Burning Out? It's Not You. Really. It's Not.
I’m seeing exhaustion everywhere I turn. I see nurses fighting like hell for people fighting for their lives. I see teachers doing everything in their power to make sure their students’ routines and lives aren’t turned upside down and that their educations are not a casualty of the pandemic. I see people who are relegated to second class citizenship being told they’re essential, but not essential enough for compensation or protection. I see women everywhere taking on their typical 9-5 (ahem, let’s be honest, 8-6) and even more responsibility at home as all three meals are prepared and eaten in the home, kids and parents and neighbors need support and attention.
As Emily and Amelia Nagoski lay out in their groundbreaking book Burnout, women are expected to be the human givers of society - to give all of our time, energy and attention to others at the expense of our own health and wellbeing. Taking care of others is a full time goddamn job, and one that’s simply expected of us. We didn’t ask for it. Instead, it’s demanded of us from such a young age that we (and most of the men and people who love us) simply accept it as Truth. As The Way It Is. We are not given permission to rest and recover - that’s a privilege granted to the men and children and elderly we care for, but never to us. The work, after all, is never done. So we, the good girls who strive to get all As and do what’s right, grow up to give everything we have for those we care about. Because anything less would just be selfish. And we’re not selfish.
We were already chronically busy, stressed, and food obsessed. We were already exhausted by life when it was “normal.” But now, even more is being asked of us in our primary jobs, and even more in our second, unpaid jobs as women. Outside of our official employment, we’re homeschooling, babysitting, sewing masks, delivering food, and being there for the people in our lives as best we can. And most of us….we’re not okay. We’re just not okay. So we hunker down, we silo, and we strive to do more while somehow also getting more sleep and working out, and also being super women without actual needs. We commiserate over Zoom and wine and numb over Facebook and frosting and wonder when it’ll all be over.
But we fail to realize it’s not our shortcomings leading us to feel this way. It’s the natural result of extra stress placed on a system that was never designed to work for us in the first place.
Burnout is classified by the WHO as only stemming from the workplace, however….the workplace is now, and has always also been, in the home. We cannot escape this burnout by returning to “normal,” or with a pay raise, or with more vacation. This burnout is the result of prolonged stress. It’s the result of being unable to cope when demands are greater than our resources - which is by the way, nearly always the expectation:
that we do as much as we can, and then some—and it’s especially true right now. For many of us, though, we’re simply finally seeing it and feeling it in ways we can no longer ignore.
The symptoms of burnout sound big and scary and far away, like they don’t refer to us and what we’re going through. But they’re the complaints I hear of everyday life, and what we mean when we say we’re tired of “adulting.” My guess is that many of us read the bolded words and think, “oof...that sounds bad…” and then also resonating with the feelings and manifestations of that big-scary-word symptom. Yet not wanting to see the connection or realize that it means us, too.
- Exhaustion. It’s a big feeling. And it’s also what we mean when we say we need a break, a nap, a vacation. It’s feeling overwhelmed by having to wash another plate, or read another bedtime story, or email. It’s needing coffee to feel alive in the morning.
- Cynicism. Cynicism can be rage and a feeling of distrust in others’ motives. It can also be feeling like your temper is shorter than you’ve known it to be in the past, not finding humor where you used to, and feeling like everything is a big-freaking-deal if it isn’t perfect. It’s a lack of joy in the things you used to love. It’s finding happy times to be fewer and farther between. It can be not feeling connected to a purpose and mission.
- Reduced Efficacy. It sounds vague, but in reality, it means we don’t feel as good at our jobs any more. Or we just don’t feel good enough, period - at our jobs, in our relationships, in our friendships, in our parenting, even in being good to ourselves. It can feel like imposter syndrome, or procrastination, or hating Mondays.
- Physical Symptoms & Chronic Illness. We tend to think of chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. In reality, this also includes conditions like a lack of sleep, stress, digestive issues, skin conditions, and headaches. Poor sleep and lower back pain aren’t a required part of life.
There are some things we can do to reduce the symptoms and manifestations of burnout. And we should do them if we feel that it helps or prevents a worsening of symptoms. But we must remember that dealing with burnout as an individual problem is about as effective as fixing a leaky faucet in a burning building. The whole system is faulty. To truly solve the problem, we’ll need to transform the world from the inside out, and do more than make ourselves feel better before tossing ourselves back into the fire.
First, complete the stress cycle. The Nagoski sisters remind us that the first step in creating a resolution to this problem is completing our individual stress cycles. As we work to get the stress hormones out of our body, we can eliminate and reduce the results of stress on our bodies. They advocate for the following steps:
- Breathe. 'Deep, slow breaths down-regulate the stress response—especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts,' write the Nagoskis. Breathe in for a count of five, hold the breath for five, and exhale to a count of ten to ease your way back to calm.
