Some Myths and Realities of Burnout

Nothing scares me quite like burnout. For someone with so much general anxiety, I have few specific fears these days. Needles? Sign me up. Literally, I’m a plasma donor. Heights? I’m free to go ziplining again tomorrow. Snakes? They’re my buddies. Public speaking? I do it for a living. 

But burnout strikes fear into my heart. “I got burnt out once,” I’d say, with the thousand yard stare. 

The real problem is that I wrap burnout up in a lot of other things. The time I got “burnt out” was actually a psychotic break/the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. I basically dropped out of tenth grade, losing my life plan at the time and most of my then friends. Around the same time, my parents got a divorce; I cut off contact with my dad, and I moved out of my childhood home, soon having to rehome my beloved cat. A lot happened at once. 

The next several years were rough: frequent, severe panic attacks and general anxiety, developing an addiction to self harm, culminating in a suicide attempt, navigating my social and sensory issues with new awareness, plenty of hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms, frequent, severe dissociation, seeing an ever changing cast of mental health professionals, with several near hospitalizations, trying what sure seemed like most of the psychiatric meds known to mankind, having various physical health issues, failing to accomplish much of anything, so on.  

But that’s not really burnout. That’s a lot more than burnout. Still, that’s what I think of burnout as, and the idea I was just straight up burnt out from the intensive magnet program I’d been in (plus extracurriculars) was thrown around a lot for a time, especially before the schizophrenia diagnosis. 

And going through that again is what strikes fear into me like nothing else. 

In a way, I can’t go through most of that again, logistically. And you can only develop schizophrenia once. Yes, I’ll have symptoms every day for the rest of my life, but you only have your first unexpected, confusing, world shattering psychotic break once. 

So there’s still, really, nothing to be afraid of. 

Actual burnout is unpleasant, but (typically) less world shattering. Still something to be avoided, but maybe not something to be feared. And pretty much every kid I went to that magnet school with had that. 

Burnt out isn’t exactly a healthy personality trait, yet it’s one that many former gifted kids add on to the label long term. And why do these things so often go together? 

Gifted kids are a bit of a cultural phenomenon. As a society, we hold an intense fascination with these kids that just seem to have something we don’t—a gift, if you will. Almost everyone loves the precocious child on a talk show who’s a prodigy at this or that, but that love is, frequently, tinted with something dark. There’s an element of jealousy—why didn’t I get this precious gift—combined with the denial of how much of this gift is frequently just the capacity to be obsessed, and very hard work. (I talk in another post about how privilege plays into, and doesn’t play into, productivity.) 

But the other factor, I think, is that when something is an extreme, we want to see just how far it can go. Gifted kids of all levels and types are frequently told how much potential they have, that they can do anything if they set their mind to it, and are often pushed to their limits. 

In explaining to these kids how much they can and “should” do (with not living up to your potential often framed as the worst thing one can do, despite the fact that not using every ounce of your energy is actually very healthy), we fail to show them where their limits are, teach them how to set boundaries, teach them that they are an asset they need to protect, teach them how to take care of themselves. We teach them that they need to be challenged, often in any way the adults feel like, often regardless of their actual skills or passions. 

So of course many of them become burnt out (and therefore unproductive) adults. They were never shown how to do anything but run at 101% capacity. 

And I do still actively try to avoid burnout. I subscribe to the philosophy of self care isn’t escaping, it’s creating a life you don’t need to escape from. Now, everyone just needs a break or to mix it up sometimes—and scheduling that in advance may be a part of preventative self care—but the point is, creating something sustainable. Not running at 101% all the time. 

I think one of the most important things is boundaries. Many productivity guides talk about what is the minimum I will do but not what is the maximum I will do (though, that’s starting to pick up, as we talk about work life balance in a world with more remote work). That is something we must all also think about in advance to avoid burnout. 

For example, I have limits on the events I’ll run. How many events I’ll teach or organize in a given week or month. 

I also schedule physical and mental self care as part of my minimums, including the basics, and things like various forms of meditation, tarot reading, hiking, digital detoxes (and having general digital boundaries), journaling, spending time with loved ones, traveling, reading, and other things that help my mental health, help me look inwards, unwind, connect and disconnect with the right things, and learn new things. 

I need to be realistic about my goals, and focus on only the essential: hence my belief in values based productivity. 

I know what’s important to me, and that’s what I put my energy into—and that’s what I take time to recharge my energy for. 

And that’s what matters. 

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