Jumping forward: We may all occasionally get into a dead end, but there’s no need to U-turn or escape from something. If burnout or depression happens, it happens. Our life consists of different periods and it’s just part of it. It shapes who we are, opens our eyes eventually, and helps us understand what’s really important, often reshuffling our life priorities. If we learn how to move on (and later prevent such instances, keeping ourselves mentally fit) we will only become stronger and better versions of ourselves.
Now, let’s start from the beginning. Long before Sheryl Sandberg released her book Lean In, I had been sort of leaning in. When I went to school, I attended lots of extracurricular activities: from swimming classes to dance classes to English lessons, (my writing will probably expose that English is my third language) to programming classes for kids and so on. Not to mention organising most of the school events, taking part in national and international competitions, editing the school magazine… the list goes on. Yes, I was that annoying kid that loved being first.
Then, I went to uni, and guess what? Just studying wasn’t enough again, so I enrolled in more classes than I could attend, I took on more positions than I should have (Course Rep to School Rep, fighting for better university and student rights, charity fashion show founder to employability team lead, etc.). Oh, and I had a few paid jobs on top of that. If I strained my memory a little harder, I’d probably get to at least 10 roles I was juggling. I’m not unique in any way.
The typical story continued — along came adult life. I cut down on extra roles (thank god), but there were still a lot of them on my plate: employee, manager, colleague, partner, friend, daughter, sister… and most of us strive to succeed in all roles equally. The truth is it’s not possible. But we usually learn it the hard way.
I started a job (later co-founded a company) and worked really hard to be a good employee (later a boss) — to finish projects on time, gain recognition, finally make a difference. For more than 4 years, I’ve been co-running a digital innovation agency start-up: we bootstrapped, grew the company to a decent size, gained large clients like Unilever, Barclays, The British Museum, etc. Having seen both the start-up and corporate worlds inside-out I know there’s much more to the roles than just being a ‘good employee’ or ‘boss’ but for the sake of staying focused I won’t dig deeper right now.
As a human being, I also needed the help and support of the people I worked with, so I genuinely tried to be a nice and lovely colleague. I often went out of my way just to be nice: took over someone’s project I didn’t have time for, forced a smile when I had had a tough day (who likes grumpy people?), the list goes on. When all I could think of after a long day in the office was going home and crashing out, I still went for an after-work drink with colleagues — well, it’s easier to join in than find an excuse, or — even worse — tell the truth, isn’t it? “Oh come on, it’s good for bonding” the inner voice whispered in my head. As I realised later it had been the socially shaped voice talking, not the real one, which I’d learned to suppress over the years and through social pressures.
Similar behaviour and thoughts applied to an ever-demanding family life, and social life, although arguably to a lesser extent. I put others’ desires first, tried to be nice, and watched what I said. I tried to give as much as possible in every aspect of my life.
I’m not even going to start on the surplus of information we receive daily and the downsides of social media where we subconsciously get a lot of pressure.
As a Psychologist I know (and now have experienced it) the above two contribute to increased striving for perfection, or in other words ‘obligation’ to succeed, and create a FOMO — fear of missing out. It is a completely different topic but also a huge contributor to our emotional drain today.
So, I pushed myself too far, too fast, strived for perfection, tried to set my work-life balance to make sure everyone was equally happy, and what happened in the end? That’s right — burnout. I became emotionally and physically drained. I felt tired, exhausted, anxious, easily irritated or totally indifferent: I could not focus — even simple things required effort. I noticed some traces of ‘not recognising myself’ behaviour and became angry with myself, exposing myself to even more stress.
I started living in a mild state of depression that was not visible to those around me or even recognisable to myself. Some, unfortunately, go further into clinical depression, which is usually more noticeable to others and requires medical treatment (I knew a few friends who went through this).
