Burnout is often described as an exhaustion people feel when they’re overwhelmed, and comes from chronic emotional, physical, and mental stress. Lately, I’ve been seeing so many articles focused on recognizing burnout, and they usually feature great information– you’re burnt out if your work feels meaningless, you’re burnt out if you’re normally motivated but haven’t been motivated lately, and so on.
However, I see few articles outlining how to cope with burnout, without “fixing” it immediately upon recognition. It’s important that we get in the habit of allowing ourselves to sit with that feeling of burnout, especially since we’re so often convinced that we should push or fight through it, rather than acknowledge its causes. I know– in a capitalistic, “produce, produce” society, this can seem counterproductive. But it’s important to take a minute to breathe through the burnout without trying to fix it. In fact, I think it’s the most productive thing a person can do!
1. Acknowledge the Feeling – Without Assigning Value to the Feeling
No, you aren’t lazy, and you aren’t being “unproductive”– you’re burnt out. I’ve found that it’s really important to call a spade a spade when it comes to burnout. It felt weird to do that because I, like many black women, built an identity for myself around the idea that I’m a strong, hard worker who can push through anything. The reality is, if you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle to be “productive”, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t normally have a problem producing results, you’re probably just running on fumes and not strength. And what’s more? Being burned out isn’t a reflection of your work ethic, or your greatness.
We’re encouraged to be “productive” in our society, because that productivity means we’re lining someone else’s pocket (usually the same person that’s pushing the “be productive” message), so our lack of being “productive” can produce a feeling of guilt or shame– like we let someone down. It can be so tempting to make the burnout seem negative, as if you’re only burned out because you’re failing at something, or not being who you’re “supposed” to be. But really, we should try to treat feeling burned out as neutral information. The feeling is teaching us that something isn’t working– and acknowledging it can be the first step to understanding what isn’t working, and why.
2. You don’t need a quick fix for your burnout – you need to make peace with the message it’s sending you first
It could be possible that you simply aren’t getting enough sleep, or maybe you need more exercise in your daily routine– or something similar. But, in my experience, no amount of “switching up my daily routine” in small ways (like eating cauliflower rice instead of rice) actually helped alleviate the burnout. Instead, testing out shallow fixes for something as emotionally deep as burnout made me feel worse, because the burnout didn’t go away and I wound up feeling like a failure because even the “good” things couldn’t make me feel better. I would sit over a bowl of steaming hot (unseasoned, smh) vegetables and wonder why making my diet healthier over time didn’t restore my energy emotionally– ultimately I wound up asking myself if I was a failure.
My burnout was an emotional response to a way of being that stopped feeling good, and it’s difficult to find a “quick fix” to an entire way of being that I built for 20+ years. This doesn’t mean we should just stew in our burnout, it means we should view it as a signal. When I started viewing my burnout as something to make peace with, I was able to learn from it, and more accurately address it. Granted, I still needed to eat more vegetables (like, for GP lol), but it wasn’t the “fix” I was looking for. Even more, accepting and making peace with the feeling encouraged me to ask myself the hard questions– namely, I started asking myself why I was feeling burned out in the first place.
3. Ask yourself why you might be burned out
Again, the causes behind burnout are not laziness or being an unproductive person. Even if those things do cause burnout, they belie something deeper– maybe a lack of motivation? Lost passion? That’s the thing with burnout. The “why” that follows the feeling, at least as far as I’ve seen in myself or close others, is often related to existing in a space that no longer feels authentic or purposeful. Personally, it was difficult to call myself lazy after realizing I just felt like the things I was doing weren’t serving the person that I wanted to be.
Once I let go of the idea that I was lazy, I was able to release the guilt that came along with feeling burned out. It’s possible that the why could relate to daily habits, mindsets, or the like– but for me those have always been symptoms of a larger problem. When I felt burnt out, I wasn’t engaging in healthy daily habits because I didn’t feel like there was a reason or purpose to be doing so. It came down to a feeling of worthiness– I felt that investing in my mental health and wellbeing wasn’t worthwhile. That honesty was hard to swallow, but it was my first step toward being able to heal it. It’s so important to dig into the “why” behind feeling burned out– but, understanding the “why” doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take immediate action.
4. Forgive yourself for wanting something different, and move forward
The realization that my burnout called for change made me feel shame. I was so angry at myself for having built a life that I no longer enjoyed. In fact, that anger was so heavy that I couldn’t let myself want to change. I felt guilty, so I shut the feeling out and tried to “coffee and exercise” my way through what was essentially a quarter-life crisis (coffee still slaps, though, let’s be clear). Now I realize that so many of us, black women especially, are conditioned to view burnout as if we have done something wrong. And then we use that faux-guilt to convince us that we don’t deserve something better, because we weren’t doing what we were “supposed” to be doing. This ultimately keeps us wrapped up in this internalized shame cycle that keeps us trapped inside of ourselves. Really, the only way to get through that burned out feeling is to forgive yourself for feeling it. It’s normal to lose passion, or that feeling of purpose– but failing to acknowledge it can prevent us from feeling safe enough to take steps towards correction.
Lately, I view burnout as a stress response to living a life that isn’t personally sustainable or fulfilling, for one reason or another. And once I accepted that feeling and reality without shaming myself, I’ve begun to take baby steps towards building a way of life that works for me. Accepting the feeling encouraged me to ask myself why it existed, and forgiving myself for it gave me the courage I needed to try to move in the right direction. I’m still not there, and I’m still constantly working to grow into the person I want to be, but I wouldn’t even be able to begin the work if I hadn’t acknowledged that what I was previously doing wasn’t working. It was hard to admit that I had been getting it “wrong” for so long– but acknowledging that something is wrong is the first step to getting it right. And that counts for something, right?
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.