You go to bed with an anxious weight in the pit of your stomach. You start to dread leaving the house the moment you wake-up. You can’t remember the last time you weren’t consumed by thoughts of work.
Burnout is something that creeps up on you when you don’t take care of yourself, are constantly living in fear and anxiety, and aren’t listening to your body’s cries for help.
I burnt out twice by the time I was 30. In both situations, I was working for not-for-profit organizations doing work that I loved and was good at. But I lived in constant fear of screwing up. I wasn’t confident in myself, took things very personally, and could never escape thoughts of work.
The first time around
At 24, I had just finished an intense 10-month contract working in as a live-in project leader and, even though I had another contract lined up, could barely fathom to the idea of doing it all again. I could barely get out of bed in the morning and my stress levels were so high that I was barely holding it together.
I didn’t know what was happening to me, but it felt BAD.
“Am I doing enough to make people happy? Do they think I’m bad at my job? Did I screw something up?”
When I later learned the term “burnout” I instinctively knew that was exactly what had happened.
I swore it would never happen again
I swore I would know myself better and when I was pushing my limits. Yet, before I turned 30 I was on the brink of another breakdown. Every time the phone rang my heart leapt into my throat and I started to sweat; every time I opened my inbox, my default thought was, “What shitstorm do I have to fix now?” I couldn’t escape the fear of what people thought of me or of what fires I had to put out the moment I got to the office.
My body started to rebel, too. I was experiencing chronic fatigue and pain throughout my entire body that led to suspicion of fibromyalgia. I wasn’t sleeping, and my brain was so foggy I couldn’t carry a sensible conversation.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” BRENE BROWN
What to do when it happens to you
I never want to see anyone else feel that exhausted and anxious! So, I’m here to share what I learned. These nuggets of wisdom might not seem deep or profound, but they’ve made quite an impact on my life.
Lesley's top tips for a happy life and business:
1) Set boundaries and stick to them!
This was a hard lesson to learn. I felt I had to be ready to leap into action anytime work needed me. In my early twenties, this actually was the case. My job was a live-in job that was basically my entire life. I didn’t know how to turn off my brain. So, when I decided to become an entrepreneur, I obviously made the same mistakes … I didn’t create any boundaries.
One date night it clicked.
I was at that bowling alley, sipping a beer with my hubby, and my thoughts were consumed by a client’s work. This client was messaging me on Facebook and I couldn’t ignore it; anxiety ran through my whole body and I almost felt sick to my stomach. My old reaction of panic associated with my phone hit me like a ton of bricks and I couldn’t stop thinking, “I have to fix this now!”
For me, this means:
No work after 6pm or on weekends - I’m not perfect but I’ve certainly improved;
No work talk through my ever-present social media platforms; and
No work-related apps on my cell phone.
My business coach also helped me create guidelines to vet potential clients to work with people I jive with and communicate well with.
I’m my own boss and if I want to stay healthy, I’ve got to respect these self-imposed boundaries. I’ve been feeling happy and grounded ever since.
2) Realize your body is smarter than you
Our bodies know when we need to pull back. They so desperately want us to listen but we’ve been programmed to push, push, push!
Learning to listen to my body might sound a bit cryptic or flighty, but it’s as simple as stopping to notice how you’re feeling. I instinctively do a quick body scan when something feels off so I can find out whether I just need a nap, if I’m falling back into patterns, or if I’m not spending enough time recharging my batteries.
These are some questions you can ask yourself when you’re feeling off:
What’s this unexplained pain all about?
Why aren’t I sleeping at night?
How do I feel when I wake up?
Why is my heart racing?
Why do I feel constricted (…or icky)?
There are many more warning signs our bodies give us, but these are most effective for me to figure out what steps I need to take to feel well.
3) Create a cell phone policy
My cell phone is for my personal enjoyment (ahem, … Harry Potter Hogwart’s Secret!) and also gets used for business. The only way I’m able to maintain a healthy life and business is by setting boundaries with my phone.
I no longer download work or productivity apps on my phone because I need to be able to shut my brain off at the end of the workday. Otherwise, the "you have mail” indicators trigger my anxiety majorly and I can’t ignore them.
Trust me, I learned this the hard way. If you want to use your phone to relax with, get rid of the work stuff on it. Or, if you must, have two different cell phones and put away your work phone when business hours are over. Peace of mind is vital in maintaining your wellbeing and you can’t achieve it if work is always on your brain.
4) Give up the need to please
For a lot of us, especially women, the need to please and gain approval is deeply rooted. And it’s not doing us any good.
Learn to be confident in what you offer the world. With confidence comes the ability to rest and relax.
I partly attribute my past burnouts to my need to please. I constantly craved praise and had to meet perceived expectations, even when they didn’t exist. What a heavy weight that was to carry around!
A lot to learn
I’ve had to learn that my need to please has only ever sucked the life out of me and that no longer serves me. I provide services I’m confident in and am learning that that’s enough (and that I’m enough). Not everyone is please-able. (My business coach really hammered this point home!)
So, if you’re delivering work that you know is great, you can relax because as long as you’re putting your best self out there others’ opinions don’t matter. Being focused on others’ approval is inching you closer to the edge and we can’t have that.