Did I Accidentally Make Burnout Look Glamorous?
I’ve not talked about my burnout in this newsletter yet, but I have talked about it a lot online and still regularly get asked about it at events. I’ve also written about it in the national press, such as this piece in the Sunday Times. It talks about how I got my burnout and how I recovered. Only the thing is, I’m starting to wonder if it’s that simple, or if – like most bad habits in life – I’m going to be circling the exhaustion drain throughout the course of my life.
Briefly, here’s what happened to me: I worked so hard and pushed myself to the limits of my endurance in every way possible until I broke my body so badly that I couldn’t walk my dog or even water my house plants. I spent six months unable to work, which eventually resulted in me having to leave my job permanently. At the time, everything in my life seemed to be going very well: the literary agency I had set up was thriving, I’d been nominated for literary agent of the year at the British Book Awards and I’d just been offered a book deal for my debut novel. I had a great social life, hey, I even had abs. In some sort of desperate urge for flawlessness – and an addiction to the adrenalin of success – I had achieved all that I had wanted, before swiftly crashing and burning into a whole new set of circumstances where suddenly I found myself unemployed, in-between homes and facing a slow and confronting recovery. I was open about this period of my life, sharing this rudderless and painful time and I wrote about living in liminality for ELLE Magazine.
Recently, presenter and Sunday Times bestselling author Anna Whitehouse, spoke on the Women’s Prize for Fiction podcast about burnout, and something she shared startled me:
“We need to stop glamourising overworking. Please. The absence of sleep, good diet, exercise, relaxation and time with friends and family isn’t something to be applauded. Too many people wear their burnout as a badge of honour. And it needs to change.”
I was horrified at the idea that burnout might be some sort of decorative accolade, a talisman for ascendency, and yet somehow there was something about what she said that felt a little too close to home. In my old life every ticking minute was accounted for from the moment I opened my eyes. I’d combine a walk to the Tube with a client call, and a trip to get a bikini wax with an opportunity to order those Mother’s Day flowers. Each action was multitasked, every half-hour slot blocked out in my diary. I’d get urinary infections regularly because I’d be too busy to go to the toilet; I stopped noticing my swollen bladder — I was distracted. Busyness was a badge of honour and it was the go-to response to the question: ‘How are things?’ There is nothing glamorous about living like this. There is nothing fortifying about maximising your productivity at every turn. It leads to a joyless numbness. And it eventually makes you seriously ill.
And yet, I cannot deny that trajectory, shun the network it helped me build nor trivialise those accolades it afforded me, which led to me setting up my own business where I now have more autonomy and control over my life than I ever have. Burnout is strongly linked and suffered more in minority groups, meaning when you’re in a system of power and you’re in the minority within that structure — be it through class, gender, race, disability or religion — you have to fight and push harder for your seat at the table, to even be heard, and are therefore more likely to burn out. As a gobby girl from Newport, fresh off the National Express, I was a shock to the publishing system and could smell the stench of underestimation that surrounded me. I knew I had to work twice as hard and be three times as good in order to be taken seriously in an ecosystem that’s dominated by men at the top, where nepotism is exalted not shamed and where the vast majority of the workforce have been privately educated. Of course, a lot has and is still changing in publishing; it was a different beast over a decade ago when I first entered it’s belly. It’s interesting then, that when the industry is more diverse than it’s ever been to date, it’s facing industry-wide burnout.
When I announced that my novel was being published a couple of years ago someone commented on my Instagram – and although not articulated exactly like this – it basically asked:
“Why are you talking about an achievement like your book and sharing that online when you’ve had burnout and it’s probably been a cause?”
There was a lot more accusation in how this comment was worded and I felt outraged at the time. How dare someone I’ve never even met and who knows nothing about me imply I can’t celebrate or take pride in making one of my dreams come true? A dream I’d worked so hard for and earned off my own back.
But is this a fair question?
At the time I didn’t think so, but now I honestly don’t know. Just this week I remembered that comment and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Was that me, glamorising my burnout? Not intentionally of course, not consciously certainly, but perhaps evidencing in some way that self-sacrificial energy is the way to success and getting what you want.
Now of course, this dichotomy is complicated. A lot of us have to work hard to achieve things, we aren’t handed them. And hard work can look ugly, can mean relinquishing things that are good for us, things we need to live healthily. I did suffer from severe exhaustion but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to celebrate my achievements, which were and continue to be hard won. What I do think though, is that we all need to start being a little bit more transparent about the sacrifices those achievements take.
Charlene Gisele, a Cambridge-educated life coach who specialises in burnout prevention and sustainable high-performance, said something in an interview recently that left me humbled: “burnout is overdoing and under being.”
The level to which that resonates makes me feel quite emotional. My business is going well, I have some exciting writing projects in the pipeline and my career feels as though it’s on a successful trajectory once more. But as someone who loves what they do, and as a self-confessed “success” junkie, I have to battle with myself and work incredibly hard to be instead of placing all my value in doing. This battle happens every single day. Sometimes I’m victorious and manage to strike the balance, and other times I completely fail, sliding down the banks of my energy reserves and into the brown muck of exhaustion. Sometimes I feel proud of myself for turning down something that the junkie in me wants, but that I know doesn’t serve me. Other times I feel saddened when I give in and book a two-week holiday because I’m in desperate need of a rest, and not because I want or deserve fun and quality time off.
