How to know if you’re experiencing burnout

In my early 20s, I was hospitalized with what my doctor called a “complicated migraine.” I wasn’t in pain—but I’d lost vision in one eye and feeling on the right side of my body.

A magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) test showed nothing abnormal about my brain. The hospital sent me home saying that I just needed to rest.

There had been warning signs for years—bouts of frantic anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelming urges to drink alcohol.

But I was too busy to truly rest. Too caught up in the grind of working hard and partying harder. Too worried about making other people happy. In a word, I was too numb.

I now know that I was suffering from what’s known as “burnout.”

There’s the stress of everyday life—the cracks and potholes in the road while trying to live a decent, meaningful life. Then there’s the stress that just won’t leave. The chronic tension and ruminating thoughts that stretch for days or even years.

Burnout, explained

Burnout, according to Herbert Freudenberger—the psychologist who coined the term in the 1970s—has three main symptoms. Emotional exhaustion—being drained from caring too much. Alienation—cynicism about things that used to be meaningful. And a decreased sense of accomplishment—as the sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout, “the feeling that nothing you do makes a difference.”

Physical symptoms can include extreme fatigue, frequent headaches, and gastrointestinal problems. Mentally, burnout can show up as restlessness, an inability to pay attention, increased anger, and (literally) over 100 other ways. One of the most prominent symptoms is a near-constant feeling of numbness, that decreased sense of accomplishment. A nagging feeling that there’s more to do, yet you’re too exhausted to do it. Or at least do it as well as you’d like or are expected to.

It wasn’t until I started seeing a new therapist that I recognized many of these symptoms not only at work but also at home and in my relationships. In one of our first sessions, she introduced me to a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS), also known as “parts work.” I’d been talking in circles about how stressed I was about work, my parents, and dating.

“Where do you feel that stress in your body right now?” she asked. I took a few deep breaths and felt around internally. My neck and shoulders were tense, as though all my body’s energy was being squeezed up into my head.

“Is there a memory attached to that stress?” she asked. “What do you remember?” I remembered sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet a few feet from the television. (My parents had yet to figure out I needed glasses.) My mom was talking on the phone behind me in the kitchen. My dad’s lawnmower was buzzing outside. I could tell my mom was stressed about something, but I felt free, content, safe. She hung up the phone and walked over to me.

“They wanted to hold you back from first grade,” she said. “But I told them no. You can handle it.”

It felt like an alarm rang inside my body. My neck and shoulders tightened. My mom walked back into the kitchen, leaving me with all kinds of confusing questions. What did I do wrong? Why did they want to hold me back? Is Mom mad at me?

Looking back, at the core of my questions was shame. My mom wasn’t being mean. If anything, she was defending me. She believed in me, which should’ve felt empowering. But my little developing brain didn’t take it in that way. I got the opposite message: that I wasn’t enough. I felt ashamed that my teacher had been evaluating me from afar. From then on, I was going to at least appear as though I was on task and working hard. I didn’t want to feel that pain ever again

How therapy has helped me

Over the next few therapy sessions, we explored how this and other early experiences were shaping my behaviors as an adult. Using IFS, we identified a “part” of me that felt like I constantly had to prove that I was a hard worker. This striving part gives me a nagging sense that there’s something I should be doing right now. It guilts me for relaxing, even if I’m tired. It’s almost always whispering in my ear: “You should be checking email. You should be working on your house. You should be making more money. You should be lifting weights. You should be doing something, anything. You should be hustling, improving, grinding.”

In IFS, parts are internal subpersonalities we developed as children. They get “frozen in time … and keep doing whatever extreme things they did to protect [us] when [we] were young,” says Richard Schwartz, the therapist who developed IFS. Some of our parts—called “exiles” in IFS—are afraid of being hurt or feel the shame of having been hurt, so they hide. Others are like little managers trying to get us to behave. These managers are “like internalized children who are in over their heads and don’t know how else to run the whole [internal] family other than by yelling and criticizing,” says Schwartz.

My striving part is clearly a manager. It’s almost always on guard, from the moment I wake up to when I close my eyes to sleep. It’s why I have trouble truly resting, and why I often struggle to be present with others, even people I love deeply. It keeps me leaning toward the future to get to the next thing on my to-do list.

With my therapist’s help, I listened to what my striving part had to say, rather than just believing and getting caught up in its stories. I learned that it was terrified of me falling behind. It had gotten the message that if I fell behind, I’d end up a loser with no worth to anybody. Which made sense—if I’d been held back from first grade, I would’ve likely lost touch with many of my friends. At least that’s what my little kid brain thought at the time. But it was still worried about me now that I was an adult, even though I had plenty of friends and a successful career.

Then I began to notice a shift during therapy sessions. My body was more relaxed when I talked about my striving part. Even when I was stressed out about getting enough done at work—in IFS-speak, when I was “blended” with the part—there was a little less tension each time. I was able to “unblend” more often, realizing that the part’s stories were just thoughts in my mind, real but not necessarily true.

My therapist explained that the part was starting to trust me—my true “self,” not a part of me. The part saw that some of the changes I’d been making in my life were actually helping. My therapist had suggested prioritizing more creative work like writing, making sure I was getting to it first each day before doing mindless things like cleaning dishes and checking email. I’d also made a point to relax on Sundays, telling my striving part that rest would make me stronger on Mondays.

With my therapist’s help, I learned how to stop believing the extreme thoughts and beliefs my striving part wants me to believe. I’m not going to go broke if I spend a Sunday relaxing and watching football. I’m not going to die if I go for an aimless walk. I’m not going to lose everyone who matters to me if I set my to-do list to the side and give full attention to my partner at dinner—actually, it’s the opposite. In other words, after changing my relationship to my striving part, I learned how to actually, truly, finally rest.

Through the “parts work” of IFS, I’ve found more choice in how to respond when life gets challenging and my striving part takes over. Sometimes, striving, hustling, and grinding to get the next thing done is helpful and even necessary—often, though, it’s an automatic response that keeps me on the hamster wheel of my to-do list until I collapse.

This pandemic has been exhausting. As the physician Lucy McBride writes in a recent Atlantic article about burnout, “The work of living through a pandemic has been making us sick. As a primary-care doctor, I’m witnessing the physical-health toll of collective trauma.” I’m grateful that I have a new, more healthy way to relate to myself in these difficult times. I’ve found some ease amid shifting public health measures, social isolation, and the daily outpouring of bad news.

By noticing our emotions and bodily sensations related to burnout, and changing how we relate to ourselves, we can find a little ease, connect to our creativity, and better manage whatever life throws at us, even pandemics.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, therapist-in-training, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.

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Photo by D.Reichardt.