In this post I'll tell about my recent burnout. When I think about burnout the image that I always see in my mind is the one that went around the web many years ago: a row of matches (representing people), one of which is completely burned out. I found it interesting to see that in Italy most people learnt about the concept of the "burnout" only during the Covid pandemic, but in relation to parenting. In this post I'll simply tell you my experience.
I am a workaholic: I love my job and I'd work 24/7. About 8-9 years ago my language academy was finally doing great, I was working 10 hours a day and for the first time I had other teachers working for me. I remember two conflicting feelings from that time: the happiness of succeeding at building a business from scratch on my own, and the constant stress and pressure I was under.
That was the first time I reached burnout – it was also when I learnt about the term "burnout" by googling my "symptoms". But then it was different: then, my only real responsibility was myself.
Burnout experienced as a working mother has always been harder, especially at the beginning, when I still felt inadequate and guilty for not being able to keep up with everything – work, children, marriage, family, friends.
That sense of inadequacy and guilt, after many years of working on myself, has now disappeared; the habit of working too much to be able to achieve what I want, however, is still with me.
My red flags
What helps me a lot is that burnout, unlike PMS (another "demon" I often struggle with), comes with red flags. Everyone has their own warnings: I am more intolerant, I have frequent headaches (which rare for me), I get easily angry with my children, I raise my voice, I eat badly, I stop exercising, my mind is constantly thinking about work (even when having a coffee with a friend o playing with my kids), but I actually don't enjoy the work that I have to do (which is also rare for me).
All these vicious cycles are triggered one by one: the worse I eat, the more I crave junk food; the less I exercise, the less motivation I have to follow my training program; the more I want to finish my job, the more intolerant I become. In those days, there's huge contradiction in my head: on one hand, I wish I could lock myself in a hotel room and work non-stop; on the other hand, I don't feel like working on the stuff I need to finish.
Sometimes I can finish the project quickly and this feeling lasts only a few days, the red flags disappear and I slowly manage to be myself again. Phew!
Other times, when the workload is more than expected, I hadn't anticipated it or maybe there are obstacles that make it harder to finish, I often find myself ignoring the red flags (sometimes unconsciously) and pushing my own limits. I keep thinking that I can do it, "just like last time". "One last effort, and then you're done," I keep telling myself. But sometimes I go past my limits and reach burnout – which usually happens suddenly, one minute I'm cheering myself, and the next I feel completely defeated.
How I get over it
I'm lucky. I have the privilege of working for myself, deciding my own deadlines and having a job that I can put on autopilot for a few days.
It is a privilege, but it is also a double-edged knife: if I don't force myself to rest, often there are no breaks, no evenings, no weekends. On the other hand, if I really need it, I "can" switch off and take care of myself.
The last time it happened, a few days ago, it hit me harder than usual. The cause was the launch of my new printable children's book "How babies are made" (coming soon in English, too!). I had been ignoring the red flags for weeks, working with a strong headache for days, I was exhausted, but I kept telling myself "Come on, one last effort, and then you'll rest".
Until I got to Friday, the day that my Italian podcast comes out, I was typing and I realized that my hand were shaking. I had a severe headache, I was staring at the screen, but it was as if I couldn't read what I was writing. I kept trying to read the same sentence over and over again.
And even though I had almost finished the podcast episode, I did something I had never done before: I left the work half done. I shut the computer and said STOP.
Stopping was an important step in my personal evolution – in the past I would have disconnected for 10 minutes, drunk a glass of water, done a few hops (exercising increases your energy levels), had a coffee and gone out to breathe some fresh air. Then I would have said to myself "One last effort, you can do it!".
And I probably could have made one last effort, as always, but instead I decided to prioritize my mental and physical health, and to take care of myself.
In the following days I forced myself to think about what had happened, and I took a few steps towards feeling better (as I'm writing this post I'm not 100% yet, but I'm getting there):
- I didn't touch any device for 3 days – not even my phone to take pictures.
- I took care of myself: I exercised (more than usual), stretched, meditated and did face yoga (which for me is one of the best ways to relax and get back in touch with myself).
- I started taking my vitamins again: often, when I work too much, I forget them (I haen't researched, this is my personal opinion, but I think they actually make a difference for me).
- I read a book (a beautiful one, which I'll tell you about in the next weeks).
- I played more with Oliver and Emily.
- I slept or relaxed while the kids were playing alone (which is usually time I use to work).
- I went to a party with friends: I'm an extrovert, being in contact with people recharges my energy.
- I accepted and forgave myself both for not being kind to myself and my family in the previous weeks, and for not being able to finish the job I had planned.
I deliberately didn't write about my family until now, because my burnout is not about them, it doesn't come from being a parent: it comes from all the external stress that affects the family's harmony.
Sure, the kids are an added challenge in those days, but I would experience burnout with or without them: my family is only the victim, I am –my mind is – the only cause of my burnout, I'm the only one who can identify it and control it (for example, by not ignoring the red flags… I'm working on it).
I am lucky to have a husband who accepts me and knows how to stay (or rather, not to stay) close to me, and Oliver and Emily who also understand when I need my space (they have learned this over time, through trial and error: we have our own an imperfect, which we have created over the years and with no little effort).
Today I know myself well: this latest experience was a turning point for me: next time I will be a little more aware and I won't probably ignore the red flags. This is how we evolve: we make mistakes, and then we accept and forgive ourselves.