I Thought I Knew What Burnout Was

Photo by Lum3n from Pexels

I get it. You don’t want to read yet another Thing On The Internet about burnout. Especially not from someone like me. Someone who has said “never again” enough times to know it’s never going to be true.

But technically, no one is forcing you to read the words I’m adding to this discourse. I’m writing them because I need to. I’m speaking my truth because not doing that feels like ignoring that weird pain in that obscure body part that’s probably nothing but could be something, worth exploring, but so long not dealt with that you can’t help but ask yourself: Would I really be better off without this annoyance? Am I just overreacting?

Here’s the thing about burnout we keep saying but never really collectively addressing: It’s a widespread problem that can only be dealt with at an individual scope.

If you don’t deal with your own crushing cycle of burnout, neither will your co-worker, or their boss, or their sister-in-law. Choosing to fight for yourself — presumably by not fighting at all, at least in the way you’re used to — is how the larger problem gets resolved.

It’s not selfish, though. It’s a different kind of long game. And we all have to agree on the rules before we can start playing.

And before that…we have to understand what burnout is. Not in terms of definition, but instead of feeling. OUR feeling. Personally.

As a writer, an editor, a journalist, a content creator, whatever label you want to use in this context, I tend to approach most subjects assuming I don’t know even close to all there is to know about them. My job is to learn everything I can about a person, a conflict, a phenomenon before I put a single word to paper or get in front of a microphone. Even the things I think I know, I might be wrong about. I might have been unknowingly misled. I’m just a person prone to falling for the same tricks I vowed long ago never to use in my own content.

But for some reason, I made a mental exception for burnout. I assumed I knew all there was to be known about it. Maybe because taking my usual approach would have implied being honest with myself about my very personal relationship with my professional existence.

My episodes of burnout are part of a much larger cycle that’s probably part of some unaddressed, undiagnosed need to prove I’m capable of achievement. You’re not my therapist and are therefore you don’t get my entire origin story in one Medium article (nor would you want it, let’s be honest).

What I can and probably need to tell you for better context in this specific narrative is this: In high school, I was taught to overachieve. No one pushed me into this poisonous mindset on purpose. Let’s call it passive positive reinforcement gone terribly wrong. The more I committed to, the harder I worked, the more I made myself “seen” in multiple circles, the more I was made to believe this was the way everyone was supposed to behave. That I was somehow the “standard.”

That if I was nice and smart and smiled a lot and Did Everything Well, I would “make it.” Whatever that meant.

I chose health science journalism as a career path my senior year of undergrad, and guess what that reinforced? The idea that doing more, working harder, extending the best qualities others perceived in me in order to appear As Together As Anyone Can Be At 23, would earn me everything I’d ever wanted.

It got me everything I’d ever wanted. Plus a handful of things I didn’t.

The greatest danger of burnout is that you often don’t know you’re past your breaking point until it’s too late.

When you learn to associate exhaustion with accomplishment, when feeling like you hate your dream job is “just part of reaching the end goal,” you blink and suddenly you’ve been working for the same company for almost 5 years and you’re not just miserable. You’re existentially spent. You are a shell. You want to want to love your work again. But you don’t. You won’t. Not if things continue on as they are.

My burnout manifests as self-depreciation. I feel tired, and I bitterly whisper to myself between cups of coffee: “You’re weak.” I tell myself I should be trying harder, that things didn’t always used to be this way. Remember in college when you ran 7 miles a day and never missed a lecture and made it to all the concerts and plays AND football games? What happened to THAT version of you?

Then I remind myself that Me of Then barely talked to anyone and considered coffee a food group and slept through an entire campus improv show because everything was just too much.

I made it four-and-a-half years giving my all to an online media company before I realized it was slowly killing me. We’re not supposed to cry at work. We’re not supposed to dread every Slack DM because what if it’s another person telling us we’re not good enough?

Even though I kept pushing myself to do better, working harder only motivated my employer to demand more of me. More, and more, until I had nothing left to give.

In this case, “doing better” meant walking away. It had to. I was suffering.

