As a global society, we like to forget about death and live as if we are immortal, which often leads to wrong choices and regrets. We couldn’t do that this year. We asked ourselves many questions about what we really want, what we really care about, what is really important to us. This heightened awareness of death enabled asking more important questions but it was also extremely heavy. Innocent hugs became potential killers. Sharing meals threatened to end lives. We lost people we love or people we love bore losses. We counted cases and deaths in countries around the world. It didn’t matter how much our politicians tried to hide and manipulate - it was too close to us to not know about. In Istanbul, we kept hearing there were no hospital beds available. We not only feared that we could get COVID but that if we did get it, we wouldn’t be able to get hospital care. This year was a long year of surviving, which overwhelmed and overworked our nervous systems.
Our fight-flight-freeze response turns on to protect us from imminent threats, and it turns off when we are back in safety, allowing our bodies to relax again. I feel like our collective nervous system was turned on for 10 months this year. First, we understood the danger was going to last seasons, then we understood it was going to last years. So we practiced relaxing into the danger. We practiced finding joy and calm in the middle of stress, anxiety, grief. These are beneficial and noble practices, but at the end of this year, many of us are freaking tired. We are tired of practicing. We want a break.
The burnout I felt from COVID got complex for me with the added stresses of work and my moves from July to November. I said goodbye to the past 4 years of my life. I stood in an empty apartment I loved. I did a lot of physical work to pack, move, unpack, organize. Just as we were about to get a little rest, we decided to go to Istanbul. When I walked into that empty apartment and saw that I had to get all the basics of a home again, I understood that I had pushed myself too much. But it was too late.
The pace and demands of the startup I work at increased throughout the year as well. The company thankfully kept growing, but with the lack of in-person time and the surplus of COVID stress, work relationships got strained. People had less time, energy, and understanding to give to each other. Conflicts felt more impactful and more difficult to resolve. Words felt more hurtful. I started feeling a lack of emotional safety at work. On top of all this, I was also completing my mindfulness meditation teacher certification program, teaching mindfulness once a week to the Mudita Mindfulness Community, writing, and worrying about everything else I wanted to be doing. In other words, I was overworking myself.
This is when the symptoms appeared: Chronic fatigue and a decrease in the quality of my sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares. Having difficulty falling asleep. A mind full of intrusive thoughts. A lack of calm even after long meditations or walks. More negativity toward the people around me. A desire to disconnect from my phone. Bursting into tears in the middle of the day. Feeling sick and getting headaches. A growing panic of "How long will this last? When will I feel better?"
I noticed the burnout quickly this time. It’s sad to write about burnout as a fundamental part of my life, and it is true. I’ve been burnt out many times before, and this time I at least felt more prepared. I saw it coming. I didn’t fight it. I just pulled out my “Burnout Aid Kit” and started using the different tools available to me: I started tracking what took energy from me throughout the day and what gave me energy. I started resting more and working less. I allowed myself to drop things, such as my newsletter. I went back to weekly sessions with my therapist. I started spending less time on the screens. I walked more. I started dimming lights earlier so that I could sleep earlier. I took midday naps. I had phone conversations with friends who understood and responded lovingly. I journaled my heart out. I got support from colleagues who were in the same boat as me. I knew that with mindful, caring, and consistent effort put into recovery every day, the burn out would pass, and it did. If I had resisted the burnout or if I had pulled out my toolbox much later, it would have lasted longer or maybe gotten more intense. This time it felt like I rode the wave.
I still noticed a lot of self-judgment: Why do I get burnt out a lot? What is wrong with me? Why don’t I take better care of myself? Why do I work so much? Why did we move for the second time, right after the first move? How did we not see that that was a bad decision? I know that this blaming, judging, cruel inner critic is familiar to many of us. One thing that helped me give a compassionate response to myself this time around was this podcast episode from Brené Brown with the authors of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Brené Brown joked at one point during the podcast that she loved how the word “burn out” repeats graphically on the cover of the book because it reflects her experience. She shared she has been burnt out many times. My shoulders relaxed when I heard her say that. “If Brené Brown gets burnt out every few years, then maybe it’s just completely normal that I do too,” I heard myself think.
Practicing self-compassion helped my recovery tremendously. My narrative changed to something like this: “Well, my life is crazy right now. Some days I have 7 hours of Zoom calls, on top of which I spend more time on screens. I can’t go out as much. According to studies, moving is one of the most stressful life events ever, and I did that twice this year! Work was tough. I didn't have my usual support systems. Everyone is suffering an insane amount this year, and I’m part of that too. Of course, I burn out! It would be bizarre if I didn’t burn out!"
The podcast episode was full of great insights about completing the stress cycle. It helped me remember that even if the stressor is still present in our lives (such as a virus or a conflict at work), we can choose to complete the stress cycle with a caring and compassionate response. With the right types of activities or resources, we can give our bodies a break from the stressor. I hope that I won't get burnt out again because I don't enjoy the experience. I also acknowledge that circumstances can get extreme, and a burnout might happen again. My aspiration is to continue practicing wise effort and self-compassion for the rest of my life. I know as time goes by, I will get better at both maintaining balance and finding it again when it is lost.
For Your Reflections
- Have you experienced burnout before? What did it look like for you?
- In which ways did you feel overwhelmed or overworked this year? What helped you in caring for yourself?
- Do you notice self-criticizing or self-judging thoughts about how you dealt with this difficult year? What would be a compassionate response you could give to yourself?
- What does wise effort mean to you?
Continue reading this series: Multi-Passionate Life
Go back to the beginning: Fundamentals