8 Self-Care Tips You Think Will Cure Your Burnout, But Won’t
For many, burnout doesn’t materialize in the form we often hear and read about. There’s usually no immediate mental collapse; you don’t wake up one day, unable to drag your limbs out of bed; and you don’t shut your laptop in despair, staring at a gigantic to-do list that will never cross itself out. I mean, sometimes there’s totally all of that. But burnout (at least in my personal experience), crept up slowly throughout the span of the past few years. It took a long time for me to identify what was happening, and to be totally honest with you, I’m still working on a solution to successfully eliminate – or in the very least, alleviate – its symptoms.
For me, burnout looked like this: After a couple of years in digital media, I had grown paranoid that my jobs would cease to exist. I worked long hours, I said “yes” to every task, I took on blame that maybe wasn’t mine to take, and I berated myself every single day, feeling like I could be doing better. Then one day, I decided to leave my digital media job after I was given an offer to work at a tech startup that wanted to focus on its content arm. Except for this time, I feared what would happen if the startup ran out of money, or if they pivoted away from content strategy. Regardless, I continued to pushed myself to show results, as well as prove my worth as an employee.
Then, as soon as COVID hit, the company ran out of funding and I was laid off. No matter! After a month, I was back to full-time freelancing as an editor. However, this meant that every minute I wasn’t working, I wasn’t earning any money, either. I’d often think: I hope this article performs well. I hope they keep giving me work. I hope I’m what they’re looking for. I hope I have work next week. Those are the thoughts that circled around and around in my brain. Each time I’d cross off a deadline, I marched on to the next, and then the next, and the next, and kept saying, “Yes, yes, yes” to every assignment.
And then, I got a full-time job… but since my husband was now out of work, I continued to freelance on top of working full-time, to supplement the lost income; the result of which includes me working 60-80 hours a week. Not to mention, I usually don’t have weekends off. But alas, I am in control of my income and I can continue to afford our lifestyle. But this has also come at a great cost to my sanity.
Burnout is putting off mail-in voting until the last second (don’t worry, I totally voted) because the thought of doing it seemed daunting.
Burnout is avoiding calling my doctor to make an appointment because a phone call felt overwhelming.
Burnout is staring at a pile of mail on my kitchen table and being physically unable to go through the envelopes because it is too much.
In Anne Helen Petersen’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, she explains burnout much more eloquently, writing, “When you’re in the midst of burnout, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task…never comes.” She adds, “It’s the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift — a sickness, a busted car, a broken water heater — could sink you and your family.”
It’s true. Because the thing is, I don’t generally get enough sleep. I went on a weekend getaway a few weeks ago as a way to “decompress” and yet I came home feeling like the mountain of work I had not completed was now impossible to conquer. I did not feel refreshed or anew. The vacation was a bandaid to a much, much larger problem.
Burnout, as Petersen explains, “isn’t just a temporary affliction. It’s our contemporary condition.” I could go on and on about how screwed millennials are (TFD has a great video on this, and founder Chelsea explained it super well during The Big Reset recently), and how we were sold a lie that’s now left us in debt, unemployed or underemployed, and swimming in self-doubt.
But let’s get back to the main message here: You can’t just “fix” burnout. It’s not a migraine, but instead, it’s how an entire generation was primed to grapple with adulthood based on the perks boomers were fortunte to have. Perks such as: jobs that offered good pensions, access to more affordable college tuition, financial stability, and more. Many of us do not have these perks. Instead, we move forward with the cards we were dealt in life, and try our best.
So, with that said, to tell someone the following tips will help burnout is probably more stressful, than helpful. Here are eight self-care “tips” that aren’t one-size fit all.
1. Only do what you’re passionate about
The thing is, I am passionate about what I do, and I still suffer from burnout. There’s this terrible myth that suggests that if you do what you love, it’s not “technically” work. Yes it f*cking is. Whether you love art, engineering, data, writing, dancing — doing it for money doesn’t make it any less hard or stressful. You will still get overwhelmed and exhausted, at times.
There’s this terrible myth that suggests that if you do what you love, it’s not “technically” work. Yes it f*cking is.
In fact, when your passion becomes your work, it’s hard to separate love for your craft and the pursuit to monetize from it, at whatever cost. Petersen talks about “lovable” work and the idea is that, “When you love what you do, not only does the ‘labor’ behind it disappear, but your skill, your success, your happiness, and your wealth all grow exponentially because of it.” Which is just not always the case and it’s unrealistic to count on this formula. “This equation is, in itself, premised on a work-life integration poised for burnout: What you love becomes your work; your work becomes what you love. There is little delineation of the day…or the self,” she adds.