Imagine a jug of water: there’s only much you can pour out — it becomes empty and dries out if we don’t fill it up. Sounds straightforward, but in reality, I only made sense of this metaphor when I looked at it in perspective, which we usually gain only when we hit a wall. A net wall, a rubber wall, a brick wall — not only walls can be of different densities — we are all different in our resistance levels.
What I’ve learned from my burnout and what helped me to start ‘working out’ my mental fitness:
Step 1 — Stop and lean back
If you’ve hit a wall of any kind — stop. If you haven’t — stop.
Take a moment to reflect. No, don’t just read past these lines — actually stop.
Stopping if you haven’t hit the wall is harder because without any external triggers (you know, the ‘last nail in the coffin’) you could fall into a trap, thinking everything is fine when it may not necessarily be so.
Look at your jug. How empty or full is it? Are you happy with it? Listen to your real self, not the socially influenced one.
I myself hit such a wall. It was as if I had woken up after a long night’s sleep. Suddenly, I was able to look at my life from a different perspective and it seemed very different to what I thought it was. The drama didn’t look dramatic anymore. In fact, it was just my dramatic reaction caused by exhaustion, not the events themselves. I could see what I was doing (and not doing), why, and what I actually wanted to do. The energy and optimism started to come back and the feeling of stress to go away.
Step 2 — Share and listen
I was surprised how many friends of mine were going through the same, which I have to say I only found out once I had started sharing my thoughts, worries and struggles. They had the same worries and the same struggles. Who’d have thought? I suddenly saw how many people had hit their walls too — I wasn’t alone. It was normal. In fact, a large number of my friends had been or were going through a similar crisis, the new early-30s life crisis.
It felt like I’d been blind and finally opened my eyes.
Because of the stigma in our society, which is particularly relevant to large cities that foster competitiveness, I regarded my fears, doubts, struggles and certain feelings as weaknesses and therefore (‘weakness = bad’) kept them to myself.
I got stuck in a vicious circle: I acted as if I was fine and by doing so often made myself believe so, I saw others doing well (forgetting they were also putting their masks on), and so we end up in a society where one should feel fine — there’s no other option.
I loved the ad on South West trains that read ‘Sometimes it’s OK to not feel ok’. It sounds so simple but I felt it was somewhat daring to see it in Britain, where people tend to suppress their emotions more than in many other countries I know. “Hi, how are you?” is simply an extended ‘Hello’ and therefore without much thinking we reply, “Fine, thanks, how are you?”; whereas in many other cultures, this question is asked with a genuine interest and people expect you to share your news and our feelings, basically tell them what’s on your mind.
Sharing your feelings, being genuinely interested in how others are doing, and most importantly listening — I found these having a huge therapeutic effect.
Step 3 — Accept things and stop giving a f**k
Accept the situation and accept yourself: this is likely to come naturally as you start sharing.
I was like a cobbler’s child without shoes. Despite being a psychologist, I only learned through my own experience that the multi-tasking, which envelops our entire life, is a myth — no one can be good at it. Yes, even you! Yes, even that guy who brags that he is the king of multi-tasking. Cognitive scientists have confirmed multi-tasking drains our attention, decreases efficiency, and increases stress. OK, you might have heard it before (I had too) but most likely didn’t pay attention (I didn’t either) and just carried on (I did too) — if that’s about to happen again then please scroll up to Step 1.
My main objective in sharing this story is so that someone does actually pause and reflect for a moment, unlike my old self.
I realised no one can physically do many things simultaneously — no one can be great at millions of things at once. So I told myself, “Accept it, sit back, and relax”. Finally, I could relax!
You know what, it’s also fine to be tired or in a bad mood. I’m not saying I started shouting “f**k off!” at my colleagues or my loved ones, but simply not pulling a fake happy face was enough — I started being myself.
Speaking of f**ks, stop giving them. It turned out to be perfectly OK to say to my colleagues that it hadn’t been my day and just go home. The world was still alive the next day. It was perfectly fine not to take on a new project and just let others do it for once. It was fine not to meet my friends at the weekend when I felt like a quiet night in. I didn’t miss out on anything but I did myself a huge favour in the end.
