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. →
Posted in life lately, wellness