Beware of burnout: What I’ve learned from taking on too much

Jennifer D BeggDigital Media, Inspiration, Jennifer8 Comments

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The first time I realised that my tendency to take on too much wasn’t sustainable, I was 19 and at university. It was the first time I was forced to “switch off” in the truest sense of the phrase.

This happened again on a much grander scale at 24 where I was signed off work for 6 weeks with stress and again at 30, a year after losing my mum. Another 6 weeks of switching off.

burnout

There have been other factors over the years that have contributed to these breaks but one of the contributing factors is definitely my need to do everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean in a martyr-like way. I don’t feel any outside pressure to do everything, the things I take on I do ONLY because they are things I genuinely love. My problem is judging my own capacity. My aversion to saying “no” isn’t because I feel I should be doing these things, it’s because I want to.

The flaw in this plan is that it doesn’t make any difference why you take on too much. If you do, your body will tell you in various ways that you need to let things go. No matter why you take on new projects, clients or favours for friends; if it’s too much, it’s too much. You will need to rest and you will need to learn to say no.

I still haven’t learned this but I’m getting better.

This week I came very close to having another break. For the past few months I have taken on more and more, because I love what I do. I’m also a control freak. Not a healthy combination.

After working non stop for the past 3 weeks (with a cheeky visit to Harry Potter with my girl guides for a few hours thrown in), I finished running a course on Tuesday evening and broke. That’s the best description I have.

I had to get off my train a few stops early and phone my husband to pick me up because I couldn’t sit on the train any longer. I was nauseous and had a headache that seemed determined to drum every part of my brain and face. After a pretty wordless journey I crawled straight into bed and slept from 6pm to 11pm. Got up, checked some emails (yes, I’m an idiot) and went back to bed.

Workload-wise this has been a big week. I could easily have felt the pressure to just take a bunch of pain killers and keep working but my body raised the alarm. So yes, I did wake up early on Wednesday morning with a feeling of foreboding that I wouldn’t get everything done but also knowing that it would have been so much worse if I hadn’t just given in to that (incredibly helpful) alarm (the one battering me all over my face!).

So I got up, made a cup of tea and started my work. One thing at a time.

I listened to The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage by Ryan Holiday and kept breathing.

By the evening I felt more like myself again and incredibly grateful for the not too subtle hint from my body that I was taking myself down a well trodden and unhappy path. I’ve learned to pick up on these signals over the years but I’m also really stubborn and great at ignoring them (it’s a skill…).

Why? Because I’m a freelancer, a business owner and a control freak. I want to work, I love my work but I’m not a robot.

You know what else. Business owners and freelancers don’t get sick pay. Therefore, you need to look after your health. Six weeks signed off now would mean no money for quite a long time. In practical terms I now owe it not just to myself but to my business to stay healthy.

You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favours by soldiering on. It will catch up with you. Let go of the guilt that comes with looking after yourself (how messed up is that!) and accept that you owe it to you and your family to be healthy.

I started my own business because I wanted to do only what I love for the rest of my life. Losing my mum so suddenly really hit me round the face with the idea that I could go tomorrow so why go out half arsed? Go out loving what you do. But don’t go out early. Take care of yourself.

This week was a tiny blip in the landscape of mental and physical breakdowns I’ve lived through but it was a welcome reminder that I’m not wonder woman (though I could definitely rock the outfit!).

Have you experienced burn out? How have you learned to read the signs and create coping mechanisms?

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Jennifer D BeggBeware of burnout: What I’ve learned from taking on too much

8 Comments on “Beware of burnout: What I’ve learned from taking on too much”

  1. Abby Rhodes

    Thank you for this reminder!!! 4 years ago I was made redundant, took the hint and started a career I probably should have started ages before. Doing what I love. Singing and teaching others to sing. I still love it but can honestly say I have never worked so hard in all my life and, being self-employed, have no luxury of paid time off sick. I also kept up and even added to the voluntary activities I was doing . I also have two fabulous kids who are developing lives and hobbies and who need taking places and time investing in them. Oh. And a husband who is brilliant but works weird shifts so isn’t always there to share the load. I got to a point late last year where I was starting to unravel. I felt sure I wasn’t giving my best to anything or anyone in that list above. Fortunately my career came to a crossroads at about the same time and the opportunity to consolidate the teaching side of life came along. I seized this and took the opportunity to also stop a lot of my voluntary activities so I could reassess what I really wanted to/should be doing. This reassessment over the last months has not been easy. The guilt about leaving other volunteers potentially in the lurch was extreme but I can honestly say I have found it the most helpful process I have undertaken in a long time. I have worked on reforming my control freak ways. Learning to live with items on my to do list not crossed off has been fiendishly hard but I’m getting more and more relaxed and used to it. I’ve worked on admitting that I’m not indispensable but that I can be good at what I do without having to work 60 hour weeks to prove it.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m still working very hard. Singing is a seasonal thing so as summer approaches, my time gets more and more squeezed but my priorities are clearer now and I will get there eventually with the voluntary stuff – finding the one or two things that I love and am meant to do to go along with my family and my work.
    This is long but I want to completely support what you’re saying – one workaholic/reforming control freak to another! I’ve had crises in the past too and they are never just about this kind of thing but piling too much pressure on myself to be brilliant has always contributed to my down times. We need to be kind to ourselves as well as good at what we do. Otherwise it all starts to fall apart….

    Keep slowing. It’s worth it. For everyone concerned. :-)

    1. Jennifer D Begg

      Thank you so much for writing this Abby. I know exactly what you mean about the guilt of having to give things up (especially when it’s something that you want to do!). I’m so happy for you that you’re getting to do something you love so much – and finding a way to do it that works for you and your family!

  2. Jillian

    Thank you for this post. The last couple of months, I’ve been pushing myself beyond my own capacities and my body isn’t being grateful for what I’ve done to it. For that matter, neither is my mind. So it’s nice to have a reminder to take it slower when your body tells you to.

    Jillian

  3. Elizabeth @ Rosalilium

    This week was a burnout week for me too I think. I’m exactly the same, take on too much and I’m rubbish at delegating. So eventually my body gives up on me, which, like you said, is not helpful when you’re working for yourself. I got quite ill the past couple of weeks and ended up not being able to go to events I had committed to, something I hate. But my body quite literally forced me to stay in bed.
    Thank goodness for the internet and being able to work from bed.
    But yes, I totally agree with you – I owe it at the very least to myself to stay healthy.

    1. Jennifer D Begg

      Yes, it is so important Elizabeth. Also, I think that because we can work from anywhere at any time it sometimes makes it harder to separate out personal from work. Let’s agree to both have restful weekends :)

  4. Rosie Slosek

    I hear you! I wrote a similar post today. I got a great opportunity today to be part of a holistic clinic which is something I have wanted to do for a couple of years. I’m delaying it by a few weeks as I need my energy for Blognix. There is no way that’s getting compromised on!

    It can be tricky to know when it’s ok anx when to stop can’t it?

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