Burn Out, Fade Away


I’ve always believed that everyone has a built-in failsafe, that people who are truly, legitimately overwhelmed by their lives will involuntarily shut down. They can’t get up, go to work, go out, smile. They’ll stay in bed, ignore their responsibilities, stop answering calls: the classic cliche of a depressed, burned-out person. Most people can understand that picture (and understanding and awareness is good!). But fewer understand someone who’s checking all her “should” boxes and appears strong and capable, yet confesses things like I can’t handle one more thing. I am barely making it through the day. I’m perpetually exhausted. I feel no hope for my future. I need help. I’ve said those things to friends and professionals at various points, and I’ve gotten responses like But you’re very high-functioning. But you seem to be doing great. I don’t know what to tell you. Those words are both encouraging and (unintentionally, I know) shame-inducing. When I hear them, I think, Nothing is really wrong and no one can help me, and I gather myself again and push harder.

I’ve already had two significant periods of burnout in my adult life, stress waves that threw me onto the shore so ruthlessly, there was no way I could miss the message. Both times, I listened and granted myself some rest and space. I thought, hoped, I’d finally “fixed it” – after all, how long or often is someone like me allowed to claim burnout? I’m a single, childless, healthy, financially secure woman. But about six weeks ago, I knew something was Wrong again. My chest felt tight, my stomach hurt, and I started waking up a lot in the night. I’d look at my dayplanner or my inbox and need to do yoga breathing. I’d receive a few aggressive e-mails and want to go have a quick cry in the bathroom. I needed brief naps after work to make it through evening social activities. I’d go to loud events where everyone was having fun and feel increasing physical anxiety. Every simple invitation and request felt like another thing I had to be “on” for. I felt incapable of handling small tasks, even as I did them anyway. I shouldn’t be talking about this exclusively in past tense, because I’m still struggling with it. But I have had a few helpful realizations:

I do not have a failsafe. When God was handing out failsafes, I was in line for the people-pleasing perfectionist hyperdrive, a device that, once healthy fuel has run out, can run on guilt, ambition, and any garbage within reach. Many people have, and will, use that hyperdrive for their own benefit with no respect or care for how it affects me. I forget that easily. Most likely, I will never have the Big Collapse that makes people say whoa, maybe we took too much from her. No, I can keep right on functioning until I drop dead, figuratively and/or literally. Therefore, it’s up to me to actively draw the line, to decide when I’ve had enough. No one is going to do that for me. There is no safety net.

What energizes others often depletes me, and I need to evaluate that regularly. A big burnout signal for me is when many things I usually enjoy start to feel like burdens. It’s a good time to assess whether I even want to do those things anymore. Sometimes I just need a break. Sometimes I need to walk away. Sometimes I need balance. For months, instead of the real relationships and meaningful conversations I need, my social life has been mostly noise. I definitely enjoy a lighthearted good time, but living on relational cookies alone makes me sick. Thankfully, I have steak people in my life too.

Anything less than excellence feels like failure. The more I achieve, the more pressure I feel to keep it going. By my own yardstick, I veni, vidi, vici-ed the crap out of 2016. A normal person would probably feel entitled to chill out. Meanwhile, I’m panicking because I don’t have enough left in the tank to match and preferably exceed that right now, and I feel like that pace is what the world requires of me. But sometimes wholeheartedness means being a B student.

Valuing myself and my health means accepting disapproval, perceived failure, and even grief. This is the hardest part. I take every opportunity I can to improve myself and work toward my goals, but ultimately, my most important goals involve other people. I cannot get what I want in a vacuum. I can’t make the right people come into my life, or make them see me. Too often I’ve knocked myself out trying to be perfect for people who are going to reject me no matter what I do. I know logically that I can’t make them see my value, but a little part of me is still hell-bent on running up to kick the football. It’s an illusion of control that’s comforting at first but actually makes the situation worse. It’s that false American belief that you can have anything you want if you work hard enough, so if you don’t have it, it’s your fault. To stop burnout, I have to get off the hamster wheel and face the fears that rise up every time I “slack off”:

You’ll never get promoted.
You’ll never have a career that brings you joy.
You’re already too old, and if you don’t hustle twice as hard you’ll never make an impact.
You’ll never meet anyone, and your friends will forget you, if you don’t go out constantly.
You’ll never be impressive, exciting, or sparkly enough for a good man to love and choose you.

Courage means looking those fears in the eye and saying, Okay. It means deciding that being wholehearted and fully alive is more important than any of my dreams, that my peace and joy are too high a price to pay. I’ve visited that place. I’d like to take up a more permanent residence there.

