let’s talk about burnout


I came around the edge of a new year with one thought in mind: rest.

I was tired. A second child brought forth the requisite sleepless nights and amplified logistics, but also the realization that downtime now proved scarce. On the creative front, I wrote two books in six months, which felt complicated—thrilled to secure such contracts and opportunities, I also struggled with the imposter syndrome that naturally accompanies the act of stepping outside one’s own comfort zone. I enjoyed the challenges of my day job, yet felt like I ran out of steam nearly every day, then arrived home to my family with nothing left in the tank.

I expected to carry the hustler torch from 2018 into 2019, and instead, I couldn’t do it. Rest rest stop and rest, said the little voice in my heart, bleating loudly against a backdrop of my mind insisting that I must carry on, I had to keep striving and achieving, if I lost momentum now I would lose access to open doors, if I hit the pause button I would disappoint everyone.

I recognized the disconnect, and it seemed ironic. After all, I literally just spent the past year writing about self-care—funny, then, how when I kind of needed to, you know, promote these books and show up energetically, I experienced extreme burnout. On the other hand, why do we (i.e., me) push so hard and expect to stay sane? It’s not realistic.

What burnout felt like: detachment. Reading this viral essay by Anne Helen Petersen and thinking, Yes. It felt like being underwater, distracted. Everything in muted colors. No motivation. No energy. And no interest in the things that normally energized me—yoga, spending time with my husband, seeing friends and being social, playing with my kids, taking walks, writing, journaling, reading, etc. I didn’t want to do any of it. At all. I just wanted to lay in bed with the covers over my head and take hot baths and not talk to anyone.

So I went back to therapy. Actually, I thought about going back to therapy for a solid three months, made several phone calls but procrastinated on making any appointments. The last time I regularly saw a therapist, I had just left an emotionally abusive partner, found myself on the brink of a new loop in the never-ending cycle of a different relationship, completed graduate school with no sense of what came next, in a busy city where loneliness and anxiety served as my constant companions. Heavy, right?

That’s why going back to therapy this time felt weird and hard. My life was not crashing down; therapy was for people with, like, real problems. I was just a tired mom. I was just a tired mom doing too much. I was just a tired mom who needed a break, you know, and occasionally imagined getting in the car and disappearing. Oh, wait.

In our first session, my therapist asked me to visualize a full cup of water. She said, “You’ve heard the saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup, so how full is your cup right now based on how you feel?” I laughed self-consciously. “Um, maybe 5% full?” She said, “Can you imagine what it would be like to act from a place of 75% full or more?” I raised my eyebrows. No, I could not imagine.

But now, I’m starting to see what she meant. I’ve intentionally practiced carving out more space in my life, and every moment I do, I can feel a little less tension in my body and spirit. Of course, making space is one thing—sitting with that space is another. Because self-care is a bit boring. I remember telling my therapist once, “Okay, so what, I’m just going to… go to bed early every night? Feel rested every day? How am I going to thrive if not in a mode of go-go-go? What is my motivation if I’m not exhausted and pushing?” She smiled in response. “Sounds like we should unpack that.”

Turns out I still subscribe to the notion that doing the most is the fast track to love and acceptance. Turns out achievement and gold stars are great until they become a set of blinders. Turns out burnout (surprise!) serves no one, least of all me. Turns out people-pleasing can quickly internalize into a belief system of always do-ing, rather than simply be-ing.

This is not a story about getting to the other side. I don’t have a bow to wrap this up for you. I do know I’m not alone in wanting something more than a life of busy-ness. I know it’s a major privilege to have access to a good therapist and health insurance, to struggle with success and to be backed by loving family and friends. I know I thought I’d be “all better” after a couple weeks of going to bed early and hitting up a few yoga classes, and now I know it’s much deeper than that. I know, very slowly, I can feel a spark coming back where I have ideas, curiosity, creativity to share—and enough energy to be present for myself and others. I’m no longer going through the motions of my day, but waking up feeling ready for whatever the day brings.

To be honest, I’m still pretty addicted to my to-do lists. It’s still hard to sit on the couch during my kid’s nap time, see a pile of dirty dishes across the room, then actively choose to read a chapter of a book or browse a cookbook or sit outside on the deck with the sunshine on my face. It’s hard to turn off the constant should should should in my brain. It’s hard to put my phone away when I need to respond to emails or texts in favor of the present moment.

But I’m trying. And that is enough.

So I remind myself, over and over:

To sit on an unmade bed and stare at my baby’s sweet eyelashes.

To say no, without a follow-up justification or explanation.

To want more, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what that looks like yet.

To ask for a hug.

To tell the truth when someone asks how you are.

To quietly lay down all the balls you’ve kept in the air.

To show up to therapy before you hit rock bottom, even though you’re unsure what to talk about.

To sound like a broken record, especially if you feel broken.

To understand my desire for control, but embrace more freedom.

To make space for myself to breathe and think, every single day.

To write for pure enjoyment.

Or at least to sit in a messy kitchen while the baby’s sleeping and browse the paper instead of doing the dishes.

{book no. 2} self-care for college students

Fun news to share: I’m writing my second book, this time on the topic of self-care for college students. It’ll be published by Adams Media of Simon & Schuster again, and I am seriously thrilled they reached out to me to tackle this project, which is close to my heart.

I… didn’t even know the phrase “self-care” in college. I stayed up late and drank too much and obsessed over what other people thought of me and strived to impress and prioritized achievement and criticized myself in the mirror and ate too little and punished my body with exercise and pinched my tummy and always had to have a boyfriend and worried about money alllll the time.

But also: I double-majored in English and political science, participated in a leadership program that forced me to reckon with using my voice, and completed an honors program that rattled my sense of knowledge (in a good way). I held down a couple of part-time jobs while going to school full-time; I worked at a U.S. Attorney’s Office and the local mall and in the writing center on campus. I thought I’d go to law school, only to take the LSAT November of my senior year and suddenly realize I sort of hated all things law. I learned how to pivot. I loved research papers and created my own elective independent study course on memoir and journaling with the support of a beloved professor (shout-out to Ms. Lucy Boaden). I had a serious relationship that didn’t always feel like a good fit, but certainly looked as though it did. I made some of my very best friends. I studied abroad for three months in Rome, Paris and London, an experience that completely changed my life and broadened my scope. I volunteered. I worked really, really hard.

While self-care is all the rage now, and nuanced conversations are happening regarding how to do it and when to do it and who has the privilege to do it, it wasn’t part of my lexicon as a college student. I wish it had been, though. I wish I had had access to a list of little things or activities to help me better take care of my body, boost my brain, nourish my spiritual life, honor my heart and approach my personal and professional future. I wish, in college, I knew how important it was to practice self-care in general — that it didn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming or reserved for a special occasion. I wish that all college students going forward can use this book as a resource, to care for themselves throughout their education but also build a foundation of prioritizing their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health.

Suffice it to say this new book is very exciting! It’ll be published in late spring/early summer, just in time for graduations, so stay tuned for more.


{Photo credit:    Lisa Congdon   }

{Photo credit: Lisa Congdon}