I’m at this point right now where I seem to just be”¦ breaking down. Been there? It’s not so much depression, though it’s not too far off. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, you slowly just stop functioning. You can barely get up in the mornings because the thought of having to get up and face the day is daunting. The most menial of tasks can send you spiraling into dread or even tears. Whether caused by excessive work, a draining personal life, or one of many other reasons, it suddenly seems that going through the motions is enough to send you over the edge.
Burnout is serious stuff – I’ve talked about the stages of workplace burnout before, but unlike work burnout where there can be a “light at the end of the tunnel,” what happens when you just seem to be burned out on life? Unlike a work environment, life is a bit harder to quit or to just get a new one. How does one even get burnout on one’s life, what does that look like, and furthermore, how can one get un-burnt out?
Burnout is defined as the “psychological experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest”* brought about from both exterior and interior sources. Not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (FYI, the same one that once categorized homosexuality as deviant mental behavior, similar to schizophrenia) but recognized by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Health Related Problems, burnout sits in a no-man’s land of mental health, considered a “life-management difficulty” as opposed to a physical, emotional, and mental state of being.
Burnout is considered to have an “abstract,” twelve-stage process that seems to follow less in a linear fashion and more intertwined with itself. The stages are as follows:
- A compulsion to prove oneself
- Working harder
- Neglecting one’s own needs
- Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
- Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
- Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
- Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
- Behavioral changes become obvious to others
- Depersonalization (life becomes a series of mechanical functions)
- Inner emptiness
I’m going through the motions myself. In this past year, I’ve been dealing with some situations that have led me to a point where every action just seemed to emotionally exhaust the little that was left in me. Things I enjoyed soon became tasks that took convincing, and there were days where everything just seemed… useless. Unlike depression, where everything feels so heavy and dense, burnouts feel like a slow burn until you just feel dried up of anything productive. Yes, I’ll take the one-way ticket to disillusioned ridiculous town, thank you. In dealing with the multiple stages of my burnout, I reverted to other reasons for feeling the way I was as opposed to the actual ones, and of course heavy criticism of myself notwithstanding. I justified my interior state as a series of faults of my own: that I was flaky, spoiled, narcissistic, or just immature; that I needed to grow up, face the facts, and just deal.
That phrase is genetically embedded in the deep recesses of my body, my family’s mantra injected into my head growing up: just deal with it. Put on your big girl shoes and deal with it. It’s not such a bad mantra ““ simple, true, and above all, defining action above words. But on the other hand, it can bring about a lot of ignoring the less tangible aspects of life, mainly issues of mental and emotional health. So when I would experience the waves of feeling completely unstable, I would just quietly think to myself, just get over yourself ““ just deal with it.
But the thing is, burnout isn’t about being able to “not deal.” It’s about having tried to deal with all of it. Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in the motions and work and all the different things that are important, need to be done, and you go, go, go and finally hit a point where it just seems like nothing is ever enough. Thus, the burnout.
Burnouts are unfortunately said to be easier to prevent than they are to move out of. The difficulty in this is sometimes you can’t recognize the burnout as it happens. HelpGuide, a nonprofit health challenge site, recommends the “Three R” approach:
- Recognize ““ Watch for the warning signs of burnout
- Reverse ““ Undo the damage by managing stress and seeking support
- Resilience ““ Build your resilience to stress by taking care of your physical and emotional health
The idea is to create a semblance of balance before it all gets out of whack. This means taking a break from “all of it,” nourishing the neglected sides of yourself, setting boundaries, and adopting moments of quiet. This is easier said than done, and everyone has a different struggle, different privileges, and different ways of coping. Sometimes you can’t always back away from the thing that overextends your emotional resources, whether it’s a family member or the everyday assault against your race, gender, or sexual orientation. Sometimes you still have to go to that job or see that person or do whatever it is that feeds the burnout.
So, what if you hit your breaking point after all?
Do Slow Down. How many times have you just gone and gone and gone and then you have to stop? It feels wrong. It feels lazy. It feels”¦ necessary. If you have exhausted everything that made you go and do in the first place, you need to replenish that source without feeling guilty or lazy. Rest, reflect, and heal.
Do Get Support. As I found myself furthering into my burnout, I also found that I would do anything to isolate myself. I felt like I had barely anything to give myself, much less to people I actually cared about. Things that I normally would be happy to do seemed like attempts of people to take what little I had left. Try to talk to people who will understand your situation and give you support in the ways you need it. Do not try to justify or argue your state with people who look at it as a “bootstrap” situation. You will only burn more of yourself trying to educate the fools.
Do Reevaluate. Burning out can be a semi-helpful tool in disguise. It causes you to go into a state where you begin to look at what actually matters to you. Have you been neglecting something that you care about? Trying to conform to a role or person you just aren’t? What makes you happy? What pays the bills? How can those two come together? Who is valuable in your life? How can you fight larger battles without exhausting yourself? As a favorite meme of mine would say, “Look at your life. Look at your choices.”
Getting over a burnout takes time for mental and emotional space. When burnout happens, it can be recognized as a time of loss. And it is – you can lose a sense of optimism, of idealism, parts of your identity or self-worth, even joy. Recognize that you lost parts of yourself, whether temporarily or forever. When you can actualize the things that you have lost, you can grieve them, releasing the negativity that slowly bubbled under the surface, allowing for a bit of healing to occur. Start counting the little things – sometimes, if all you did was make toast in your day, it can be a hell of an accomplishment. Move forward in baby steps. If you need time away from “all of it,” try to carve out a space where you can just decompress and “be.” Take it day by day, because honestly, I don’t know of any other way to do it, and by no means am I any “life expert” on this. I’m just a person who’s dealing with it and realizing that it’s a process of regaining trust in yourself. While it may feel that you are slowly picking up the fragile pieces all around, you are still germinating things for the next phase you may go through. It’s not stationary, it’s part of a bigger scope. A sucky part in a maybe not-so-sucky scope.
I’m slowly starting to realize the steps I need to take to get through my own burnout. Even in one of my most desperate feeling moments, slight optimism does keep me going, even if I don’t always fully believe it. I have taken to carrying around this post-it with a Bill Cosby quote on it, a small, cheesy reminder of not getting so caught up in trying to control things that I just can’t control. Yeah, go ahead and laugh, but it’s one of those things that gets me through my day, and that matters when shit goes down. It reads:
Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it.
So that’s what I’m trying to do.
* Definition from Wikipedia.org entry on Burnout