I’m starting to accept that burnout is not something I can fix once and be done with it. It’s the cyclical dark side of my personality, fed by the culture I live in, and it’s an ongoing battle. All I can do is try to get a little wiser and have a little more grace with myself each time.

About Brenda W.

Christian. Memphian. Reader. Writer. True blue Tiger fan. Lover of shoes, the ocean, adventure, and McAlister's iced tea. View all posts by Brenda W. →
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10 Responses to Burn Out, Fade Away

  1. Bethadilly says:

    This is so so good. I am married but childless and I struggle with many of the same feelings my husband is also struggling too. But it’s hard to bring it up to other people because everyone feels that since we don’t have kids, what on earth could be dragging us down? Sigh…

    • Brenda W. says:

      Exactly. I might write a follow-up post about the attitude that only parents know what stress is. I use that to invalidate myself all the time, and I’m trying to stop. EVERYONE has stress and difficulties, and making it into some kind of contest only makes it worse.

  2. Such a well-written post, and so true all of it!

    If you ever want to chat/talk with somebody who’s been there, I’m always here.


    Maria (kiwiria)

  3. Milissa says:

    There’s so much I’d like to say about this post…I want to just pick up the phone & call you because a comment does not feel like a great way to communicate on such important subjects.

    I understand this! Often, things that energize others deplete me. I finally started listening to myself and what I need…which is A LOT more downtime than others. Sometimes, I feel like that makes me boring and I should make more of an effort to do stuff…but I’m happy and content with my life…I just remind myself if that when I start to feel bad about not doing more.

    I don’t think everyone has a “failsafe.” One of my least favorite phrases is “God will never give a person more than they can handle.” It’s just not true. The most extreme example of that is suicide.

    I also have that people-pleasing, perfectionist thing…and many of the same fears. I’ve talked about it with other favorite friends over the years…you (might!) be surprised at how common they are.

    Last…I started to have a healthier outlook (at least with the perfectionism & accepting failure) when I started weightlifting. I know this might sound crazy…but if I wanted to get better, I HAD to accept the fact that FAILURE is a win! You don’t get stronger UNLESS you fail. Improvement is not linear…it looks like a stock chart…lots of ups & downs. You can take 3 steps forward…then 2 steps back…2 more steps forward…then 1-2 steps back…and then there’s magic…a breakthrough with 10 steps forward!…followed by a long plateau or back down. It can be maddening & frustrating…the days where I make the most progress are the “bad” training days…the days when I can’t hit anything…where everything feels harder/heavier than it should. Those are the days that lead to the next PR. I’ve since switched to crossfit (which encompasses weightlifting…so I’m still weightlifting, I’ve just expanded my exercise.) I’m not one of those people that think crossfit is the end all/be all and only way. (Whatever gets people active & whatever folks enjoy is good!) But between weightlifting and crossfit, I’ve learned I’m capable of so much more than I give myself credit for. That’s a very empowering thing. It’s also taught me over and over again…failure is a win! It is required to get better…at anything. The only time failure is the end, is the day you decide you won’t ever try again. (Notice I don’t say immediately…sometimes the prudent/smart thing in that moment IS to stop – but that doesn’t mean you never attempt it again.) This is true in and out of the gym! And I really have been able to carry that lesson into other areas of my life. It took a while to really understand that…because for a long time, I only wanted to do stuff I was (relatively) confident I could master. (Fear of failure & perfectionism at work. I didn’t try things because I knew I’d fail.) It took a pretty candid conversation with a favorite loved one/competitive athlete to help me see…people that are awesome at anything have failed a lot…more than the average folks (that’s how they get past average to be awesome)…that’s what it takes to get there. If I want to be successful, I can’t be living under the spells fear of failure or fear of disapproval.

    I can’t wait for your follow up posts on the parenting/stress thing. I bet I have a lot to say about that too. Lol.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Brenda W. says:

      AGREED about “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Ugh.

      Thanks for relating! I’ve learned many of the same things about failure being necessary for growth. It can be hard to maintain that good attitude though when the world judges failure so harshly, and unfortunately that judgment can stand in the way of your goals sometimes.


  4. I relate to every bit of this. So much.

    I think a lot of people relate to this, but we still don’t feel like we’re “allowed” to feel this way, so we don’t talk about it enough.

  5. So I’ve been working through some Feelings over the past few weeks, and I kept coming back to what you wrote about not having a fail-safe. I’m finally recognizing that I don’t know that I have one, either. I’ve been giving and giving and giving (and honestly gave all that happily!) but I have completely drained myself to depletion. For some reason I have always felt like people would just recognize “Oh! She’s kind of doing too much!” and stop accepting my help/whatever, but no. I’ve got to draw those lines myself, and I’m not really sure where to start with that.

    Now to figure out how to draw said lines without massive guilt. :)

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