If there is a current shortlist for “Word of the Year”, Burnout has to be in the top 5. It seems no matter where you look, it’s being talked about as this secondary pandemic that is drastically changing the face of the American workplace. Forbes estimates that 59% of Millennials are currently experiencing some form of burnout.
Well… hey! I’m a Millennial! And a super basic/cheugy one at that! I’m pretty sure Bo Burnham’s “White Woman’s Instagram” was written about me!
And, y’all… I burned the fuck out earlier this year.
I ended up leaving my job, perhaps a little more sudden and dramatic than I would have liked to have happen. There were a handful of factors, both internal and external, that contributed to my burnout. It ultimately boiled down to feeling overworked and undervalued. Now, some of the contributing factors to that were due to the cards that had been dealt to the team I was on and there were no fixes to be had within the scope that we had to work with and I still maintain that that team was some of the best people I’ve ever worked with.
I also want to acknowledge the super obvious fact that there was (and still is as time of writing this) a global pandemic going on. Covid basically was the gasoline thrown on a fire that was slowly consuming us all. It also created this situation where being on fire was potentially a better option behind whatever ghastly unknown lay lurking behind Door #2. Yeah, I was on fire but at least I could afford to pay my rent?
I’m not a psychologist; I just like to pretend that the Psych minor I got with my degree holds more weight than it actually does. There are countless articles, books, videos, and stories about burnout on the internet, including some with actual research behind them. If you’re looking for some actual advice or guidance, I recommend you do your own research with resources you trust. That being said, now that I’ve had a few months of space to get some perspective and find my brain, I thought I’d share some of my observations on what it looked like on me. These are just the shitty coping strategies I noticed in hindsight now that I’ve doused myself with some metaphorical aloe.
I Was A Chronic Doomscroller
My career is based in digital media and thus it’s very understandable that I am on some internet device for my working hours for “work reasons”. However, staying “informed” became a shitty coping mechanism to deal with the mountain of stress related to work.
I frequently found using the “work reasons” to procrastinate and keep scrolling; falling down more and more rabbit holes through news links and social feeds through all sorts harbingers of death and destruction, mostly related to Trump. Which fed my anxiety. Which caused more dissociative doom scrolling about things I have no actual control over.. Which caused more anxiety. Which started a cascade of bad habits to attempt to pacify those fucky brain feelings.
I Buried My Troubles in Bubbles
Somewhere in some bad advice book I read as a teenager, I vividly remember a page that discussed how great it was to take a bath when you were stressed because “you can’t do anything else in the bathtub; you can’t answer the phone, take visitors, do chores… you’re in the bath!” And my emo-teen brain took that advice and flew to the moon with it.
This is probably the first big sign that something was not right. I’d be feeling stressed and decide to practice some “self-care” wind down for the evening with a bath, complete with whatever bubble or fizz I could procure from my stash. And then I’d stay in there for 3-4 hours doomscrolling.
Doing this once or twice is one thing… sometimes you just get a good “For You” page on TikTok and lose yourself until your guardian influencer reminds you to put the phone down. But I was doing this almost every night. It’s easy to get away with it when you live on your own, but when your partner is making comments about it, it’s harder to ignore.
I Was Constantly Tired
One of the most common signs of burnout that you see mentioned again and again is how tired you feel over everything. I feel that is an understatement. The pure exhaustion you feel deep in your bones as you go through the bare minimum of activity to get through your day is almost unspeakable. It felt like the kind of exhaustion I had before my kidneys failed – so much so that I asked for my labs to be double checked because I was convinced I was going into transplant rejection.
It’s the kind of tired where you feel like you have two spoons pressing on your lids and you’re fighting them to open your eyes enough to see. The kind of tired where sitting on the couch and staring at a blank wall feels like too much work. The kind that makes you gaslight yourself into thinking you’re overreacting because you’re sleeping more than you ever have and should not be struggling to wake up.
If you think this sounds like clinical depression, you follow my logic! That was my first thought too, and off I went to my doctor to take care of business. The problem is, no matter how much we adjusted my antidepressants or tried other treatments, the eye-spoon feeling remained.
I Was Constantly Hungry
Do you know what did make me slightly less tired through my day? Food.
Food has always been a cornerstone of my existence (see above reference to strong tortilla brand preference), and I love a good snack or two through the day. But those snacks kept adding up, both in frequency and calories.
Lunch kept getting a little earlier… my midafternoon snack kept getting a little larger… my daily Starbucks run kept getting bigger… but I was still hungry. There were nights I’d have a second mini-dinner before bed because I felt like I hadn’t eaten all day.
I, like most people, am vain enough to want to maintain a certain bodyshape that I’m comfortable with. I also strive to embrace loving my body independently of what society determines as attractive. But, I think we can all agree that going up multiple sizes in 6 months is not a sign of anything positive. And, when you’re 4’11, a 20 lb weight gain in a short amount of time is not comfortable; physically or emotionally.
I Had The Overwhelming Urge To Burst Into Tears At Inconveniences
As someone with a sun and moon sign in Cancer, I’d like to state for the record that yes, I do cry a lot. There is already a high baseline of “Things Kiwi will start crying over”. I’m also a tough cookie who has been through some shit and can usually manage my expectations and talk myself down from the emotional ledge before I fling myself into the pool of tears I’ve previously cried. So when I say I was crying more than usual, it holds some weight.
I was literally choking back tears over things like too much oatmilk in my coffee order and not being able to find the right brand of tortillas at the grocery store. If there is a category above first world problems, those are the things I was getting weepy about. More frustratingly would be that I knew that these were nothing worth getting worked up over. It goes back to the “control” or lack thereof that I felt; these were things I should have been able to decide for myself and that choice was either not there or not regarded. So I took it out on my tortillas, or any other small thing that I felt should have gone my way.
I Burned Out
By now you get the picture that I spent the latter half of 2020 and first quarter of 2021 as an anxious, sleepy, sobby, hungry, hot ass mess of a human who spent way too much time in the bathtub, but was still somehow convinced it was all in my head. Obviously, something had to give.
The combination of expectations returning “back to normal” and a death in the family (non-Covid related) were a one-two punch of perspective. Having panic attacks that were so severe I debated hospitalization were also becoming terrifyingly common. I felt I had exhausted all of the options I had to get things under control in the current situation and had to either accept that this is how it was going to be, or hit the ejector seat and get out of the things that I couldn’t change.
Ultimately, I couldn’t tell you what specific thing it was that made me leave. It was more like a egg timer went off in my head and let me know I was done. I sent in my two-week notice and it was an almost instant relief from all the eye-spooning and panicky pressure I had been feeling.
I am extremely fortunate to have the financial and family support structure that allowed me to take a risk and step out of that fire. I’m fortunate that I was able to end on good terms with my former employer and I continue to root them on from the sidelines. I’m also extremely fortunate to have found a new career path quickly that not only is in a new industry that I’m really enjoying discovering, but also is proactive about many of the pain points I experienced.
If any of this resonates, I’m sorry. It sucks and I wish you the best in finding your way out of this hell. As much as I would love to encourage you to throw caution to the wind and hit your own ejector seat, I realize that is not helpful advice for most situations.
What I would encourage you to do is make note of what your own shitty coping mechanisms are and what they are attempting to cope with. If nothing else, it can help you gage how much is on fire and what the gasoline in the situation is. I also encourage you to start looking for networking opportunities. This is two-fold; it allows you to get your name out there for potential new roles and it gives you an opportunity to talk to others in your field who may be able to show you how to put out the fire.
Of course, if all else fails you can borrow my favorite backup plan for every situation:
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