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Why Burnout Was the Biggest Lesson in My Life

Because no woman is a robot.

Utamaru Kido/ Getty Images
Utamaru Kido/ Getty Images

One of the most ridiculously shameful experiences in my life was when I stood in my boss’ office and for the first time, said “no” to taking on another project — then burst in to a flood of tears

I had nothing more to give. 

As the highest performing account manager in the business, I felt incredibly ashamed I didn’t have the physical, mental, or emotional capacity to do “more.” 

The exhaustion I felt was so overwhelming. Like every cell in my body was tired and begging me to rest. 

I say it was ridiculous I was ashamed because, at the time, I thought I was a failure.

I ignored all I’d achieved.

Exceeding KPIs and financial forecasts and delivering world-class design projects to global businesses.

None of that mattered. 

Exhaustion and being at the point saying “no” meant I was weak.

Yet the exhaustion I’d pushed through for years, the pressure of constant stress, was clearly taking its toll.

No woman is a robot

Every day for four or more years, I’d woken up to my blaring alarm clock. (Remember those god-awful alarm clocks before mobile ringtones? Even the thought of that “Wake up! It’s a matter of life or death!” tone spikes my adrenalin!)

Still feeling tired and unrefreshed from very little sleep, I’d talk myself out of bed with the promise of getting to bed earlier, and often, not drinking so much wine in the evening.

I’d grab a coffee and blueberry muffin or banana on my way to work, which I’d eat and drink in the car while driving (often coupled with applying mascara, blusher, and lipstick — and concealer to mask the dark circles under my eyes).

From waking through to those few glasses of red in the evening, I’d be quietly gripped by the persisting feeling of anxiety, stress, and exhaustion.

The feeling that I must keeping “doing” — or somehow my whole existence was threatened.

I’d tell myself that my stamina is good and that I’m fine.

I raced through my day from task to task with few, if any, breaks.

In fact, one of my work friends nicknamed me Speedy Gonzales.

At times when I’d be rushing around, some male colleagues would repeat Speedy’s famous saying: “Ándale, ándale! Arriba, arriba!”

When work was finished for the day, which could be anywhere from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., I’d head home, make a bowl of pasta with pre-made sauce in a jar, and crack open a bottle of merlot.

The promise to have no wine — or only have one glass — had long been forgotten, even though I’d made this promise to myself most days for years!

Then I’d crash in front of the telly, watch whatever caught my eye to pass the evening until bed, and tell myself this was relaxation.

The next morning I’d wake, feeling tired and promising to get to bed early and not drink again… and there goes the cycle again.

I saw loved ones as items on my to-do list

My boyfriend at the time complained about not seeing me enough — and when he saw me, I’d be tired and would bore him with talk about work.

We’d go out to dinner and I’d feel on edge. Was I supposed to just sit and do nothing but enjoy the meal and company the whole evening? It was agonising!

I saw my relationship as a burden I didn’t have the capacity to give to — even though I loved him.

Truth be told, I started seeing all my relationships like that — friends and family too.

Just more items on my to-do list that I didn’t need.

One Christmas gifted me a reality check

On the last week of Christmas, the year before I experienced burnout, the office closed early for Christmas drinks.

As soon as 2 p.m. hit, everyone in the office gleefully turned off their computers and headed to the balcony to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine.

Not me though.

I stayed at my desk, replying to emails and working on a design strategy presentation.

The MD walked up to me with a concerned look on his face, perched himself on the edge of my desk, and said, “Melissa, it’s OK to stop. Turn off your laptop and come join in the fun.”

At that point, I held back my tears, as I knew my commitment to my work went way beyond what was healthy.

That I’d give up having a party with my work colleagues with paid for booze and food to do work instead?! Reality check!

This was the first time I knew I had a problem (despite many people telling me I worked too much over the years. I chalked that down to me being a highly driven “career girl”).

Even though I’d had a glimmer of realisation — the start of an awakening — I chose to push that realisation to the back of my mind.

Because honestly, I didn’t know any other way to be.

And being how I was was easier than trying to change. I was too busy for that!

Seeing more cracks in my armour

After some persuasion from a friend, I began booking regular massage sessions.

My massage therapist would tell me I held an enormous amount of stress in my body.

When asking me to relax, she would smirk while holding my stiff leg or arm while I’d say, “I am relaxed!”

