Self-care and wellness are pet topics of mine because I experienced the pitfalls of taking my wellbeing for granted. I thought of sharing my own journey with burnout, reflecting on some past struggles, to give myself a voice, and fellow (recovering) workaholics something to think about.
Route to burnout
A few years ago, I was juggling full-time work with a demanding portfolio, committing at least 12 hours of my evenings a week as a volunteer counsellor at a local non-government agency and powering through my part-time post-graduate studies. My weekends were packed when I had free time because I wanted to play hard too: I would arrange social engagements back to back, ensuring I had time to connect with friends and family.
I was thriving and people around me marvelled at how well I was able to do all that while making time for regular exercise and self-care practices. Certainly, this unbelievable regime was harsh, but I was in a state of flow: I was productive, organised and I was proud of my diligence and drive.
My symptoms of burnout
I knew, though, that I was burning out. The pace wasn’t sustainable. Many friends were alarmed to hear about my lifestyle and would often tell me to slow down.
My productivity was my bane: I was rewarded with more work in the office. My supervisor entrusted me with additional projects and tasks because I could be relied on to do them well, whether I liked them or not. I ended up thinking of not caring anymore because the more I cared, the more work I took on: “Well, somebody’s got to do it, but everyone’s busy! If I did it, I would take half the time they would need to figure it out!”, my self-talk would buzz when I struggled to assert my boundaries regarding workload.
My motivation was slowly eroded as I increasingly felt obligated than a sense of purpose; emotionally, I was starting to disengage. I experienced more cynicism, even resentment, and I was getting ticked off more easily by issues that had been initially bearable. At my desk was a written sign that reminded me to practise gratitude for having a job, but next to it was an image of a tombstone with a caption “When I cared”.
I was personified contradiction. I was struggling at work, so I made sure that I took care of my body, my mind and my energy, so that I could keep going.
What I did initially to manage burnout
Understanding the need to counter the burnout symptoms relating to cynicism and emotional exhaustion, I sought meaning and fulfilment outside of work. Like upping my hours volunteering and self-studying the French language to take the DELF when I completed my part-time post-graduate. I hacked my brain and focused on what made me grateful to have my job. Things like the drive to show up for work because I relished the peaceful and solitary use of the office gym facilities for my daily morning yoga workout. Or, the solace in being able to afford regular overseas trips, for exploration, rejuvenation and escape.
There was however always a nagging thought, imploring me to slow down. I brushed it aside because it didn’t sit with the narrative of the intoxicating vibrancy I was experiencing. I just kept going, simply because I could.
Until I couldn’t.
A routine health check-up in early 2018 revealed an anomaly in my glucose ratings. The physician asked if I had accidentally consumed some food the night before the fasting blood test. I said no. Still he wasn’t alarmed and advised me to get another test done at the polyclinic to confirm that nothing was wrong with me. Except that something was.
I was horrified. My OGTT results indicated an impairment for both measures. I was a hair from being diabetic. My body wasn’t making or using insulin well. The diagnosis did make sense eventually because I was experiencing other symptoms, but I hadn’t been paying attention to them.
Everyone in my life was shocked. They couldn’t believe how a person who watched her diet carefully and took care of herself would be pre-diabetic.
Certainly, I went through the different stages of grief, but I was on the expressway to “acceptance”.
I formulated a theory about my circumstances quite quickly: My body was rioting because I was ignoring it for too long. My body was stressed, although in my mind and my heart, I wasn’t perceiving it. If I didn’t pay attention to it anymore, I would be on an informed path of self-destruction.
I revolutionised my entire diet, fixated on 2 main factors: low GI and balance. Following a strict diet (I have my perfectionistic tendencies to be grateful for here), I was able to very quickly reverse my pre-diabetic diagnosis.
Although I wasn’t able to care less immediately and drop all my commitment, I began being more mindful about my priority to be well and stay well. I understood that health shouldn’t be an absence of illness, that my health and wellness should be cherished instead of squandered. Eventually, I left my job after speaking to my family, friends and mentors in the helping profession; I was glad I had the support I needed.
Recovery from burnout
My own recovery from burnout could only begin when I recognised that I was doing too much, through a health scare. It was a humbling experience and I respect my body more now, for what it does for me. The episode got me on a mission to be more in tuned with my body and enhanced my drive for promoting self-care to another level. I hope to share more in future posts about my journey.
If you are struggling with burnout, reach out. You could practice self-care and try to manage feelings of being overwhelmed at work but often, burnout is an accumulation of chronic stress and symptoms can be quite challenging to overcome and manage alone. Getting external assistance could help you untangle the individual factors from the organisational/ team factors. Your journey with burnout need not be alone.
I am not sure how this post would be received. I realised, after spending some time on it, that it is also my way of honouring my journey and acknowledging that therapists are humans and are vulnerable too. Alongside everybody else, we are also living, learning, and growing.