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.
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?