic about de-stressing so it doesn’t accumulate.

The arsenal of activities I know I can fall back on, whether they are habitual or useful for my here and now:

  • listening to music
  • reading something that doesn’t feel too effortful
  • yoga at least 1 day/week
  • sleep meditation before bed
  • planning regular exercise in advance with friends
  • writing and journalling, working on my blog
  • taking regular breaks (incorporating regular breaks in between meetings and work day)

Some of these are grounding activities for my anxious soul, some of them are activities that I love to do with friends and to get out of my own head for a bit.

change my expectations

One reason why I’m constantly stressed out is because I’ve set some unrealistic expectations for myself. I feel that I need to be of a certain way - one of the unhelpful patterns of thinking: should-ing and must-ing. In the book, Burnout, a suggestion to deal with this is redefining what it means to win - to break down success into smaller pieces so it doesn’t feel like an insurmountable goal to reach.

I’m learning to adjust my goals so that I feel that I can celebrate small wins and push further a little bit at a time. e.g. going to the gym on my own instead of losing weight; enjoying the process of learning something new instead of feeling the need to be good at that thing.

be self-compassionate

Something I struggled with so, so much. I will have to constantly remind myself to spare me some kindness and love instead of holding the whip against myself and being my own harshest critic.

I hope to continue to add on to this list. Burnouts probably look different to everyone, and so are their coping strategies. Would love to chat about this topic if anyone is keen!

Update: 10 October 2020

A raw update on Mental Health day. I’m in the state of amber going to red, and it checks all the boxes in that list above. Maybe something to add would be numbness and frequent crying spells that happen out of nowhere even though the stressor is no longer around. My body is coping with the residual stress and emotions, and crying seems to be the only way it knows how. It’s easy to come out on the other side and say ‘do the self-care things and it’ll pass’. It’s not that easy while you’re in the thick of it. It feels like it’s a never-ending feeling that just wouldn’t go away. I don’t feel any highs or joys even in doing the things I used to enjoy. And the secondary feeling about this feeling is guilt - because I have been building up better habits to mitigate this risk of getting into this state but it didn’t work and now it seems like there’s still a recovery process to go through. It’s conflicting, knowing that this is something I just have to let myself go through and this too shall pass. But at the same time, going through this spiral of apathy and disinterest, soul-less survival mode. How and when will I feel alive again? What I’m trying to do now - show up for selected commitments even though it feels like a herculean task to get out of bed and my body is in this state of lethargy, like it’s drugged. Gymmed today - couldn’t lift much because it just wasn’t working. Frustration. Nothingness. But at least I have some sense of what is supposed to be helpful even though I may not actually feel like they do. Losing control. Now I’ll need to find opportunities to regain some form of control.

Share: Twitter Facebook