When Burnout Burns You Down

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

― Anne Lamott

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We live in a world where we glorify the hustle. You worked for 10 hours? Well, I worked for 12. You slept 5 hours? Oh, but I only got 4. Business school and law school are feeding grounds for this kind of toxic environment, and I fed into it. I’ve always prided myself in being able to handle chaos and a busy schedule. I’m a yes-person; I pile things on my plate with complete disregard for whether I actually have the bandwidth to take them on. For as long as I can remember, I’ve subconsciously led myself to believe that this trait of mine is heroic. “Other people can’t handle this level of stress, but I can. Chug along and don’t look back. Taking breaks is for the weak, and that, I am not.” And for years, this lifestyle felt great. That is, of course, until suddenly, it did not.

For the past few weeks, I’d been feeling unusually exhausted, but I kept pushing through anyways. Because that’s tough love, right? Fake it till you make it. And I convinced myself that I shouldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought talking about it would only make it more real, so conversely, holding it in would make it simply go away. The real underlying fear was that I felt like so many people counted on me for so much, and to let them know I was falling apart would be to fail them, to make them think less of me. So the lethargy kept getting worse and I kept pressing it down. I shoved it aside and simply trekked along. Like I always have. Because some might slow down or ask for help, but I don’t need either of those.

Then, one night last week, I received an email following up on my tasks for a recent project I’ve taken on. As I switched back and forth between the email and my calendar, struggling to find time for it in my already packed schedule, I felt triggered. I finally snapped and utterly broke down. The lack of days off, the sleep deprivation, the absence of self-care, it all came crashing down. I sat on my bed crying and shaking, and I felt for the first time, burnout: it’s consuming, enervating, and isolating. And it’s terribly petrifying.

At the same time, crying was a liberating release, because it felt like the most human thing I’ve done in a long time. Amidst piling all these things on my plate, I’d turned myself into a machine, and a constantly operating one at that. As I cried, I let myself digest the harsh truth: I had not only burned myself out, but I had burned myself down.

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The first step was being honest with myself. Next, I had to be honest with the people in my life. I immediately texted a few friends and FaceTimed my best friend, who allowed me to get the bottled up emotions out. Today, when my loved ones asked how I was doing, I finally said, “I’m not okay.” My people made me feel heard, validated, and supported. They reminded me to slow down and figure out how to put myself first. Talking to them helped a lot. They reminded me of the strength and resilience within myself. Their support was the push I needed to start building back up.

Earlier last week, my friend asked me when was the last time I had journalled, and I told her I really couldn’t remember. She knows how much I love writing, and she knows what an outlet it’s always been for me. She immediately told me that if I’m not journaling, I’m occupying my planner with tasks in every other aspect of my life, except my own self. And she’s right. I spent a few hours just sitting and writing, both in my journal, and this piece. It ignited a spark in me that’s been gone for a while. I can’t let that flame die out again. This weekend, I also decided to take a break. I took all of Saturday to get out of my apartment and spend the day with my friends. I can’t remember the last time I spent a whole day without doing any work, and it was incredibly refreshing.

Sometimes when we think of mental health and self-care, we think of spa days, meditation, and nature walks. These strategies have been immensely helpful for me, but they couldn’t prevent my gradual stagnation, inner emptiness, and eventual breakdown. Slapping on a face mask and listening to positivity affirmations every now and then could not wipe away the reality that I was completely disregarding myself and my own needs. I was trying to fool my own body, and it obviously could not (and did not) work.

If you’re anything like me, and your body’s trying to tell you something, take a pause and listen. If you think you don’t need a break, get over yourself and take one anyway. And allow yourself to be vulnerable with the people you trust.

If you’re still reading this, I’m begging you to please slow down.

Burnout is real. Life is not a test of sheer endurance, and you won’t get extra points for never stopping to take a breath. In fact, with that approach, you likely won’t reach your end goal at all. Like my supervisor told me this morning, even those running the marathon stop for Gatorade along the way.

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Roma Gujarathi is a second-year student at BC Law. Contact her at gujarath@bc.edu.

Featured image used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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