*And a “vacation” is not a vacation if you’re working, that’s called remote working, okay folks? But managing my susceptibility to overworking is a process and it’s really fucking hard. I want to be honest about that and tell you how unglamorous it is. This is the thing about success: the end point, or the point at which we can ‘announce’ or share is seductive and positively dazzling, but the late nights, the missing out on fun and not being able to go to that concert or party, the foregoing of trips away, the tension it creates in your relationship because you’re stressed and distracted and the sacrifice of not seeing family isn’t so desirable, is it?
Since my burnout I have significantly changed the way I live. I’ve had a lot of therapy and I’ve put many things in place to ensure I live a life of being and not just doing. I am the Duchess of boundaries, saying ‘no’ pleases me and I take *vacations. I also judge my success on the quality of my input and not the volume of it. I have yellow and red flags in-built, such as taking my laptop to bed because I feel so tired, but I want to keep working. These things electrocute my senses, they scare the shit out of me so I readjust my balance and ensure I don’t get stuck in the sinking mud of severe burnout.
I voicenoted my best friend Lydia this week, in a bind about whether to go to an event. The options were: (i) go out, be shiny, proactive and “do”, be seen and gain points of relevancy or (ii) stay home in bed, order Salvation in Noodles and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Workin Moms’. My issue with these two options lies within their polarisation. I felt I should go to this event, but actually I was knackered from my working week. Yet the flipside wasn’t cooking a delicious meal to nourish myself, going to yoga and breathing through any stress being stored in my body, or even just do something fun. It was numbing myself out with Deliveroo and Netflix: red flag. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exercised or cooked a meal.
There is nothing glamorous about working yourself so hard that you start to forget how to relish being. Yet in the same breath, there are setbacks and compromises to be made if we want to achieve things like writing a book, getting promoted, starting a successful business and so on –perhaps we all need to start being more transparent about that. There is no conclusion to this piece, no neatly-tied-up nugget of advice. It’s hard to look at. I am ambitious and I want ample rest; I want to thrive in my career and my personal life. Wanting both those things is harder than just dedicating yourself tirelessly to work. This is a living topic by its very nature and it manifests differently for each of us. All we can do is question ourselves: how far is too far? All we can do is try to be self-aware: what systems can we put in place to protect ourselves?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments:
Is this something you are battling too?
Do you have coping mechanisms in place?
Do you think we should be more transparent about the sacrifices we make for our success?
Please leave your thoughts and stories below, and once again thanks for reading.
I resonate with so much that you are speaking about here Abigail.
The trauma is definitely a thing. I thought I had post-natal depression years ago when I had my second child, but in hindsight I was reacting to the trauma of the pregnancy and birth. I know this now because three years ago I thought I was going to die in a plane crash when we couldn't land in a storm. I was ecstatic for the first few days after getting home in one piece and then my body reacted in exactly the same way as it did before. I had a meltdown which took me a year to recover from.
I also struggle to just 'be' rather than 'do'. Doing is easy, especially when you build a world around you that gives you all the things you desire. Over the years I've learnt to check in with myself a lot more so I don't get overwhelmed. I've created what I call my Life Pie - just like the corporate wheel of life but with added (FUN) bits, like Passion Project - Adventure, and Time Out. Every week I draw my Pie and rate how each piece is doing by giving it a score from 0 to 10. When I wrote my book -the Business section and the Passion Project section were scoring 9 out of 10 for two years running but Relationship was coming in at a big zero, but I was okay with that as I was aware of it, I had to let some things go to get the job done rather than try to eat the whole pie and make myself sick.
I too went through severe burn out, only I chose not to leave the remote working writing job, carried on despite barely being able to lift my arms to type, and ended up triggering full blow M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that left me bed bound for years. Like you, recovery was hard won. Like you, I now celebrate my achievements. Probably more so, because previously they were just another stepping stone along the road to some impossible perceived point of, as you say, 'flawlessness' that I believed was the real moment I would celebrate. You worked your damn ass off to get your own book out into the world - and the work didn't end pre-burnout I'm sure! Your recovery was part of your book's journey, the effort and sacrifices for its success will have continued since. You deserve to celebrate with abandon! It was a hard won thing. You can celebrate and share in the excitement any way you wish; you have been open about your journey with burnout, its implied that your book being published was not a shiny, smooth road.
Most patients of burnout and M.E. are high achievers who push themselves in all areas of their life, I don't think we wear our burnout as a badge of honour for this, I think we discuss the correlation openly to try to show justification for why we now have to say 'no' more and 'do less'. We feel judged for it. Perhaps because we've always felt our personal worth was wrapped up in our relentless striving and achieving? The responsibility of glamourising productivity does not fall on you, a victim of it.
Thanks for this newsletter, always nice to hear of other's continued fathoming out of living with a susceptibility to these conditions. Solidarity.
I hope you chose the noodles and Netflix.