Burnout Culture: When Success Means No Longer Having It All, But Doing It all

It’s late Sunday afternoon. I pour a cup of tea and sit at my desk, as I do every Sunday afternoon. Pull out my diary. Rule lines, draw graphs, make schedules, write goals. On paper, the week ahead looks manageable; better yet, conquerable. This week, I think to myself. This is the week I’ll finally smash some goals.

Two full days pass and I find myself face to face with Wednesday. I have not yet achieved one thing; in fact, I have not written a single word. It isn’t from lack of opportunity, or even lack of trying. I have spent the entirety of those two days at my desk; journal in front of me, pen poised, computer open to a blank word document ready to catch any fleeting thought that may eventuate into an article, an essay, a poem; anything.

The cursor blinks at me, in sync with the music of my heartbeat: fail-ure, fail-ure, fail-ure. Wednesday passes; another day with no words written. I flatline.

At this point, the week can go f*ck itself.

It seems there’s nothing unusual about this, of late. This has been my normal for more weeks than I care to admit. With each new day I push harder than the last to accomplish something. Berate myself louder. Discipline myself more strictly. Dig deeper into my scarcity. Strive, impel, coerce, browbeat. Only to continue to exist within this paradox where the more productive I try to be, the less I actually achieve.

Not for the first time, I wonder what’s wrong with me; why it has become so impossibly difficult to achieve a single goal, let alone multiple goals most people would accomplish with ease. Even my menial to-do list continues to get rolled over to next week, and the week after.

Mindlessly, I stare out the window. Walk into the kitchen and open the fridge. Eye off the half bottle of wine on the kitchen counter. Think, God, what I wouldn’t give for a nap right now. I’m exhausted in a way I can’t shake, nor get ahead of. It grips my muscles, weighs upon my bones, never leaves the space behind my eyes.

I thought the exhaustion would ease after holidays when my children went back to school. I thought it would ease once I got back into normal routine. I thought it would ease as life returned to some sort of The-Worst-Of-Covid-Is-Over normalcy. I thought it would ease with earlier bedtimes, or yoga, or meditation, or less coffee, or essential oils. Yet, I continue to wake each day tired and unmotivated; the dichotomy of a woman who, at this point in her life, is supposed to have it all – and yet – cannot seem to pull herself together enough to have even some of it.

I recognise the gravity of the exhaustion; that I have crossed over to the bad place and am now suffering total burnout. I search for self-compassion in the revelation, as I would offer a friend or loved one. Instead, I cannot get beyond inadequacy and guilt that I have somehow failed. It doesn’t matter that I am stretched beyond all possible and practical capabilities. We were the generation of women told we could have it all; that the measure of our success would be founded upon our ability to showcase a family, a career, our materialistic gains, our parenting achievements, our perfect bodies; indeed, our perfect lives.

Yet, we were never told the cost; that it would be our physical health, our mental health, our relationships. That it would be our entire wellbeing. That we would still have to sacrifice and compromise our own needs to support our partners in their careers all the while trying to maintain our own careers with no help or support, until something would be forced to give – most often, us.

That we would forever be found juggling and trying to keep too many balls in the air at all times because god forbid we drop one, even for a moment. That it wouldn’t matter if our world was spinning out of control, we would feel compelled to keep juggling no matter how dizzy we become. Indeed, is this not how we can best define burnout: reaching such point of exhaustion yet continuing to push beyond whatever scant resources we still manage to scrape together?

On any typical week, I am found trying to cram in part-time work as a barista, a writing career (both as a freelance writer and spoken word performer), the running of a farm business, the full-time managing of a home while raising and caring for four (tween, teen, adult) children; planning and cooking meals, growing my own vegetables, grocery shopping, running errands, doing chores, paying bills, exercising, driving my kids wherever they need to be, remembering birthdays and dentist appointments and shoe sizes and who needs what done by when, all the while trying to maintain my own health as someone who suffers complex-PTSD, autoimmune disease and at times, chronic pain which leaves me unable to sleep for days or weeks at a time. 

