How I Finally Overcame Burnout in My 30s

Life is not tasks, to-do lists, or professional accomplishments.
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Life is not tasks, to-do lists, or professional accomplishments.

Today is the best day ever! Since yesterday.

Wait, what was that? It’s true. Maybe today is the best day ever. At 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in November, sitting next to an open kitchen door hearing the buzz of leaf blowers, shrieking toddlers from a nearby day care, and the scurrying of squirrels collecting their fall harvest, today isn’t too shabby. I am looking forward to an evening of activities and reviewing further days' respective schedules as I write this too. 

"The best is yet to come." 

Perhaps I am having an Eat. Pray. Love moment—or maybe that depends on your definition of moment. You see, I seem to be, and have been for quite some time, living in a very transformative, ever-evolving, and changing situation or really, an adaptive-heavy life. With that, life just seems to improve with each day’s sun.

This so called Eat. Pray. Love. moment hasn’t come about because everything is going great and advancements in personal, professional, financial, or whatever other successes have been achieved. I am by no means at the pinnacle of the stereotypical success ladder. 

Any of my so-called successes have come about through my own redefinition of success. My redefinition didn't come easy, though; it came after a time when I allowed myself to fall into severe burnout, and before I learned some life-threatening news that forced me to face some hard realities. 

Three years ago, I was one year into a new position at a great engineering firm. I was leading a professional association, and we were making quite a financial comeback. I was living in a great walkable neighborhood close to work, my gym, my church, my grocery store, salon. I had a garden growing in the backyard of my second floor walk-up apartment. I was on easy street. I was chasing my dreams, achieving (and in my opinion finally being recognized) much at work and in my professional life, had a balanced social life, and a decent bank account (considering my paid salary). Truly, it was a super-amazing life.

Unfortunately, like any story, there is a turn, a twist, a snafu. There always is, right? That snafu was multiple glitches that all seemed to converge at the same time. I found myself picking up the slack of quite a few co-workers. I would volunteer to do whatever was needed thinking, "Sure! I’ll cram it in somewhere."  In my personal life, I was unsure of a lot. I had inadvertently pushed friends away because I struggled to find balance. On top of that I was failing at a long-distance relationship. I used work to avoid challenges in my real life. But then work would overwhelm me. All this to say—I was beyond burned out. 

The fall of 2014 brought an unexpected loss of a very dear friend. I was broken. I wanted a vacation; from life, from my family, friends, work, the hamster wheel life. I wanted a break. I wanted to sit on a beach closed off to the world and read and write.

My sandy prayer was answered (not in the way I'd hoped) on June 10, 2015, with a life-threatening health condition of my own. Instead of cool water crashing on a beach, I was in hot water undergoing open heart surgery to remove a benign tumor from my mitral valve. Everything came to a halt.

I was, for the first time in my life, having to slow down. To stop the go-go-going lifestyle, stop the independence and the "I can do it all myself and I don’t need anyone else to help" mentality. It forced me to stop the "I need to be everywhere, do everything and be all to everyone all the time."

After recovering from my heart surgery, I knew I'd be tempted to get sucked back into the whirlwind of work, so I flew to Florida and put myself on a silent retreat that I dictated and did on my own accord. I did not even know my intentions when I decided to do this. Maybe it was that need and want to go to a beach and read some books and actually do it. This trip into silence provided more than a few book smarts. It is in this internal silence that I heard what means most to me.

I focused a lot on my feelings of burnout and what was causing them. I sought clarity, purpose, and a more deliberate life. I wanted to escape the feeling of overwhelm, the feeling that I'm always 10 steps behind where I should be—professionally, socially, spiritually. In the quiet, I found myself. I found my identity again. I found my purpose again.

I stopped working like it was my life; I worked just enough and called it a day. I prioritized self-care into my week. I saw a therapist to help with my sleeplessness. I got my hair cut every month from my favorite stylist with whom I share inspiring conversations every time. I scheduled regular massages for myself. I upped my game at my local gym, checking in for charitable causes and teaming up with others for athletic events. I had more of myself to give. 

Because I was taking care of myself and not overworking, I was better able to be there for my loved ones. I was there for a friend who was pregnant and a friend who miscarried at the same time, shouldering their burdens while the two were temporarily disabled from relating to each other. I was able to work happily for my employer knowing I was doing my best without feeling gnawed by some sense that it wasn’t enough. And when the company laid off numerous positions unexpectedly over the summer, I wasn’t faced with an identity crisis that suddenly I was jobless—I had already redefined my success, and it no longer depended on my job.

I had redefined success to acknowledge adversity as opportunity. I had redefined success to mean strength, not being a slave to the grind. I changed my outlook to remember that life is people. We are born from people; we die as people. Life is not tasks, to-do lists, professional accomplishments. It’s people, people.

I might as well treat myself as one.

Photo Credit: Horace and Mae Photography