I applied to 50 jobs in 3 weeks. I was so desperate to escape the toxicity of my outstanding circumstances that I no longer cared about what that would do to me mentally, emotionally, physically. I’d been trained, taught, conditioned to believe that the only way out was to push yourself past the limitations you’d previously set for yourself.

Yes, I got hired somewhere else. Yes, I resigned bitterly from my old job and struggled through those last two weeks. But at what cost?

Flash forward to my exit interview, which I entered planning to give all the constructive feedback bullet points I’d written out the night before and left having said little more than “It was a hard decision, but it’s time.”

Was that a lie? I couldn’t have cared even if I’d had it in me to try. Is deciding to uproot your entire life when you’re already stumbling over unsteady ground ever clear or simple?

I walked into my brand-new job already feeling spent. Not because of the job (which treats me well and I actually love?!), but because of all the weight from the past 5 years I was still carrying on my shoulders.

Even having reached a point where I wanted to let go of all that trauma (call it what it is) … I had no idea how to.

How do you release the past that has thus far defined everything you’ve become and everything you presumably desire to be?

What if you let go of who you were and realize you have no idea who or what or why you are now?

What if you let go of who you thought you were and discover you can be so much more than your past allowed you to believe you were capable of becoming?

Maybe everyone who ever told me what I could be was wrong. Maybe they should have asked what I wanted to be in that moment.

Maybe who and what we are changes, but our overarching purpose stays the same. And maybe that means we’re too precious to let ourselves break for the sake of achievement.

I am resting now. Maybe, for the moment, that’s my only goal.

This is not a total shift from old to new. Personal growth doesn’t work like that. I will burn out again. I will establish a new routine, a new schedule, I will get comfortable, I will pile things onto my to-do list as I always do, and I will over-extend myself as I have so many times before.

We learn by doing. Sometimes that means we learn by messing up, by getting hurt, and having to start over knowing what we know now.

I don’t think we’re meant or even able to break every cycle we trap ourselves in. It’s not that I particularly enjoy wearing myself down to a mere shadow of who I am — does anyone? But I do learn something new every time I arrive back at my low place, my dark place, where I want to be 100% but the best my body can do is get out of bed and vow to survive another day.

This time? This time I learned, likely not for the last time, that we are constantly evolving. Perhaps 4 years ago I could have handled a full work schedule on top of freelancing on top of moving across the country on top of shouldering a borderline existential crisis about my career and what little remains of my 20s.

I’m not who I was 4 years ago, though. I probably COULD keep pushing myself, and in doing that I COULD publish more and interview more people I admire and train my body to run long distances again and feel on top of the world, for a little while at least.

But I’m the version of me that exists NOW. And maybe the Meg of Now doesn’t want to fight so hard for another byline or a Twitter mention or congratulatory Fitbit notifications.

Maybe October 2021 Meg would rather write on her lunch break sometimes, spend some evenings podcasting or reviewing a book, but spend most of her free time — real, unapologetic free time — binge-watching another medical drama, laughing at the kitchen sink pretending to be mad at my partner because our new dishwasher is backordered and WE CAN’T KEEP MAKING SO MANY DISHES, HOW DO TWO PEOPLE MAKE SO MANY DISHES??

Maybe I just want to experience the small moments I’ve missed the past decade because “society said” I was worthless if I wasn’t working. Maybe I never should have listened tot he educators and employers, advisors and mentors who said hard work would be worth the pain.

It’s too late to undo the damage. But I can still choose to do better from this point forward. To treat myself better, to build a better life on healthier foundations.

I am tired. Some days it’s a chore just to get out of bed. It won’t always be this way. As long as I remember how this feels. How much I don’t want to return to this place again.

For me, perhaps, burning out is how I’ll break the cycle.

Each time I feel overwhelmed, overworked and unsatisfied, I can ask myself the same questions I’m asking myself now.

Who are you now? Are you living the life You of Now wants?

My answers will change as I change.

But I will always rise from the aftermath better than I was. Less scarred. More determined to save myself next time before I’ve gone too far.

That’s how we transform. By trying.

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Meg Dowell

Meg Dowell

Writer, photographer, podcaster. She/her.