Dealing with Burnout

It took a long time for me to realize that I was burned out.

It also took a long time for me to understand what burnout actually was. After all, I wasn’t depressed. I’ve been to depression, I know what that particular landscape looks like, and I wasn’t there. Instead, I was irritable. Tired all the time, but also anxious and distracted. I didn’t want to do anything — somewhere along the way, I had lost my motivation. I did my job, and did it as well as I usually do, I think — but sometimes I was angry about how much I was expected to do, how much people assumed I could take on. There was never time to rest . . .

Burnout is when you’re stressed for so long that eventually you just have no reserves left — of energy, of motivation, of optimism. I was used to having all those things, and it was unsettling to find that suddenly they were gone. If you had asked me what I wanted to do most in the world, I would have said something like disappear for a while, somewhere no one could find me. I wanted to be left alone. I daydreamed about things it seemed I could not have . . . time to walk along a beach or read a book.

If all of this sounds confusing, it was certainly confusing in my head — a mass of conflicting impulses and responses. It resembled depression only in that I was unhappy, but now I was angry as well, which I had never been when I went through a period of depression while finishing my PhD dissertation. I didn’t think therapy was going to help this time. I needed something else.

Why was I burned out? Some of the reasons are still present in my life, and I’m writing this as I’m starting to come out of it for the first time in . . . I don’t know, probably a year. First, I have a full-time job teaching undergraduates. Then, I have a part-time job teaching graduate students. I love both those jobs, and my students are wonderful — yes, even the ones who have problems of various sorts, even the ones who don’t do well. They are all fascinating human beings, and it’s a privilege working with them. But I teach writing, which means a lot of personal attention to how a student is expressing herself, growing as a writer, developing skills. I don’t give exams, I comment on essays and short stories and sections of novels. It’s intensive work. On top of that, I’m a writer, and at the time I was trying to finish a fantasy trilogy on a relatively tight deadline. A fantasy trilogy that required a lot of research, that was very hard to write . . . Plus I was turning in short stories, essays, articles, all sorts of things — partly for money, partly because I was asked to write various things to publicize the novels. And I was traveling to conventions, reading at bookstores, all those things you do as an author rather than a writer.

Underneath all of that was me, the person I am: an intense introvert who is drained by interactions and distractions, who needs to recharge like a battery on being alone and silent. I was also in the middle of the continual barrage we all face nowadays: the online world of social media, where the most horrifying events scroll by as though they meant nothing, and people express their horror with clicks, but little changes . . . There are good things about social media, and I try to maximize my connection with people who post about poetry, and gardening, and knitting, and saving the environment. But it can also be a monotonous river of despair.

And I have a few other traits that really don’t help: I’m driven by my love of the work, conscientious about getting it right, and a perfectionist. If you are already dealing with burnout, these will make dealing with it harder. Especially the perfectionism.

Finally, at some point, I realized I was burned out — months after I should have, because obviously the problem was me, right? It couldn’t be that I was simply trying to do too much. I just needed to work harder, be more organized. I don’t remember how I realized it . . . maybe reading an article somewhere in the endless scroll of pixels? There are worthwhile things online as well, as I said. That was when I started thinking about what I could do. Luckily, it was almost summer, and I’m a teacher, so summers are times when my schedule is more flexible — not free, because I still teach graduate students, I still have writing deadlines. But I was not teaching regular classes. And I came to the following conclusions:

1. I need to stop multitasking.
I had spent so much time trying to maximize, optimize, use time efficiently. I was writing papers on trains and airplanes, because that was free time, wasted time, right? I decided that when I was on trains and airplanes, I was going to sleep. Or maybe watch the in-flight movie. But I was going to use that time to rest.

2. I need to do things that have no immediate utility. I had stopped reading anything that was not work-related, simply for pleasure. I had stopped doing anything other than my work, and that was why I did not feel joyful, or even free. It felt as though there was no time to sew something, bake something, create a garden. I’m still not at the point where I can do all those things, but I’m trying . . .

3. I need to live in the real world. The online world had its uses, but I needed to get away from it, to live in the world that has sunlight, trees, the sound of rain. I needed to touch books, walk on streets. Go into small cafés and buy cakes, then sit and eat them without checking my status (what does that mean anyway? I want a life, not a status). I needed to put away the addictive glowing screen.

