Whether it’s work-related, messed up relationships, chronic fatigue or other life stresses, we all have encountered burnout at some point, in varying degrees. In fact, some of us are regular patrons at this burnout bar. Like, "How am I here AGAIN?"
So one fine day, just as I was about to enter this burnout bar, I got to thinking, ‘You know what, shit happens, burnout happens. I can get sucked in OR I can start figuring this thing out.’
Once in a while in my life, I chose wisely.
So here are the 3 things I’ve learned from my burnout.
1. Dude, It’s Not You, It’s Me.
Years ago, I’d have said that working in aid led me to burn out - how it was the norm to be working and partying hard, being super busy with who-knows-what and so on.
But somewhere deep down, I knew these weren’t exactly true and it sure didn’t make me feel any better. (Not saying there are no structural concerns about how aid organizations are also responsible for creating a culture where burnout is the norm but that's a topic for another day)
It took me a while to swallow the bitter pill and accept the fact that I have to take responsibility for my burnout. I’m not talking about just a small fraction of it, and the rest wasn’t my fault kinda thing. I’m talking about taking full responsibility for what had happened. To me.
You see, blame is easy. Blame is oh-so-delicious in that moment of frustration and anger. Blame is comforting because it meant I wasn’t entirely at fault. But blame is just a temporary high and doesn’t stay for breakfast the morning after. It only leaves you with a false sense of superior smugness. The kind no one likes. The kind my ex-boyfriends have a lot of.
Taking responsibility and owning your shittiness is hard. I had to own up that I DID make poor decisions. I DID allow my relationships to dictate my worth. I DID blindly do my work, for no other reason other than to impress and climb the career larder because I thought that was expected. I DID see the burnout signs but chose to ignore them because who knows why.
The moment I stopped blaming the outside and instead focus on taking ownership of how the burnout was affecting me was likely the moment I felt so much lighter. I wasn’t so angry anymore, or tired and best of all, I felt the load lightening up a little.
2. Not Everything Has To Be So Extreme
I used to think that burnout is when you’re incapacitated and unable to function. So long as I can turn up to work and keep pushing through, I wasn’t burning out. Heck, if I was feeling irritated or disinterested, it was just another bad day.
But it was not just one or two bad days. It was a lot of bad days. Like many miserable days.
That’s the thing about burnout. It doesn’t have to be one thing that struck a blow out of nowhere. It doesn’t have to be so extreme or excessive. If we think about it, it’s really an accumulation of moments and days of troughs and peaks of everyday stresses and pressures that slowly drags you down. Bit by bit. Drip by drip.
When I looked back, I now see many red flags, all of which I ignored. My attitude wasn’t all too pleasant. So were my lifestyle and habits. Burnout didn’t just appear. It stewed patiently, collecting and waiting for the right moment to catch you unguarded.
I also don’t recall too many conversations with my colleagues or peers about burnout. I guess the thinking was no one was THAT broken, so why fix something that’s not broken?
I accept that burnout is unavoidable in our lives today. The difference between now and before is that now I don’t wait around for a major sign to show up. And then react. I’m better at recognizing my triggers now. And more importantly sooner.
3. Bigger Than Just Work
You must have come across individuals who can’t seem to disconnect from work and whose lives seem to comprise of nothing but work. And then they burned out. It’s the version we’re all familiar with. Burning out from work overload.
After nearly a decade working in aid, I felt I wasn’t getting much out of it. I was jaded, cynical and really tired. Tired of tasks that seem to help nothing and no one. Tired of the politics. Tired of bad behaviours slipping by and getting rewarded. But getting out seems like a cop-out. Similarly I was also burnt out from my relationships. Short-distance, long-distance, no matter what I did, I still failed.
Those experiences now tell me that burnout can come from all angles - from being unchallenged at work, from feeling isolated or from a draining relationship. It took me some time to understand that burnout isn’t always about being overworked. It wasn't because I couldn’t cope with being an aid worker.
Today, knowing that has helped me make better choices. It means if I choose to, I could walk away from a lifestyle I didn’t enjoy and doing so does not mean I failed. Far from it. It means for once, I’m just taking care of myself and that’s OK.
That’s probably been the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far.
Burnout is not something we can fix, put a quick-fix bandaid and all is resolved. To recover requires us to pause and take a moment (and many moments), reflect on our experience and pick lessons from it so we know what to do when it shows up on our doorstep uninvited.