There is a great book, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. You might say it talks about obvious things, but aren’t we often blind to the obvious?
Step 4 — Tune in with yourself
Just for a moment try to take off the mask that society made you put on and simply be yourself. How does that feel? What if you could do it for longer?
As soon as we start conforming to societal norms we not only fool others, which is bad, but most importantly ourselves, which is very bad. We start believing in something that’s not ours anymore.
“What’s really mine?” I asked myself. Being true to myself has been a stepping-stone for my recovery. Now, whenever I’m about to do something, I ask myself, “Where is it coming from?” Is it something I want to do because I enjoy it or is it something I need to do because someone else wants me to do it?
About 7 years ago, when I was studying in Melbourne as a psychology exchange student I discovered positive psychology. Mindfulness is one of the pillars of positive psychology and it blew my mind. But of course, as we do, I only started integrating it into my life when I needed a lifebuoy.
Mindfulness has been a great tool (gradually turning into an approach to life) that helped me recognise my emotions, become more self-aware, and get into sync with my mind. Meditation has been one of the most effective techniques to develop mindfulness. Not only does it help to reduce stress, but also, most importantly, it helps start a conversation with the inner self. Some people use audio guides or watch YouTube videos. Others, like me, find mobile apps more convenient. There are Calm, The Mindfulness App and lots of other apps but I use Headspace — I love its graphics and I love how it takes away that awkwardness that comes with the word ‘meditation’ and makes it super cool instead. Mindfulness can also be developed through various interventions described in positive psychology.
Positive psychology is a relatively new field in psychology. Unlike traditional psychology, which sees people through an illness (or dysfunction) prism and seeks to repair damage, positive psychology focuses on mental health, wellbeing, and people’s strengths, enabling them to have meaningful and fulfilling lives. Mindfulness, along with savouring and flourishing, is one of the core wellbeing ingredients positive psychology helps to develop.
Step 5 — Fill up your jug
First, I had to understand what was already in my jug. “There must be something”, I thought. It wasn’t completely empty, otherwise I’d burn out much quicker.
What’s in there when it’s half-full? What makes me happy? What keeps me going?
The first thing that came to my mind was “spending time with my family” but was it really my thinking or was this something I was made to think by society? What do I mean by family? My parents? My partner? How exactly would I like to spend time? Shall we go away to the countryside for the day and go hiking? Shall we fly to Rome for a romantic weekend? Shall we just stay at home and turn our phones off?
What makes YOU happy? Only YOU know what it is.
It could well be reading a fiction book in a park, watching an action movie with your girlfriend, planting flowers in your garden on your own, or simply eating a chocolate chip cookie when the kids can’t see you. We are all different and so are the things that make us happy.
The point is start doing it. It may require effort, physical or emotional, e.g. stop giving a f**k about the upcoming project deadline, finding a nanny for your kids, making a call, etc. If going on a date with your other half is what makes you happy (and you simply may not have been on a ‘date’ with them for a long time, because society decided that married couples only go for dinners not romantic dates), then do it. If you prefer that they invite you rather than booking yourself then simply ask them to — yes, there’s nothing embarrassing about asking — stop giving a f**k!
Book the flying lesson you have been contemplating for so long, sign up for a photography class if you’ve always secretly loved photography, build an app, cook up a Mexican, try salsa, book a spa day, invite your friends over… whatever it is, make sure you DO what makes YOU happy. Starting today.
I think as a society (I am part of it, so I will start with myself) we should finally dump mental health stigma and change its perception to something of a norm and of a high importance, just like our physical health. This is the reason I’m a strong advocate of positive psychology and the concept of mental fitness. I really hope everyone will soon be ‘working out’ to keep themselves mentally fit, and I’m determined to contribute towards this.
Originally published at medium.com