I realised later that I couldn’t relax because I couldn’t fully allow someone else to take care of me.

I didn’t want to release control. How could I trust this person? How could I be completely vulnerable in someone else’s presence and receive “help”?

An epiphany that came much later is that I was living in “resistance mode.”

Resistance to people helping me, because as a fiercely independent career girl who’d relocated to Sydney at age 21, that was a weakness.

Resistance to relaxation — because, if I just stopped and allowed myself to let go — would I lose grip or momentum?

Resistance to cold weather (“brrrr it’s too cold”).

Resistance to hot weather (“pfff it’s too hot”).

Resistance to time (seeing time as something to beat or be “running against the clock” versus being more mindful about how I spend my time and seeing it as an ally).

When you live in resistance, everything feels like a fight or struggle.

I eventually discovered that the opposite of resistance – acceptance – is where peace lies.

Now, one of my favourite sayings to myself or to others complaining about a situation they cannot change is “it is what it is.”

Acceptance is about letting go of control and accepting what’s happening in any moment.

That also involved letting go of old beliefs and thoughts like:

Why can’t life be perfect and how I want it to be?

I must be perfect.

I must possess robot-like resilience, steadfastness, and productivity to excel and be recognised.

Softness is weakness. Asking for help means I’m a failure.

I never have enough time.

I’d also lost my feminine side

After learning about the characteristic differences between masculine and feminine energies (which we all have to differing degrees — like yin and yang) — I realised that much of what I was expressing was masculine.

The planning, being in the mind, being active, serious, aggressive, and strategic in my approach.

The feminine side of being present in my body, being playful, vulnerable, emotional, and open to support and love from others?

She took a backseat when I decided to follow what I saw in the workplace.

The masculine traits will bring you success. The feminine side will simply hold you back.

So, back to burnout…

So in the middle of winter in 2004, after the tear-bursting episode at work, I was forced to take weeks off to rest.

I was utterly burned out. 

I stayed in bed for weeks, and slept, cried from despair and helplessness, and slept some more.

I recall my boss calling me and gingerly asking, ‘When do you think you’ll be back at work?”

Eventually, my boyfriend would give my work updates as I couldn’t muster the conversation — and honestly — wanted all responsibility, even a phone call, to disappear.

At that point, I didn’t care if I lost my job. Nor did I care about the risk of losing my career.

Because when you’re at that stage of exhaustion, you experience a complete feeling of apathy.

If you’re getting close to that point — I urge you to take some time to assess your lifestyle before you completely burn out.

Take stock of how much time you’re spending at work, your stress levels, what you’re eating, how you’re sleeping, what your habits are, and whether they’re supporting your health or destroying it.

Be real with yourself and avoid putting it off and saying “tomorrow” or “i’ll be okay.”

We can think nothing bad is going to happen to us. Like we’ll be the lucky ones that won’t get sick.

Don’t take that risk when it comes to your health, your career, and your life.

While being optimistic at times is helpful, in this situation my darling, optimism like that is delusional.

Right now you can potentially avoid the emotional stress and loss of time, money and pride by taking some actions to address your situation before it gets worse.

So what happened next?

I wish I could tell you I learned my lesson following this experience.

When I eventually returned back to work, my bosses had finally organised some support for me (which I’d desperately needed for a long time).

So while my workload reduced for a while, how I thought, my behaviours and lifestyle remained the same.

Except, I came up with a wonderful idea.

I decided to pack up my life and move to London.

I wanted to leave a full-time career for freelance work where I was less committed and entrenched in clients and business while studying nutrition, which was something I’d been reading about for a while (after loved ones were falling ill and I was keen to understand why).

Well, I nearly ended up in the same situation a few years later.

I thought changing my circumstances was going to change my life.

But the thing is when it comes to beliefs and behaviours — if you aren’t aware of those underlying beliefs, challenges will still come up in your life, and your behaviours will stay the same — even if the environment has changed. 

So I took a freelance job, and I loved it so much I became a full-time team member — becoming entrenched in the business and to the clients — exactly what I had said I wanted to avoid!

The opportunity for me to help grow this business was too tempting to ignore.

I once recall someone saying that when you do something you love, the stress is different, and you can handle the long days and nights.

But if your responsibility grows too much and you don’t get enough support — this ends up with chronic stress.

Dr. John Demartini, an expert on human behaviour, talks about getting the right amount of challenge and support to remain healthy.

