Not fun! That is how anyone who has suffered burnout can describe the experience. Sleeplessness, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, anxiety, negative thoughts about self and life. These are just some of the manifestations of burnout I experienced in 2019. Physical and psychological symptoms which started mildly but grew to become unbearable.
At the time, I was 29 years old. My first thought was that these physical symptoms were in response to a recent marathon. It was not my first marathon but was a particularly arduous and grueling race which left me exhausted for several weeks. I did not think my sustained stress at work, long hours, work-weekends, and growing dissatisfaction with my job had anything to do with it.
Before my corporate job at a major shipping line, I was a deck officer in the Merchant Marine, where work was 24/7. You were either on call or on duty all day, everyday aboard a ship. Feeling tired and depleted at work was business as usual for nearly ten years of my life. This modus operandi had worked out well for me. I had achieved all professional goals I set out for myself.
As feelings of ineffectiveness at work increased, I thought it just meant I needed to put more effort in so I could finally finish all on my ‘to do’ list and finally feel better. Being a long-distance runner my whole life, I would think “Push through the pain, you are almost to the finish line”. After a lifetime of thinking this way, my wake up call was my body finally signaling me loud enough to make me realize “wait, what finish line? Poor health? Chronic stress? A life of disillusionment?” For an “overachiever” there is never a finish line.
When my symptoms did not go away after a few months, I knew I needed to dig deeper. I needed to dig into my long-held belief that your achievements define you. Your achievements make you worthy of acceptance and love.
Burnout, and its emotional fallout, was a painful, confusing, and incredibly disorienting experience. Burnout brought me to my knees, quite literally, making me come face to face with my self-identity, my ego, my limits, and my deep vulnerability. Things I had never stopped and faced before. For me, this experience led me to quit my job, despite feeling guilty and shameful at that time for doing so. I knew in my core it was what I needed to do. This decision was the beginning of a journey into self-discovery.
These are five lessons I learned from burnout which have transformed my life, and continue to do so everyday:
Stay firmly planted in reality – Something may have brought you joy at one point in your life. You may have been in the flow, loving what you do, and where you were. Things change, you change, your preferences change, and you get older. This reality invites us to constantly check in with ourselves and recognize when something is not working for us anymore. Don’t just continue because of your idea of what ‘should be’, or what looks best on a resume. To stay in tune with reality, it is important to feel into the current moment, understanding that your emotions are indicators that are guiding you, not things to bury while pressing forward.
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Share your gifts with the world – To know thyself is a lifelong endeavor and ever-evolving, as are you. Despite the false belief that there is never enough time, it is important to cultivate a cycle of action, inaction, and reflection. To reflect, pray, meditate, contemplate and connect to source is an essential part of our everyday life and must be given priority. During this quiet time ask how you can most effectively share your gifts with the world. If it is doing what you are currently doing, that is fantastic, and the knowing will surely give you a renewed energy and purpose. If it is not, the honest reflection will lead you down the path of discovering a vocation in-line with your soul’s purpose.
Perfectionism is fear in disguise– This is tough to digest for a life-long perfectionist. Recognizing this leaves you feeling embarrassed, ashamed, naïve. Perfectionism is an armor, it keeps your ego intact, it gives you a sense of control, control that you really never had. If you are a perfectionist, I recommend asking, “why?”. Perfection is not beauty, its not a conduit to success, and quite on the contrary, it is a way to distance yourself from others and from achieving your full potential.
Allow Joy into your Life –Recently, I have come to truly appreciate and embody the dolce fare niente (sweetness of doing nothing) ethos of Italians. It is a beautiful and delightful way to live life. Embodying the notion that you do not need to accomplish anything to be worthy of love and acceptance. It is an incredibly liberating feeling. Living in this space opens you up for joy that otherwise is overlooked. Joy for the small gifts of life, for the gift of stillness, and for the gift of changes of pace; there is a time for work, a time for play and a time for doing absolutely nothing.
Let Go –Let go of people, circumstances, places, the need to achieve, expectations, and mistakes. Letting go of these things, and anything else that weighs you down is the best thing you can do for yourself and the world. It does not mean you become passive or give up your dreams, values, and boundaries- quite the opposite. It means you understand that we are here on earth temporarily, and we must live in an unencumbered way in order to reach our highest potential.
It has taken several months to get back to a feeling of normality, physical symptoms subsided a few months after leaving the job, but psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression did not disappear as quickly, only now dissipating a year on. Time, personal work, reflection, prayer and self-compassion is how you overcome.
In a way, I would say my life will never be normal again, nor do I want it to be normal. Practicing these five tenants has not meant a revolution from one year to the next. I have not made my first million, have not sold a New York Times Bestseller, nor started my own business. I have, however, experienced a major life course correction which has set me on a path which feels good, a path to discovering my true strengths, and a path to discovering how I can share these strengths and gifts with the world; living joyously every day.
Life breaks you down to build you up. Struggles are an opportunity for growth. Burnout is an opportunity for transformation. The journey starts by saying good-bye to that which does not serve you anymore, and by saying a big and joyous hello to a path of self-discovery, self-love, self-compassion, and a life you love.
I hope my story can serve you in your beautiful journey of life.