Burnout Is Real

Where’s the line between pushing yourself to work hard and grow (admirable)––and overexerting your energy and time (unwise)?

It’s a question I should have asked a long time ago.

Until recently, I never looked up from my hectic life to consider what commitments might be unnecessary. Have you ever been there?

A couple years ago, I encountered several foreign experiences that seemed to be the result of burnout. For example …

There was the night I said to my cousin while catching up over a Del Taco quesadilla, “Oh man, I forgot I was supposed to cry yesterday.”

Surprised, she responded, “You schedule when to cry?”

“How else will I squeeze it in?” I asked.

I thought it was a normal idea. My life moved on a minute-by-minute calendar, and I knew releasing tears would help free some of the built-up tension. Except, the whole point of crying is that it’s spontaneous –– triggered by emotion. I was trying to force and manufacture it … like most things in my life at that time.

Then there was the time I got to the gym and the machine I needed was in use. So I cried and left. An overwhelmed life leaves no room for adjustments or improvises.

An overwhelmed life leaves no room for adjustments or improvises.

I used to think everything must run on a minute-by-minute schedule, according to the perfect plan I already created. But anyone who’s ever created a plan or an agenda knows life rarely follows those. And to an overwhelmed perfectionist, that’s when the tears or anger or other emotions avalanche with a crash.

Finally, the moment of truth came when I FaceTimed my mom and she asked how I felt about a particular situation. “I don’t really feel … anything,” I said. As a person naturally drawn to identifying and expressing emotions, it felt surreal to scan my heart and come up empty.

That was when my mom said, “What you’re describing sounds like burnout.” And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I knew she was right. So I looked up what “burnout” actually is.

Simply defined, burnout is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” This Psychology Today article goes into further depth on the signs of burnout, and this post offers tips to overcome burnout.

What my mom helped me remember was that I was running at a breakneck pace (not literally, because I don’t enjoy running 😊) since I was 16. As soon as I got my first job, I was working as much as possible, growing in the field, and extending myself as far as I could. That practice continued throughout college and into my career. Of course, I’m exceedingly thankful for the work ethic my parents taught. It has served me well and I love working. That’s not my issue. I took it to a different level.

There is a line between pushing yourself and forcing yourself. In work, I know how to push myself. It’s important to say “no” to the status quo, expand horizons, and take chances. In life (social, volunteer, extracurricular activities), I tend to force myself to participate in things for the benefit of others –– whether I want to or not. I overworked in all areas of my life for nearly a decade.

In today’s culture of 24/7 news, notifications, emails, texts, and whatever other methods of communication will emerge … we can forget that our time is limited. Not every opportunity that presents itself should be taken. Wisdom guides us to decide what we can say “yes” to and what we can say “no” to.

I touched on this in “What Zumba Taught Me About Life: Part 1.” The bottom line there was that it’s OK to change your mind –– and as a result, your schedule.

Shauna Niequist wrote in Present Over Perfect:

“I thought I needed to be fast and efficient, sparkly and shiny, battle-ready and inexhaustible … I could be those things and so I was, and then lots of people told me I had a responsibility to do more and more and more. For a long time, I listened to them.”

She continued:

“… we get to decide how we want to live. We get to shape our days and our weeks, and if we don’t, they’ll get shaped by the wide catch-all of ‘normal,’ and who wants that?”

Perhaps until I read her book, I hadn’t realized the way I was living isn’t the only way. I felt trapped by commitments that I eagerly took on. That’s what’s so odd about those of us who find ourselves in the version of burnout where I have lived.

The responsibilities I picked up were products of good intentions and valid possibilities. Often, they were the result of someone saying, “You’d be great at that!” and me responding with, “OK, I’ll do it, then!” But as Shauna Niequist says, “Just because you have the capacity to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

I would also say that each commitment we add to our loads decreases the capacity we have for other things. Time and energy are actually limited resources. We can’t live as if we have unlimited capacity. I thought I did for a long time.

When I first started this burnout recovery journey in 2017, I wrote:

This week, I scratched every unnecessary appointment from my calendar. Tonight, I sat on my bed and watched a favorite comedian online. Then I ate dinner, helped my landlord with her yard, and wrote this blog post. It felt refreshing. The evening provided an opportunity to get in touch with my inner self, something we don’t have time to do when we’re rushing from place to place all the time.

What has been truly life-giving to me as I learn to care for myself is spending time with worship music, quiet times to listen to God speak, journaling prayers to Him, and reading my Bible. It fills me up with truth from Him, which drowns out my self-talk and the world’s messages that say I need to always be doing something. It redirects my focus to Someone bigger than me.

If you’re not experiencing burnout today, that’s great! Please continue to care for yourself and only give what you have to others. And if you are relating to some of the symptoms I’ve described or you saw in the Psychology Today articles, please consider what you can reduce from your commitment list.

As I do the same, I’d love to hear what’s working for your journey … drop a comment below!

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