Too much challenge and not enough support equals stress and burnout.

Too much support and not enough challenge leads to complacency, entitlement and arrogance (like spoilt brats!).

So my workplace was so frenetic that I was always fighting fires.

While I had a certain amount of support, I took on too much for one person to handle so once again stress took over.

When I started seeing the same warning signs come up a second time around (put into the spotlight by my partner at the time, and backed up by a few concerned colleagues who said I should be enjoying my youth before it passes me by instead of working so hard), I spent some time reflecting.

Nearing the age of 30, I asked myself how the next 10 years would look if I kept going.

I’d already had a few health scares (including some detected precancerous cells). I smoked, I drank, I stressed and I did little to care for myself.

At the time, I was seeing a Reiki practitioner, Donata, for debilitating period pain that would have me crying on the floor for a good day during my period each month.

After one session, she said “Melissa, you need to trust and listen to yourself, trust in the universe that you’ll always be safe, and listen to your soul about what life you want to create.”

Life I want to create.

At that moment, I’d realised I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.

I was doing what I thought was the right move based on fear or what others do (like climb the corporate ladder).

That night, I cried. I was scared.

Scared that my whole life was about to change.

I knew I had to leave my job and follow my heart to study health and well-being.

I knew I wasn’t the old Melissa anymore. F*ck.

I realised I could take back my power and consciously create the life I wanted, versus what others expected of me — or trying to please others, like meeting the unrelenting demands of my job, while ignoring my needs. 

So, that evening I wrote my resignation letter, and oh boy, did it feel good and scary and right.

Meeting my boss for a coffee the next day to chat, with shaky voice, I told him my plans to become a nutritionist.

The next day, I went to the college I’d chosen to study at and signed up for both nutritional therapy and naturopathy courses.

As I signed on the dotted line, good old fear came up and said, “What if you’re making the wrong choice? What if this is a really bad idea?”

Then I remembered Donata’s advice — trust yourself and your instinct.

I was going to be alright.

I designed my life to be congruent with my biggest values and desires (health, freedom, learning, personal development, and fun).

I worked part-time as a brand consultant while attending classes and studying.

I cooked all my meals from scratch.

I went for daily walks through Holland Park in London that did wonders for relaxing me down to my soul. This became my happy place.

I decided I was the most important person in my life.

I started seeing myself as my number one asset. 

I decided to fill my cup first and only give from the overflow so I could prevent exhaustion from taking hold again. 

I decluttered my life of people, obligations, and habits that drained me, and replaced them with those that nourish me.

This didn’t happen overnight — but each day, I took conscious steps to make these changes.

I became more aware of what nourished and drained me and moved towards that which nourished.

My physical recovery from burnout

During an endocrinology class in my first year at college, I learned about adrenal dysfunction — the impact of stress on the function of the adrenal glands that play a role in your energy and stress response, and have far-reaching effects on your health.

I had a roadmap to support my body’s biochemistry to bring it back in to balance that included nutrition, herbal medicine, and lifestyle medicine.

I took a targeted approach that included:

  • Replacing coffee with green smoothies or green tea
  • Eating nutrient-dense foods, with a focus on getting enough protein to balance my blood sugar levels, cortisol, and insulin, along with supplementing magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and B vitamins.
  • Taking adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwaghanda to help me sleep, and Rhodiola and Ginseng to nourish and tone my adrenal glands.
  • Cutting out sugar and alcohol and replaced them with healthy fats and herbal tea.

I also cut out television and all mainstream media and replaced it with consuming health and well-being books, documentaries, and webinars.

I practiced extreme self-care — the most important practice of self-love I’d so badly neglected up until that point.

I became present in each moment and mastered the deeply liberating art of mindfulness. 

I studied positive psychology and emotional intelligence, so I could navigate life with tools that help me be less stressed and reactive — and overall more resilient. 

I’m so grateful for the experience, as exhaustion and burnout led to a huge sea change that inspired me to help other exhausted women get their energy back.

So now, I choose to achieve a standard of excellence, to still give to and help others, without depleting myself in the process.

I choose to be the master of my energy and my life by remaining conscious of what nourishes me and what doesn’t — and prioritising my own needs and desires over others (this isn’t selfish, it’s done with love for myself and them, because who wants to be around people who aren’t showing up as their best selves?).

In other words — I’ve taken back my power.

Is it time you did, too?

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