What surprised me most about burning out wasn’t that it happened. Anyone who knew me could see it coming like a train wreck in slow motion. Even I knew it was coming, I simply felt powerless to stop it at the time. No, what surprised me most was how different it felt to depression. I had always imagined them to be sort of the same, I mean once you’ve fallen into one black hole, how different can another black hole be?
But it was different, very different. Depression feels like a wet duvet has been thrown over your soul, heavy and suffocating with the absence of light. Burning out, however, felt as though someone had powered up an emotional vacuum cleaner and sucked every ounce of joy from my life.
Burning out made me angry, that was new. Depression had made me quiet and tired since it entered my life in my teens, but burning out consumed me with an unfocused rage. I resented my work, my people, my life. Everything that touched my world made the vacuum suck harder, anything anyone did caused more joy to leave me. Some days it seemed that I could actually feel the joy exiting my body, piece by piece, it was often physically painful.
And so, in a haze of confusion, misplaced anger and a bizarre sense of curiosity about the new territory I was now entering, I burnt out.
The thing with burning out is, no matter how sad or furious you are, the world keeps on going. As a mother, a wife and a business owner even on the days when I wondered exactly what was the process I would need to undertake in order to be committed to a recovery unit. A place where I was quietly certain that I could sit and just give in to the horrors in my mind, I still had to keep going.
I had to learn, very quickly, how to live a minimum viable life as my whole self started to break apart. Which is what I now want to pass on to you…
Reduce Your Exposure
Start cutting the toxic and the unnecessary out of your life. Reduce your interactions to only those closest to you. Your days of being a social butterfly are currently over. You need to circle your wagons and make sure that they contain only the friends who will stand quietly beside you as you get through this. Listen to them, this is important, because you are not in any position to rely on the accuracy of your mind to make assessments anymore. You need external viewpoints, but only those of your most trusted people.
The Only Way Is Up
If burning out is the bottom, then at some point you have to start going back up again. Which, I discovered, is a lot like deep sea diving. You can see the surface, but it’s hazy and far away. During this period I felt a lot like Dory from Finding Nemo – just keep swimming, just keep swimming. If you have surrounded yourself with good people they will make sure you break the surface again. Just keep swimming. No matter how old you get, Dori’s here to remind us with this book that there is always a way (who cares if it’s a sticker book, this will be quite practical for de-stressing purposes)!
Proper professional help. Whatever that means to you, be it medication or meditation. Get help. You cannot and should not do this on your own. For me it was a combination of both, medication to stop my brain from consuming me and my own versions of meditation to bring some stillness to my world. I refuse to feel shame for taking medication, if my leg broke I would use medication to help fix it. My brain broke, it’s ok to use medication to fix it. My brain, my choice.
Prioritize Like A Ninja
Multi-tasking is dead to you for now. Frankly if you achieve one task a day it should be celebrated. Choose that task wisely. Overachieving is probably what got you into this mess in the first place. Let it go.
Learn How Powerful the Word ‘No’ Can Be
I am a reformed chronic people pleaser. I would say yes to helping anyone with anything. I would have to sit on my hands to stop myself from volunteering for yet another thing that no-one else was willing to commit to. Thanks to the burnout, and its accompanying rage issues, saying no got really easy. Are you kidding? You want more from me?!? No. N.O. No. It was revalationary. Learning how to set proper boundaries as an adult produced some very unexpected (by me) results. People respected my time more, I respected my time more. I got decisive, I was laser focused, I took action. It helped me recover.
Of course, it would be infinitely better if we took the steps we needed to protect ourselves before we burnt out. But life isn’t always that easy or straightforward. Burn out happens. It isn’t shameful or taboo. It isn’t your fault. Most importantly, it is completely recoverable from. And while it is true that you won’t be the same after it, the new evolved you comes with its own benefits.
Just keep swimming.