2. Take a vacation and unplug
I’ll start with this one because it’s something I just tried doing and saw how deeply it failed me. Sure, on my two-day getaway, I swam in a private pool, read books in a hot tub, made sheet cake at night and ate it with a plastic fork, and napped in a hammock. But the second I pulled my car into my driveway, the feeling of dread crept up in my chest cavity. The rest of the week was chaotic, and I worried I had fallen so behind, my editors would stop assigning me work. A $900 isolated desert getaway did not fix my burnout, but instead, it kicked it underneath the bed, like a pile of dirty clothes that eventually need to get washed and dealt with.
3. Have a drink or two to unwind!
You should totally enjoy a cocktail (or edible, or whatever legal substance that makes you feel relaxed) at the end of the day. Yet, don’t mistake that temporary escape as a means of permanently fixing your burnout — because it won’t. You’ll feel momentary relief, for sure, but the next day you’ll be back to your never-ending to-do list.
“Don’t mistake that temporary escape as a means of permanently fixing your burnout — because it won’t.”
4. Just quit your job
Okay, this might be the antidote for some, and many have written about it and the success they’ve found after leaving a stressful job and/or toxic work environment. And if you have the savings and backup plan, that might be the best route for you. However, I knew that if I quit my own job, it would mean months later I would just end up at another stressful gig. Quitting wouldn’t stop the never-ending cycle for me, personally. Instead, I would have to find a way to better manage my time, energy and overall status quo.
5. Treat yourself!
Back when I had only one job and my household had two cushy incomes, one of the most harmful ways I managed burnout was by online shopping. It felt good in that moment to purchase a new top or tube of lipstick, because why else do I work so hard, right? And don’t I deserve to buy myself nice things with the money I earned?
Yet, as soon as the package would come in the mail, the excitement would disappear and I’d worry the purchase was a mistake, or worse, I’d shop more to evoke that feeling of fleeting validation again. This form of “self-care” isn’t really self-care. Instead, it’s seeking material goods to cover up a much larger problem, and it took me awhile to identify that.
6. Just say “no”
While setting boundaries is important, and you should definitely try not responding to your boss if they constantly message you after work-hours, the reality is when you have bills to pay, you may not be in a place in which you can risk setting boundaries.
Reality is, when you have bills to pay, you may not be in a position to which you feel you can risk setting work boundaries.
At the same time, you also have physical and psychological limits. Once, I stayed up until 4 in the morning finishing up some deadlines, and had to wake up early the next day. Needless to say when I did, I was 90% zombie. For me, learning how to manage my time in a more efficient, doable way was better than saying “no” to work and dealing with the anxiety of that outcome. It was learning how to be honest with my editors and set up realistic expectations. It’s not a flat out “No, I can’t” but rather, it’s a “Yes, but can I have two extra days to complete that, please?”
7. Take a quick nap
Again, sleep is always good, and if you can find 20 minutes to take a snooze, awesome. But that doesn’t fix burnout. Your workload will still be there when you wake up. At the same time, do try to be well-rested, if only for your physical well-being, alone. Your ability to focus will also take a hit if you’re not getting enough sleep. However, remember: taking a nap to relax your overworked brain is one thing. Constantly abusing naps to escape your work, is another. So tread hitting the bed, lightly.
8. Change your environment — or just travel
These days, there’s only so much you can do to switch up your environment, considering that most offices, coffee shops and other shared spaces are closed. Decluttering and making a soothing space for yourself in your home can definitely help things feel less chaotic, but tips like “travel to a different state and work in different surroundings!” are not realistic, nor are they financially-savvy. Escaping your home won’t help you escape burnout, and most of us aren’t able to just hop on a plane and go on a month-long trip to another country.
Ultimately, I may always feel some dull form of burnout lurking deep inside me for the rest of my working years because, for as long as I can recall, I’ve been primed to push myself to achieve the goals that have been dangled in front of me. Have I met some of them? Sure — but there’s also no guarantee I’ll be able to hold on to them. For many of us, our achievements may never feel like they’re enough, and that’s troubling. “We were raised to believe that if we worked hard enough, we could win the system — of American capitalism and meritocracy — or at least live comfortably within it,” Petersen says, and then dives into the many ways that we cannot win a system that’s broken.
The true antidote to burnout isn’t an easy answer. I’ve found that feeling more in control of my finances and reading up on how to optimize my dollars (thanks, TFD!) has made it so that I feel less dependent on a company I work for, and in turn, I feel less of that “Must hustle more — go, go, go” panic. It’s still there, but in the back of my mind I also know that I have a high-yield savings account, so if anything goes wrong, I can support myself. I realize that I am lucky and privileged to be in such a position, since not everyone can be. So we all need to (eventually) find ways of grappling with burnout to make our work life sustainable.
It’s important to recognize both your burnout and your bandwidth.
I will say this: It’s important to recognize both your burnout and your bandwidth. But also know that you’re not alone in your struggle.
Gina Vaynshteyn is an editor and writer who lives in LA. You can find more of her words on Refinery29, Apartment Therapy, HelloGiggles, Distractify, and others. If you wanna, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
Image via Unsplash