Longterm Burnout is No Way to Live

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

It’s a hot summer afternoon and I’ve stepped out of my car to answer a call from my daughter’s nephrologist. A week ago I didn’t know the term for a kidney specialist, never mind that my six year old daughter might need one. In a careful tone, the nephrologist tells me that she’s not in kidney failure, but that’s all they know right now. I feel the air leave me. I bend over in front of my car and fight for breath as my daughter obliviously hums along to the car radio.

There’s nothing like stunning news to bring your life into focus. Up until that point I’d unconsciously been on a long, slow road to burnout. For years, I’d advanced in the ranks of my corporate career, only to feel less fulfilled with each promotion.

My days were a series of endless meetings followed by dashing home to check that homework was done and get dinner on the table. I yearned for time with my kids and simultaneously eyed the clock until bedtime. I craved the moment when I could collapse on the couch with a glass of wine and lose myself in mindless television. I had run this cycle for so long that it felt like my singular mode.

But that summer, events accumulated like a gathering storm and demanded attention. After the call, we spent our days in limbo, overwhelmed with anxiety while we waited for appointments and answers. But life doesn’t stop for a family crisis, and more piled on. Days after the news about my daughter, my husband had urgent back surgery. And weeks later we were scheduled to break ground on a house addition while we were living in it.

Life was in overdrive and I could no longer keep up.

Ennui turned into despair. Anxiety consumed me. I couldn’t focus. I showed up to work but was mentally checked out, trying to plan my way out of each challenge. I felt hypervigilant one moment and mentally depleted the next. I knew that exercise would help me destress, but I was too physically exhausted to do it. Netflix and wine became a key part of my self-care routine.

Experts describe burnout as physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion resulting from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion, marked by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes.

My experience fit the textbook definition, but I didn’t recognize it as burnout at the time. I was too focused on keeping my stress from completely overtaking me. I had no capacity to view my situation objectively and take the steps necessary to help myself.

My husband recovered from his surgery after a few weeks. The house project took much longer. And it would be more than a year before my daughter was finally under the attentive care of the right specialist. (Thankfully, her condition is under control and she’s now a healthy, thriving 14 year old). The crisis passed.

But my low-grade burnout remained, because at its heart was a career that took up most of my time and mindshare, but didn’t give me purpose. I hadn’t used some of the strengths that I most valued about myself in years. My work had little meaning to me because I didn’t feel like it made a real difference. This career that consumed so much of my life was draining my energy. And unlike some of the other stresses we faced that summer, this one wasn’t going to resolve itself in time.

Back then, I didn’t have the knowledge I have now to work through it. The road to rediscovering myself was long and clunky. I should have sought professional help but I never entertained it because I was accustomed to simply coping from a place of daily depletion.

I happened upon most of my next steps by accident or desperation, over many months. After a while of languishing, I did a few things that had a big impact.

First, I started meditating to manage my stress. The breathing and the quiet offered relief. I also learned that my thoughts, which churned out a near-constant stream of inner dialogue, were not *me*. I came to see that I didn’t have to engage in every thought- particularly the unproductive ones that told me there was no way out.

Slowly, I stopped ignoring my intuition and emotions and started seeing them as important clues. I gave myself the freedom to feel. The internal feedback I had long ignored about my career was “this isn’t working”. I had been overwhelmed and unfulfilled for far too long, yet weirdly skilled at keeping things going. This needed to change.

And when igniting such a change seemed too hard and I began to feel desperate and powerless, I started reminding myself daily that even if it didn’t always seem like it, I had agency over my life. No one else was going to change it for me.

Transformations usually don’t happen overnight, and it took time to resolve my burnout. They say that change happens when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of changing. Facing up to what I needed to change terrified me at first. And yet, something shifted the moment I did: restlessness was replaced with certainty, and my creativity and imagination reawakened. I noticed I had more mental and physical energy. It became appealing, instead of scary, to design a new path in alignment with my values.

And perhaps because of this, the self doubt I’d been battling for the better part of my life also returned in full force. Our inner critics despise it when we leave our comfort zone, so it has a lot of material to work with now. Rather than fighting it, I’ve learned to shine a brighter light on what I’m creating instead.

I don’t regret my period of entrenched burnout, though I also don’t recall it fondly. I know that it led me to the place I am right now.

It was that experience that sparked my curiosity about the intersection between mindset, energy and motivation. It’s what helped me see that honesty and authenticity are my non-negotiables not only in life, but in work. It’s what inspired me to become a coach to help others move through this better (and faster) than I did and lead their companies with the best version of themselves — or take the time they need to find who that is.

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Elizabeth O'Neill

Elizabeth O'Neill

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