4. I need to take care of my physical health. I was starting to eat unhealthily, because if I was unhappy, I deserved snacks, right? And I was never getting enough sleep, because there was always something more important to do. “I’ll sleep on the plane” had become my mantra (but then I didn’t sleep on the plane either). I don’t know who came up with the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but I would say to that person — if you don’t sleep now, you’ll get that chance much earlier than you would otherwise! I’m still not good at getting enough sleep, but I’m working on it. I’m trying to think of it as the recharge my brain needs every day. My phone needs to recharge, right? Well, so do I. And just like my phone, I don’t run as well at 10%.

5. I need to find joy. Perhaps this is as much creating as finding? But think of joy as a vitamin you need every day. How many milligrams of joy have you taken today? Is it enough milligrams to get your daily dose of joy? Of course, while doing this, I had to figure out what joy meant to me, where my sense of joy comes from. Roses. Perfume. Warm, clean sheets. A cup of tea. Dark chocolate. A skirt that swooshes around my ankles. Writing poetry, not for a market but just for myself. I didn’t realize, for a while, that I was taking the Marie Kondo principle of what to keep and what to discard — does it spark joy? — and applying it to my life. What in my life sparked joy? I needed to find out, and then do some of that every day. Not everything in your life is going to be joyful — life is filled with small irritations, like the tram conductor telling you, with a frown and in a tone of admonishment, that you need to ring the bell to signal when you want to get off, when you’ve been riding that line for ten years, probably longer than he’s been at his job. But it’s also filled with small wonderful things, like your favorite scarf. And when it is, you can give that tram conductor your best “Thank you, that was unnecessary and I think you’re kind of an idiot” smile, because you know that scarf makes you look romantic and sophisticated.

Stop, rest, smell the roses, find joy. I’m not always good at doing those things. But I’m working on it.

(I’m also going to stop traveling so much for a while, except to Budapest, which is my ultimate place to rest, because when people ask you to do things, you can say, “Sorry, I’m in Budapest.” And then they say, “Oh, when will you be back?” And they don’t expect you to do things until you get back. Also, there are narrow streets to walk along, and a lot of small cafés to sit in. If you’re burned out and you can afford it, I recommend the Budapest rest cure.)

This is me in my office, in the middle of summer, going in to get some work done. I think you can see the stress and tiredness in my face. But now I’m going to get some rest . . .

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20 Responses to Dealing with Burnout

  1. Burnout sneaks up like night and rising tides, and to it’s not immediately noticeable until we’re immersed in it. Then we have to fight our way to the surface because even once we see we’re in it, the causes don’t evaporate. I like your approach here because it works for people with all kinds of careers and circumstances. Here’s hoping your next post shows you looking relaxed and joyful.

  2. Hi Theodora,

    For some time I have wondered how you ‘just keep on keeping on’ with YOUR previous schedule. It was an incredible pace of being. So sooner is later – something has to happen. I am glad that you understand and WILL be taking better care of yourself. Your trips to Budapest for you are soul journeys. You can spend some time in your language studies. Then you can read more books in Hungarian.

    Anyway, I hope you stick to your plan and keep well. I have joy in my life from’ being’ as I was put in a position after being hit by a car. I began again. Through Kundalini Yoga, long walks , gardening and pets, I transformed myself and that was 20 months ago.

    I wish you all the best and long have I read your books and look forward to more.

    C W Lane

    • Thank you, and all the best to you to! I’m so sorry to hear about the car accident, but I’m very glad it led to a transformation, which implies that you’re in the process of healing . . . 🙂

  3. Nancy says:

    Dear Theodora,
    As a retired English teacher of 34 years, I think I know what you are going through. Although your schedule sounds infinitely more packed than mine was…I wonder. Perhaps it is all relative. I remember coming home before I finally made the decision to retire…and just crying. So, so tired. It was for me and I think for you too, too much of pouring out of yourself and not filling your cup again. Fill your cup! What is it? For me, it is writing for pure joy and growth. The biggest drain is still trying to get my work published, but no mind. I keep writing and writing because it fills my soul.

    I wish you well, Theodora…throw out some of those self-expectations…and spend time living.

    Very sincerely,

  4. I empathize. I’m a high school teacher when I’m not writing, and I also coach an Odyssey of the Mind team and I’m the parent of two college students who attend different colleges and need frequent in-person help from me. This last school year was one of the hardest ones I’ve lived through, but everybody else could only see the successes I had, not the cost I was paying. I genuinely worried that I was going to experience some damage to my health before the year was out. Now I’m a week away from the end of my vacation, preparing to go back. I’m promising myself that this year I’m going to find a way to give less, to not make it my own needs and enjoyment that must get sacrificed all the time, but I’m honestly not certain where to make those cuts. :-\

    • I absolutely understand what you mean — it can be so hard to figure out what isn’t necessary and can be cut, when it’s all necessary! I hope you have a good school year and find some balance . . . I’m going to try to do that in mine as well. 🙂

  5. Ngiare Elliot says:

    Thank you, Theodora. I, too, will try to save for Budapest – or for Wales, to visit the tiny shrine of Melangell, patron saint of hares, which is such a quiet, nurturing place.

