So today I read Anne Helen Petersen’s piece on burnout for BuzzFeed News (not to mention a bunch of other articles she linked to throughout the piece), and I feel so validated but also so… hopeless? Because I don’t know how to fix this feeling, or if it can be fixed at all.
I always hated the term “adulting” because I felt like it was childish—you don’t deserve a gold star for putting on pants or washing the dishes or buying stamps, because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. That’s what adults do, right? Everyone else did it fine before us, so why the hell is my generation having such a problem with these things? The article enumerates a number of reasons why, and I realized upon reading it that I have completely internalized the “millennials are lazy babies who want a pat on the back for doing anything” insults that are constantly being slung at us, as much as I hate those kinds of remarks and disagree with them.
I’m not sure whether I believed it out of a fear of being lumped in with a faceless group of people who can barely hold it together, or whether it comes from believing that I was better than those people in some way. Maybe those are the same thing. Growing up as a very anxious kid and, later, an anxious and depressed adolescent and young adult, I think on some level I always felt like I had to be above my own feelings, at least in public, because I wanted to be taken seriously. I still want to be taken seriously. If I found certain aspects of life difficult, that was my problem. Life isn’t the problem; my outlook is the problem. It’s not that cooking dinner every night is exhausting and not worth my time;1 it’s that I’m lazy and I don’t take care of myself. I am the problem. I am the source of all of my problems. Right?
I thought it was just post–2016 election ennui plus a predisposition toward depressive behavior. Turns out it started waaaay before that. Look, I’ve been seeing a therapist regularly for almost two years now—I spend a lot of time thinking about my childhood. I wasn’t sure there was anything left to have a revelation about. But I never thought to connect the dots between my constant striving toward… something?… as a kid and my current mental state of complete and utter burnout.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about goal-setting and how aimless I feel a lot of the time, because there was always a concrete goal to work toward when I was in school. Or it seemed like it at the time. But as I sit here in bed, shortly after 9 p.m., having not eaten dinner yet because I got home at 7:30 and needed to decompress before reheating leftovers and doing last night’s dishes, I’m wondering to myself: What was it all for? Why did I push myself so hard all the time? I mean, I know part of the answer to that—I was a twelve-year-old girl carrying the weight of my dead father’s unfulfilled dreams. But what else was there to motivate me? Do well in elementary school so you’re prepared to do well in middle school so you’re prepared to do well in high school so you get into a Good College so you can get a Good Job, and then… ? What do you work toward after that?
Because you have to keep working at something. Because working keeps the mean voice in the back of your head from having enough time to whisper a bunch of garbage in your ear, and it keeps the sad feelings at bay… for a time. I threw myself into school after my dad died because what else was I supposed to do? Turns out striving toward something in lieu of dealing with grief is like sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING” at the top of your lungs, but eventually you get tired and you lose your voice and the sadness creeps back in. And yet somehow I’ve never really learned that lesson. To me, being productive means I have a purpose. If I am not productive, if I am not employed, if I am not constantly doing or thinking or being, then I am nothing. I am purposeless. I am worthless.
But I don’t really feel like that anymore, mostly because I have been too tired to worry about it for over a year now.2 See, when you grow up pouring all of your mental and emotional energy into school, that kind of carries over into your job. I want to preface this by saying that I’m in my dream career. I genuinely do enjoy my job. I want to continue to grow my skillset and, ideally, I’d like to do that at my current workplace. But, like the article says, due to financial instability, I had to start freelancing to be able to sock away enough money to move to a new apartment at the end of August. And I made my work less fun because of it. Because you know what’s the opposite of fun? Being slammed at work all day, and then going home to do almost the same thing you do at work, except it’s boring as hell and ten times harder and the pay is garbage. But hey, it’s still money!
I started freelancing regularly last November, right around when things typically get very busy at work, and by February I was ready to have a nervous breakdown. It got so bad that I took a week of vacation in May, and I didn’t even go anywhere. I just didn’t want to do any work. But even during that week off, I still felt like I needed to do something. Creative stuff, things I’d been putting off for ages. I started that scrapbook I’d been meaning to make for, oh, five years or so? I started writing again—not for public consumption but just to have some kind of creative outlet. I let myself fall back into K-Pop, hard. Talk about a red flag.3
Things calmed down at work toward the end of the summer (and it helped that I quit my freelancing gig in July, at least until September, when I’d be settled in my new apartment), to the point where I had quite a lot of free time during the day. I knew I should have asked for more work, but I was so mentally exhausted that I allowed myself to let go of taking the initiative all the time.4 And yet I was still wiped out. I took the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s off this year, and it was really nice. I got some things done around the house that I’d been meaning to do. But the last few days of vacation, I just kind of loafed around and didn’t do anything, and I felt like garbage for it. Like I’d wasted all this time.
How is chilling out and turning my brain off for a while and reading fanfiction on the internet a waste of time when I’m literally taking vacation time so I don’t have to do anything? What else am I supposed to be doing? Nothing! And yet I felt like I’d “redeemed” myself somehow yesterday afternoon, when I decided to get up and go into Davis Square to run some errands and then came home and cooked dinner (like, with actual fresh ingredients, not Kraft Dinner like I usually have) and made a batch of brownies. I was so productive. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being productive. But I have this stupid mentality that any time spent unproductively is time wasted, and I am a garbage person for letting those precious hours slip through my fingers like so many grains of sand. I have to figure out how to stop feeling like this… but that seems like an insurmountable task when you aren’t sure where to start. I mean, I’ve been meaning to make a dentist appointment for, like, a year and a half—when am I supposed to prioritize unfucking this existential crisis I’ve been having for, I don’t know, twenty years?
I’d like to end this on a happier note, but it’s January and I hate January. I’d like to end this on a more organized note, because my thoughts kind of ran away from me a bit here, but I’m too hungry to think straight. Mostly, I would just like to end this.5
In conclusion, Anne Helen Petersen gave me a lot to think about here. I would say I’m sorry for all of these thoughts that she got me thinking about being so discombobulated, but I’m doing this thing where I don’t apologize for things that don’t require an apology and/or that I’m not actually sorry for. Instead, I’ll say this: If you got to this point, thanks for taking the time to read this! Maybe I’ll try to write in this blog more… she said, perusing the list of half-finished drafts that she spent a lot of time working on but are completely irrelevant now. But who knows. Maybe if it seems less like a chore and more like something I want to share, it’ll get done. We’ll see.
- Why go to the trouble of cooking a meal from scratch if I’m the only one who’s going to eat it? If I had to cook for someone else, that would at least provide some kind of motivation.
- The other reason is therapy. You should try it sometime. (That’s assuming you have a job that has health insurance that includes mental health coverage. Not everyone’s does. What a time to be alive!)
- I originally got into K-Pop during another major episode of burnout: my entire senior year of college. Come for the music, stay for the escapist fantasy world that is idol pop.
- I didn’t feel any less guilty about it, though.
- The post—not, like, my life or something. This is not a cry for help. It’s just that it’s after 10 p.m. now and I have to get up for work at 8 a.m., so if I want to do anything enjoyable tonight and also get, y’know, at least six hours of sleep, I really have to shut the hell up and post this damn thing.