- Remind yourself: you’re not alone. When everything feels like it sucks, we can feel incredibly alone, and like it’s a reflection of us. Reach out to a friend that gets it to connect and get yourself out of the shame spiral.
- Laugh. Laughter releases endorphins to promote wellbeing, reduce cortisol, and can even temporarily relieve pain. You’ll reduce stress while lowering your blood pressure and adding some perspective that there’s good and joy in the world.
- Affection. While this can be physical affection like hugging, it can also mean talking to someone who we like, who also likes respects and trusts us, and will be there for us. Connect deeply.
- Cry. Tears are the safety valves that release our cortisol and bring our system back to relative normal. When even little things feel big, crying can help to relieve this stress.
- Express Yourself. Encourage your own emotional expression through creative means and methods. Allow yourself to experience flow and a sense of doing, completion, or expression.
Second, work on longer-term coping mechanisms. After the immediate stress has lfited, it can be tempting to return to life as usual. Building up our long-term coping strategies will help us to build equanimity and reduce the magnitude of stressors over time.
- Meditate. Just ten minutes of daily meditation has been proven to increase empathy, compassion, our ability to return to our own center, and even upgrade the parts of the brain responsible for lowering anxiety and depression.
- Write. A daily practice of expressing yourself with no feedback, no criticism, and no self-censoring can support our ability to process our thoughts and emotions.
- Move your body. Most of us know that exercise is connected to positive endorphins that help us to reduce stress and sleep better, but know this: it doesn’t have to be perfect, or strenuous, or 30 minutes three times a week. Moving your body in a way that feels good for you is better than no movement at all.
- Get sleep. The brain chemicals released in deep sleep tell the body it’s okay to stop the production of stress hormones.
- Build your support network. When we are connected, we are calmer. Positive social connections provide intellectual stimulation and emotional support when we face hardships.
- Examine unhealthy coping mechanisms. Distraction, numbing with TV, social media, food, alcohol, sex, or shopping. While these may feel helpful in the short term, the goal is to cope without things that distract us and artificially control our emotions and actions.
- Address the underlying causes. Knowing the difference between what we can and can’t control, and finding ways to create action around the things we can control will help us to feel a sense of autonomy and forward movement towards eliminating the unnecessary.
Reorient to the cause. Changing the system will take time. If you’re up for it, start by changing the world from the inside out, starting with you.
- Ask for help. There’s no need to do it all, or to do it all alone. We were never meant to take this world on by ourselves. You’ve worked hard to cultivate a support network. It’s there so that you can use it, too.
- Lower your expectations. Done is better than perfect. Good enough is good enough. There’s no need for things to be perfect, or even great. There’s no need to be superwoman or superhuman. Not now, not ever.
- Remember, it was all an illusion of control anyway. Our jobs have never been secure. We were never in control of our health and wellbeing, not really. The pandemic has just made it visible. Do what you can with the freedom and choice you have as you advocate for even more.
- Remember, it’s not you. It’s the system that isn’t designed to support you.
Lastly, remove the cause. The cause won't remove itself. There are too many people benefitting from the fruits of our burnout for the system to willingly change itself.
- Take a break. Start with a day off, just for you. Remove the cause of the burnout and do what you need to do to take care of you so you can build long term solutions for all women.
- Refuse to engage. Just because the expectation is there doesn’t mean we need to comply. Decline invitations to do more. Create boundaries for yourself.
- Change cultural expectations. Start with yourself. Notice expectations you set and have for yourself, and then for other women. Catch yourself. Change your beliefs and habits over time as you catch your own. Then change what you expect of other women - your expectations for friends, family, caregivers, and employees.
- Vote. Vote for the people who understand the cause of burnout and are reducing the harm done to women and marginalized communities.
- Create waves. Use your voice. Speak up. Say no. Advocate loudly for another way of being.
- Make a change. You may find these practices incompatible with your current workplace or field. You have the choice to change them, or change your orientation to them. Quit your job, join the union, or commit to changing your profession so that it works better for the women to come behind you.
The women of the burnout generation are, by and large, no longer able to look away. We need help. We need a revolution. And we need each other.
Sharon Podobnik Peterson challenges the way women think, live, and lead through speaking, leadership coaching, teaching, and serial entrepreneurship. Her self-help and self-care subscription box, blog, and magazine, Go Love Yourself, was named one of the top book subscriptions by Good Morning America, Book Riot, Buzzfeed, and Thrive Global. When she’s not teaching or coaching, she’s exploring the world with her husband, Mark, or reading with her spunky kitty, Annie, in Seattle, Washington.