  6. Debbie says:

    Great post. I have my own comic book publishing company and find all my time going to running that instead of writing. I’m too tired and played out to write. Or to walk. Or to work on my quilts. I’m at the point now where I’m making a schedule, I can spend this time only writing or sewing, and the rest working. I also plan on picking up my journaling every day, using my stamps, stickers and colored pencils to decorate the pages. It’s my way to wind down before I go to bed at night. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  7. patcadigan says:

    This is one of the most sensible, useful, all-round great posts I’ve read on this subject in years. Theodora, you rock the house.

  8. helen says:

    I’m so sorry that you (and so many of the commenters here) have been burned out. I hope everyone here can find some time to relax and do those extra things they enjoy. Sometimes it’s hard to justify quiet time to yourself; there’s a lot of social pressure to be always busy and achieving and we can all get sucked into that to some extent. And then of course there’s always the fear of Time’s winged chariot (to be pompous)…

    Marie Kondo-ing your life as well as your home is such a great idea.

  9. Cherri says:

    Thank you Theodora for this wonderful post. I own a yoga studio which leads people to comment about how relaxed I must be as yoga is so good for you. Yoga is GOOD but owning and running a business has been a a huge commitment these past 7 years. This summer I have found myself wanting to run away to the ends of the earth to escape the social media marketing, consent planning of classes, events and trainings. I am suffering from burnout and for the sake of myself and my business I have arranged for time off at the end of the summer. I, too, hope with a bit of a respite I will find spots of joy as well. Namaste.

  10. Rebecca says:

    How kind and courageous of you to share so openly. I so enjoy your writing whether a novel or these lovely posts. You spark joy in others. I hope you can claim more sparks of joy for yourself.

  11. I’ve been feeling like this the last year and I literally wrote a post about it somehow not using the word burnout in it at all. Effectively what I’m talking about in my post is what you’re talking about here.

    I hope you’re feeling better about yourself and your life situations now. Dude, you’re a teacher! That’s awesome!

    Teachers are like firemen or doctors but they put out fires and give verbal medication for the future of humanity.

  12. We moved to California almost a year ago, right into the path of the Paradise Fire, and wondered whether we had made a very bad choice.

    Now the weather report says that our tiny little part of central New Jersey is in the ‘fastest climate change’ area – and I feel I’ve moved from the frying pan into the fire – classic burnout in more than one sense.

    But we’re okay, and starting to come out of that period of literal burnout surrounding the metaphorical one that forced the move (inability to take care of house and yard and still have a life), and I came across your post via Jennie Spotila’s blog.

    It is empowering to have a name for a vague feeling – because once I have a name for something, I can tidy it away and understand its power. Such is the power of naming.

    And I feel better about something that was very vague.

    So thank you, and I hope yours is tamed somewhat, too.

  13. rebeccaogle says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Burnout is SO common, especially among high-achieving folks.

  14. Alie says:

    Thank you so much for telling your story of burnout, and what you’re trying to do to heal. It is helpful to read other people’s stories, not only because it makes me feel less alone, but because I’m in the middle of trying to heal from burnout myself, and being somewhat stuck. It’s even more wonderful to see that story coming from someone whose work means so much to me, and to know that you too have felt that anger and exhaustion and absence of energy and optimism.

    Looking back, I realize I’ve had three other periods of deep burnout at various times in my life, but I can’t use any of them as a model for healing now because always before, instead of healing myself through intentional actions, something happened in my life or I made a choice that resulted in drastic change, and during the transition my focus contracted to self care and life maintenance. But this time is different – I don’t want to drastically change my life, I want to make incremental adjustments that make the life I have (and love) now more sustainable.

    So thanks for the reminder about those 5 things, because I think they will help me, too. Also for the reminder about knitting. I think I’ll prescribe myself some knitting in the garden, soaking up the sun and listening to the world.

  15. Anne Clifford says:

    Love this. I know I am reading this a year after you have written it but your words really resonate.
    I have always dreamed of living in Budapest for a while, but my family is from Sarospatak and I don’t
    speak Hungarian (only my father speaks English) but your writing inspires me- thank you!

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