On burnout

Last week, Jenny used a gift card to buy a hanging chair for her room. This has been a years-long dream. She did all the things to make it happen—things with studs and joists and other homeowner words I don’t fully understand—and successfully hung her new chair by a corner window. It’s perfect. And when she stood back and looked at it, she happily commented, “I forgot that we could have nice things!”

And then my brain exploded, because that was the real truth. I had completely forgotten that we could have nice things.

There are nice things that are material things, like the chair itself. We’re both penny-pinching freelancers on itty-bitty budgets, so “nice things” usually means “anything that isn’t 100% essential.” But there are also nice immaterial things—hope for the future, better versions of yourself, opportunities, possibility—that are just as easily forgotten when you’ve settled into a mindset of scarcity.

And nowhere is a mindset of scarcity more prevalent than in the charred land of burnout.

Here’s what I’m learning about burnout: it is soul-deep.

I once thought burnout was for people who drank Red Bull spiked with 5-hour Energy, worked an insane amount, and inevitably crashed. But as it turns out, burnout is what happens when “the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.

Yes. I say yes to that.

Burnout, for me, has been like a sinkhole. It was a process of erosion that started many years ago thanks to feeling an unnecessary amount of responsibility for basically everything. Overwork was the giant hole that suddenly gave way, the crater I couldn’t fill as quickly as it depleted. And then, as sinkholes do, it started swallowing surrounding areas. I felt burnout as a writer, as an only child with aging parents, as a person of faith whose faith didn’t feel true anymore, and just as a regular human who hoped for good things that didn’t happen and felt the weight of bad things that did happen.

Time off from full-time work was supposed to be many things, one of which being a way to fix the burnout sinkhole. But even with time off, I still felt tired on a whole new level. I wasn’t physically tired; it was more like running on the emotional version of empty and waiting for the reserve tank to kick in, only to realize that it was empty, too.

I’m not the expert on any of this, but in my experience, burnout has two phases:

In Burnout Phase I, you feel exhausted. The aforementioned nice things in life feel like they’re on the very top of the tallest shelf. It takes way too much effort to get up there. And is it actually worth the effort? Probably not, because all the hype about nice things will probably turn out to be fake news anyway.

In Burnout Phase II, you feel so. jaded. So very jaded. Nice things feel like a mirage—and you’ve sprinted to the “water” in the desert enough times to know that it’s not actually there. Joke’s on you, mirage.

Phase II can also be very Ecclesiastical. The anthem is “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” and you walk around in your pajamas eating Oreos because who even cares? What even is life?

This phase will not go on your personal highlight reel.

But good news: it doesn’t last forever!

I don’t have any magical answers about recovering from burnout. I’m still in the middle of figuring that out for myself. But recently, fueled by a number of factors, I decided I was at least going to try again. I made a list of top shelf dreams, like reaching out to Shauna Niequist to see if she wanted to be friends and emailing the Packers to see if they wanted to hire me. Momentum propelled me all the way through the list in one day.

It felt so good—and also a little surreal. It was kind of like when Simba comes back from the jungle and Mufasa appears in a creepy cloud and says, “Remembaaaaahh who you ahhhhhhhh” in a way that was terrifying but also convicting.

The Packers don’t want to hire me. (Yet. I’ll wear them down someday.) Shauna hasn’t replied. (Also yet. I’ll wear her down, too!) But I tried. And bonus: I felt more like myself than I have in awhile—and I was given an amazing opportunity (!) that we’ll talk about more another time when we haven’t already talked for 800 words.

For now, let’s consider this a “note to selves” for any of us who either are now, have been, or will feel trapped in burnout, cynical and eye-rolly about the brightness of the future.

Nice things are still out there. They’re not too far out of reach. They are not a mirage.

And we can have them! We can have nice things.

We can also take a cue from Simba, come out of the pajama-and-Oreo jungle, and remember who we are, one terrifying and convicting step at a time.

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  • These were the exact words I didn’t even know I needed to hear today. A big YES to all of it and cheers to putting down the Oreos (but, those Most Stuf ones though!) and building some optimistic momentum! 🙂