How I went from a burned out corporate employee to a slightly less burned out writer

Spring weather. No masks for the vaccinated. It really does seem like life is returning to “normal” — at least in the U.S. and other rich countries.

But why am I still worn out? Why am I not excited for the rest of 2021 and beyond?

Why does it feel like there’s always more work to do?

Because of capitalism, duh.

Despite the Republican Party’s propaganda that anyone who is struggling to get by is lazy, Americans are a hardworking bunch. We work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less benefits, and retire later than people in comparatively rich countries. We worship work so much that we even have “right to work” laws.

We’ve become even more addicted to our jobs during the pandemic. A recent survey found that we’re working two and a half hours more per day on average.

And that’s just the work that we call “work.” There’s also responding to emails, checking social media, doing laundry, cooking food, caring for friends and family, haggling with health insurance companies. All the stuff that feels like work but goes unpaid.

It’s all just so much — all of the time. It gives me a constant, nagging sense that there’s something I should be doing right now to prepare for the future. A guilt about relaxing even for a second.

There’s a name for this feeling: burnout.

Burnout goes beyond the stress of everyday life — the cracks and potholes in the road towards trying to live a decent life in this cutthroat, isolating, violent society. It’s a stress that won’t leave for days, weeks, or even years.

It has three primary symptoms. Emotional exhaustion — being drained from caring too much. Alienation — cynicism about things that used to be meaningful. And a decreased sense of accomplishment — 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.

That third symptom — a decreased sense of accomplishment — is what I’m most familiar with.

It feels like always there’s more to do, yet I’m often too exhausted to do it. Or at least do it as well as I’d like to.

In 2011, I walked into an emergency room in northern Virginia with blurry vision and a numb arm. After a night of tests, the hospital’s neurologists diagnosed me with a “complicated migraine.” A catch-all for “We have no clue what’s wrong with you.”

In hindsight, the hospital stint was my check engine light flashing. There had been warning signs, but I was too busy. Too absorbed in trying to make it as a musician. Too caught up in the hustle of working hard at a corporate job and partying harder with my band. Too worried about making other people happy, while ignoring my own happiness.

I was almost always exhausted. Yet I had a pestering sense that there was more work to do.

These days, I still work way too much, but I don’t feel that restlessness as often.

Or, more precisely, I don’t listen to it like I used to.

I’ve grown familiar with the part of myself that gets anxious about needing to strive, be productive, and improve. I’ve made it my friend. I’ve even got a name for it: Striver.

Striver is almost always whispering in my ear. But he’s especially loud in the morning and when I’m feeling unproductive, say, in the afternoon after lunch when all I want to do is nap.

But because he’s become my friend, he trusts me. He trusts me that I’m going to prioritize his needs by carving out time most days to do the work that matters most to me. He trusts that if I relax on a Sunday, I’ll be able to get back to the grind on Monday.

I earned that trust by first simply noticing how often Striver comes around. I became mindful of my striving.

Then I spent some time getting curious about where Striver came from. I meditated, journaled, and talked to my therapist.

I realized that when I was a kid, I got the message that if I didn’t work hard, I’d fall behind in life. And if I fell behind, I’d be a broke loser with no worth to anybody. In my little kid brain, falling behind was terrifying.

No wonder I can’t stop working. Everything seems to depend on it.

In other words, after changing my relationship to the part of me that feels I always need to be working, I’ve learned how to truly rest.

It’s not that I never feel burned out these days. It’s that I don’t listen to the stories that appear in my mind when I’m feeling burned out.

I’m not going to die if I go for an aimless walk. I’m not going to go broke if I spend a Sunday watching football. I’m not going to lose everyone who matters to me if I give my full attention to enjoying dinner with my partner — in fact, it’s the opposite.

Of course, we need our society to change for all of us to feel less pressure to work so much.

“Burnout is not a problem we can individually solve,” writes journalist Sarah Jaffe. “It is a symptom of the world we live in, which is set up to exhaust us to the point where we cannot resist.”

We need more unions and worker-owned cooperatives. We need more mutual aid efforts in our neighborhoods. We need to tax the rich to pay for public goods like universal healthcare. We need more socialists elected to public office (or at least progressives who want to dramatically regulate capitalism).

But in the meantime, we can do some inner work too. We can get to know the stories we inherited from living in this capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist society. And we can change how we relate with the parts of ourselves that believe those stories.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. I’m here to help you be more mindful about work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe to my weekly email here.

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Photo by glassghost.