On top of these hours is the internalised pressure to be accessible and available at all times. For family and friends who need support. For immediate response to emails, no matter the time of day or night. To be on social media more hours of the day than I have, or want to be, for fear of missing any call-outs or submission opportunities that my writing career may hinge upon. To be seen posting content regularly, engaging with readers regularly, building my brand regularly; to be seen optimising every minute of my day with work to justify and validate my existence as a writer, especially when so many of my work hours remain unseen.

According to psychologist Dr Bob Murray, humans are designed to work about 10-20 hours per week — anything above that, they need “a lot of support, praise, and positive human relationships. Otherwise, they’re pretty much in a permanent state of stress,” he says. As a full-time parent, I am already putting in an average of 14 hours of work per day before I even factor in actual work hours above and beyond this. Most women I know are working these kind of hours, and more.  

Those numbers are far from sustainable and yet, this is the minimum requirement we have been made to believe is necessary for having it all. There is no time for play, or rest. No time off the clock. Time working is seen as “good”, time not working as “bad” or “lazy”. I try and think back to the last time I took a day off. I couldn’t tell you. The last time I had a few days away, non-work related? Sometime in early 2018, I think.

It would be nice to think the answer lies here; that all I need is a day off or a few days away or to give myself a face mask and a mani-pedi and I’ll be good to go again. But anyone who has experienced burnout understands it doesn’t just go away with a weekend camping or an afternoon on the couch or meditating or reading a self-help book or drinking f*cking celery juice every morning for a week.

Burnout anchors itself fundamentally deeper and manifests as not just exhaustion, but discouragement and a loss of joy in that which we once derived enjoyment, satisfaction and achievement from. It’s an emptiness, a numbness, a feeling that everything is too hard, or too much effort. It’s a lack of motivation to work and being unable to concentrate or focus or able to follow through with commitments. It’s withdrawing emotionally from friendships and relationships as we find ourselves lacking the energy to invest; more so, the energy to even care.

But often burnout is the result of forgetting we are in charge of steering our own ship. That no-one other than ourselves can change the course of our existence. Recovery from burnout is a slow process that begins only when we are willing to acknowledge there is a need for change.

It is found in the ways we learn to set boundaries which honour our needs during recovery and beyond; less work hours, no work emails from home, switching off our phone by a certain time each night, saying no to unnecessary commitments and events.

It is found in our ability to prioritise, and to be okay with things not getting done; to let go of our perfectionist tendencies, delegate our chores, and ask for help when we need it.

It is found in the awareness there is more to rest than just sleep; that we need to rest the physical, mental, social, sensory, emotional, spiritual and creative parts of ourselves. To remember life is breath and therefore allow our lives to comprise of both the exhale and the inhale; to balance work with leisure and play and spend more time engaging with activities that have no outcome except to bring joy to our lives.

Mostly, it is found the moment we reject the ideal which lies at the very core of burnout culture: that our entire sense of identity and worth is inherently tied to our work. We must choose to believe we are not defined by what we do; rather, who we are.

Having it all is little more than an elusive concept we will never acquire; instead, we become caught in the perpetual cycle of doing it all and hoping one will lead to the other. The truth is, it never will.

I think often upon the poem, The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I don’t have the answer right now in the midst of recovery. What I do know is I’m not so interested in trying to fit this one wild and precious life into a system designed only for profit and capitalism.

Maybe the first step is to break the system, before it breaks us.  

** Article originally published at Elephant Journal **

2 thoughts on “Burnout Culture: When Success Means No Longer Having It All, But Doing It all

  1. Hi Kathy, thanks for posting this. I like the articulate & insightful nature of Burnout Culture. The quotes are apt & well-placed—I love Mary Oliver’s Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? But more so your succinct summation: Having it all is little more than an elusive concept… …we become caught in the perpetual cycle of doing it all and hoping one will lead to the other… …it never will. I also like the overall flow of the piece how it weaves through experiences openly, honestly & resolves on a note of—yes we can do something about this, albeit a challenge but we can… Great work. Best Fraser

    1. Thanks, Fraser! Glad to know you appreciated the piece. Always appreciate your words, thanks so much.

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