The Gifts of Burnout
I know many people who have experienced what we call, “burnout.” It’s a bone-deep exhaustion, disillusionment, and hopelessness. Maybe it comes calling along with depression or anxiety. For people who do changemaking or caring work, it seems to come with the territory. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but for me, it was a secret blessing.
When I was just 24 years old, I had what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown.
The stress of my activist work finally took its toll. I fell apart. I cried at everything. Most days, I could barely leave my apartment. When I did leave my apartment, I felt like a raw nerve.
I was completely burned out, when I should have just been getting started. As an activist and advocate, I witnessed terrible injustice and oppression, was arrested a handful of times, and generally worked myself into the ground.
After nearly ten years, and a whole lot of healing later, I’m grateful for my burnout. Not in a vague, “I’m thankful for everything that got me here” kind of way. I think that burning out early taught me some valuable lessons on how I want to live.
At the time, burnout felt like hell.
Through burning out, I learned some of the most valuable lessons of my life:
You are not your work.
There is more to your worth than just what you’re able to produce to accomplish in your job. There is in preciousness in your identity beyond your work that shouldn’t be discounted.
You are deserving, in a way that is not attached to an outcome. As a human being, you are inherently worthy of love and respect — no strings attached. You’re inherently valuable just as you are. You don’t need to prove it.
There’s more than one way to make a difference.
When I was younger, I thought that I had to work for an international NGO (non-governmental organization), devote myself to political projects outside of work, and work 60 hours a week. It turns out, that’s not the case.
There are so many ways to make a positive difference. Get creative. Focus on the impact you’re making — the vehicle or medium is less important. Trust that you have something precious to offer — because you do.
You can’t create a more compassionate world if you’re treating yourself like crap.
(Match up your insides and your outsides.)
If you’re being cruel to yourself or putting yourself through the wringer, that’s antithetical to building a more compassionate or just world.
To build the world we want, we have to live those values. If we want more justice in our communities, we have to live in a way that reflects that. If we want everyone to have enough, we have to be prepared to meet our own needs.
Ditto for being kind to others. Kindness rules.
You’re not going to make the kind of impact you want to if you’re being a jerk. Kindness makes a far bigger impact than being a bully. You’ll inspire more people. They’ll trust you.
Plus, you’ll set the stage for the world we want to live in: one where all beings live with dignity.
Those inspired, long-term relationships are what lay the foundation for a truly joyful and impactful life. Change doesn’t feel meaningful if you had to step on people to get there. Being a jerk doesn’t make for a better and more just world. It just makes you a jerk.
Life is long.
I hear the opposite all the time — that life is short — but life is going to feel really long if you’re suffering through it. Remember, I was only 24 when I faced burnout. So you don’t need to accomplish everything today.
There is (hopefully) time to do what you want to — and have a full life. There are urgent moments, yes, but don’t get so caught in those that you forget to look at the long view.
You cannot save everyone. (Nor should you try.)
You can offer empathy, you can be supportive, you can be down with the cause. But you cannot single-handedly save everyone — or the planet. Trying to be the hero is a recipe for burnout and sad times.
Focus on what you can change — where you can make an impact. Maybe break it down into bite-sized pieces. All big shifts started with baby steps.
To go fast, go alone. To go far, go with others.
You cannot do everything yourself. It’s not your job alone to save the world. The best way to make any kind of change is in community. Even if you’re an introvert, you can’t do it alone.
It is so important to get some support – and supportive people – around you, especially if you’re trying to make big things happen. If you want to make a different world, find a way to work with people who respect and (ideally) love you.
Do I wish I could have learned these lessons a different way? Sure.
While I could have saved myself a lot of angst, a lot of time being unhappy, and a lot of money on therapy, I’m still grateful. But as a result, my burnout taught me all the lessons it needed to. I couldn’t be more grateful.