Five Simple Ways to Steer Clear of Burnout
Obvious advice isn’t so obvious when you’re already in the thick of it.
“I am never going through that ever again.”
This was my outtake after recovering from my first taste of work burnout.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been a busybody. I’m not sure if I’d be considered a workaholic by definition, but being challenged to stretch myself and work a bit more never really bothered me. So in my recent job when I was given the opportunity to take on a bigger role, I didn’t hesitate to take it. While I knew that the responsibilities would increase exponentially, I knew it came with the territory of being in the capacity to lead.
And then the burnout just happened. I was working myself into the ground, the stress and anxiety consuming me, right under my nose.
I was so overwhelmed that I left my overall well-being unchecked. Physically, I looked just fine. But everything else — my habits, diet, finances, priorities,— was a wreck. There was a lack of self-control in virtually every aspect of my life. I ended up sacrificing hobbies and routines that used to be my lifelines. I dated someone and, well, that turned into shit, too. I began to hate talking to people more than necessary. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, and even when I did it was of poor quality. I carried work home and on the weekends, arresting any semblance of peace of mind.
The whole thing was so unlike me, and I could go as far as saying that it has been the worst version of myself that I have ever encountered.
Of course I wanted to get out of that rut. But there was just too much to overhaul about my daily life that it paralysed me. Now that I’ve regained control of my headspace and sense of self, I understand that there were little things I could’ve done to spare myself the anxiety.
So before it’s too late. Before the emotions turn into lasting emotional baggage. Before the poor decisions blow up in your face and shatter you into tiny pieces. I want to share five things you can do, not just to simply get by, but to save yourself before you are too far gone.
“When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly.”- Phil Knight, Shoe Dog
At the time, all I could see about work was that there was more work to be done, that there were so many problems that had yet to be addressed, and that no matter how much work I put in, there was something that I was falling short on.
With so much on my plate, I felt like stopping or resting was not an option. And when I wasn’t busy, I was too tired or paranoid to actually take a breath, confront myself, and recover. Now I know that it is in times like these when we feel like we cannot afford to take the time to pause that we absolutely need it the most.
The power of pausing cannot be overestimated. It is the first step towards fully grasping our reality and regaining clarity. With clarity comes control over our reality, and with control comes the courage to conquer that reality.
Had I made the effort to pause every now and then, to really drop everything, breathe, and recognize the situation for what it was and what it was doing to me, I think it would’ve made a world of difference.
Develop the habit of pausing, of having a level of intimacy with your own thoughts and emotions. And understand that work never stops, so you have to, for your own sake.
After yet another long day at work, I was driving home when I encountered an odd road closure that made me go through a long, unfamiliar detour which I ended up circling twice because of God knows why.
Then I imploded right then and there. Behind the wheel, I suddenly burst into tears from the frustration. And the weariness. And the confusion. And probably a whole lot of other pent-up emotions that were begging to be unfettered.
This is what happens when you don’t reach out to talk about what you are going through. Vulnerability is never easy, much less so when you cannot even find the words to describe exactly what you are feeling or what triggered it.
Most often, the best way to really dissect your emotions is to have someone listening on the other end, intently listening until the inexplicable starts to feel more digestible. Understanding what you are going through is a process — one that is much more enlightening and less burdensome when shared with someone close to you.
Don’t mistake solitude with isolation. Whatever you are feeling, as difficult as it to flesh out, just let it out. Stop closing yourself off, and stop trying to handle it all on your own.
Feel through it
My every waking thought during that phase was: Today is another day to suck it up, save face, and soldier on.
I held off the stress so forcefully, convincing myself that any sort of negativity would only hamper my momentum and productivity. I prided myself for being able to show up with a brave face every day. I guess this was a direct consequence of my failing to pause and reach out to someone about what was really happening inside me. If I wasn’t feeling all that distress, then I didn’t have to feel through the distress, right?
Of course I was dead wrong. The impact of this unconsciousness and quiet withdrawal manifested in more insidious ways. Only when it was too late that I realized — and was very much taken aback by it — I had been living in a dark place for quite some time.
There is nothing wrong with being weighed down by negative emotions. It’s part of being human. The popular quote from The Fault in Our Stars says this poignantly, “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
Forcing yourself to look and feel okay when you’re not is not being tough. Embracing what you are feeling and the weight of it is.
Act on the gaps
At one point (though a bit too late), something triggered me to finally open up to a friend. And as a consequence of bottling up everything for so long, I couldn’t help but cry even before I started telling my story. I was bawling the whole way through.
After sharing to my amazing, sympathetic soundboard of a friend, he shared a simple but eye-opening piece of advice. He encouraged me to ask myself, “What can I do about this now?”
It becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond the complexities of problems when tainted with emotion. The truth is that while feeling things is an entirely forgivable and reasonable human response, allowing it to debilitate you is not.
Problems exist because there is a gap that needs to be solved. While not everything that led to a problem is within our control, there is always some course of action that we can take to try to close that gap and make the situation better for ourselves.
You are more than welcome to pause, to rant, and to feel through things. Embrace the suck. Cry. Wallow in self-pity. You need it. But you also owe it to yourself to act on it.
Help someone else out
I’ve found this last piece of advice to be the most gratifying one. A friend of mine was going through something at the same I was experiencing overwork. We had some common ground on the things that were making us unhappy, but I especially hated it whenever I saw just how much these things weighed her down. So being the true-blue millennial that I am, I started to send her “encouraging” memes. This one was my favorite:
When you know someone who is also going through a rough time, this is not the time to say, “Hey, I feel like shit, too. At least we can sulk in sadness together!”
This is an opportunity to show the kindness and strength that you find it so hard to give to yourself. Empathy and empowerment live together. So when you are able to uplift someone, it becomes that subtle yet forceful whisper telling you that you have better days ahead of you, too. That you can be courageous, too.
It’s a powerful thing — Lifting someone up. It is a reward in itself that builds even just a sliver of hope in both the receiver and the giver. So in your own little ways, try to be a source of light in the dark hours of someone else’s life.
It’s obvious in my intro that this was definitely a traumatic experience. Now that I’ve outlined five simple things that can be done to avoid getting in too deep, the more apt statement would be, “I will never allow myself to go through that again.”
Pause and understand, reach out to someone, feel through the pain, act on the gaps, and uplift someone along the way. Failing to do so comes at much too high a cost.