Burnout Is Real…But It Doesn’t Feel The Way You Think It Would

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Four years ago, my life was exactly where I wanted it: I was working as a senior editor at a major glossy magazine. My first young adult novel had just been published by Simon & Schuster. I was training for a marathon and going on several Tinder dates a week with men who were just as accomplished and driven as I was. I lived in a sunny two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment by myself and was planning a 30th birthday party that was going to double as a major fundraising event. Double SoulCycle classes were frequent. I would never say no — not to a date, not to an assignment, not to anything. I loved checking things off my to-do list; downtime on the subway was often spent listing my accomplishments to myself, as if in prayer, feeling so proud of myself for all I could fit into a day. I loved updating my social media, sharing how I would go from workouts to work to a low-lit wine bar. What I didn’t show: the weekends spent in bed, too exhausted to do anything but watch the light play across the hardwood floors. The feeling that I was on a treadmill that was going faster and faster — and that eventually, I would have to fall off. Bottom line: I was a victim of burnout, the scary-sounding buzzword that pops up frequently in career articles. Statistics support the fact that it’s a real thing: According to an oft-cited Forbes article, more and more millennial women feel burned out by 30. Research from the University of Kansas in 2015 backs up the observation; in fact, in the study of journalists, 67% of women said they wanted to leave the profession — as opposed to 55% of men. And millennials are especially susceptible: We're expected to be on call at all hours, we feel guilty about taking vacation, and we are surrounded by twentysomethings who sit as CEOs of corporations that make billions. We know all this. But while we know, intellectually, what burnout is, it's hard to know what burnout feels like. I remember the confusing mix of emotions I was experiencing just as I was on the cusp of burning out. I was excited and freaked out and grateful for opportunities and so, so tired. I began dropping the ball on little things: Assignments would be late, emails wouldn’t be answered. I remember getting one email from my boss on a Sunday afternoon when I was at my computer. It was a nice email, congratulating me on a recent work accomplishment. It would have taken less than a minute to respond. But I couldn’t. Instead, I crawled underneath my covers and fell asleep. It was as if my body and mind were going on strike: I was going to take a break, whether I wanted to or not. And that's exactly what happened. A month later, I walked to the subway and realized my mounting to-do list would be impossible to conquer. It was as if all the motivation had dripped out of me. I was exhausted and drained and just done. And weirdly, in one of those moves that happens when the Universe is pushing you to do the exact thing you won't do yourself, I got laid off that afternoon.

It was as if all the motivation had dripped out of me.

The layoff was part of a company restructuring, but I wondered if it was at all due to the fact that I had spread myself thin enough to snap. Without a place to go every day, my routine suffered. I had identified so much with being ultra-busy, able to do everything. Getting laid off was like someone had floored the brakes on my life. For the next few months, I stopped everything and survived off severance and unemployment. I stopped running. I stopped going on dates. I spent whole days lying down, dividing the bed in quadrants for different activities. I nicknamed the upper-left corner "Antarctica" because it was closest to the air conditioner and was the best place to curl up for a nap. I now know that I was burned out — badly. But the weird thing was how different getting burned out felt than what I'd imagined. While it’s different for everyone, for me, burning out felt so busy. It felt like I was hitting all my goals, having fun, and making the most of being young and ambitious. A few months later, I began taking baby steps back to my old self. I took yoga classes. I took on shorter article assignments instead of long book projects. I ran for fun, not for races. And instead of going on as many online dates as possible, hoping to find The One, I worked on expanding the social circle I already had. But four years later, I’m still feeling the effects of burnout. I find myself not pushing myself as hard as I know I could on work projects. I procrastinate far more than I should, figuring that carving out time for myself is more important than whatever deadline is looming. My life feels more calm, which I know is good — even though part of me misses the feeling of being extraordinary. I wish that I’d taken time back then to ask myself why I was doing all those things. If I had answered myself, I would have said it was because I wanted to be a success. But what did success mean to me? How many followers I had? How many bylines I racked up? The fact that Danny the SoulCycle instructor knew my name and complimented my tapback form? Because in the ways it counted, I wasn’t a success at all. I didn’t have time to actually connect with people — whether they were Tinder dates or my best friends. And I’d placed so much emphasis on what my life looked like that I had no idea what I wanted it to be.

I’d placed so much emphasis on what my life looked like that I had no idea what I wanted it to be.

I wish I’d talked to a professional — a therapist, a career coach, even my doctor — and told them about the racing thoughts and stress. I wish I’d listened more closely to myself during those I’m-on-a-treadmill moments, when I knew what I was doing wasn’t sustainable. And I wish I’d done the opposite of the "do more" mentality and pulled back. Why did I need to say yes to everything? Why couldn’t one workout class be enough? Bottom line: I wish I’d slowed down, so I wouldn’t have had a crash that was quite as dramatic and long-lasting as mine was. Because burnout is real — and trust me, it's not worth it.

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