“Why don’t I feel like myself?” On Burnout and Boundaries

I’m a 24-year-old burnout. And no, I don’t mean that I sold myself out and am going nowhere in life. I mean that I sold myself out and am sifting to find myself again through aftermath of those actions. I allowed my world around me to dictate where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do. Who I’m going to talk to and what I’m going to say. I wanted to be everything to everyone, and what it left me with was someone who forgot who she was.

There’s a strange thing that happens in our culture. People use the word burnout and tired interchangeably just like they do the words flu and cold. Close, but certainly not the same. When you literally have no idea who you are anymore and have no desire to do anything, even the most amazing thing that brings you life, that’s burnout. Tired goes away with sleep and some good food. Similarly, you can generally function with a cold. The flu — you’re down and out.

I had my first run in with burnout my senior year of high school. Everything was a downward spiral from friends to commitments to relationships to school. I tried to be everything to everyone in the midst of some fairly traumatic experiences. So, I ran away to college to attempt to make some sense of it all and to escape the arbitrary expectations I made up about the people around me, and I failed. It didn’t take long until I hit rock bottom. Burned out. Nothing left to give anyone else, much less myself. And that landed me in a hospital.

I get it. It’s a pretty dramatic end to the story. But I think it proves a good point. We live in a culture that says “go” really well and rarely has the audacity to say “stop.” And it’s killing us. It certainly almost killed me, and I had to go through years of recovery to turn things around in my life.

The worst part of this is that I’m a serial burnout finder. It keeps coming back in different forms. I moved across the country for grad school, and my unchecked pattern of burnout followed me. As a recent college graduate about to embark on her grand life adventure, I wanted to be open to anything and everything that came my way. Cool opportunity? I’ll take it. Chance to do something with a little bit of crazy attached to it? Sign me up. Might connect me with some great people. I was there yesterday. I went to grad school hoping to leave as a well-rounded professional, which essentially meant I wasn’t able to pick and choose what was me and what wasn’t me. I said yes to everything, which happened to be the most dicey three-letter word out there. And as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I wanted nothing to do with the profession I just spent two brutal years preparing for. I was completely burned out once again.

Here’s the deal about burnout — it’s a real, biological happening that takes place in your body. Allow me to give my liberal arts version of a physiology lesson. Everyone has adrenal glands that produce adrenaline. We love them because they give us a high when we do something thrilling (or go for a long run — not so thrilling) and keep us safe when we are in dangerous situations. The unfortunate thing about us as humans, though, is that we haven’t evolved much in thousands of years, so our body regularly mistakes menial things for attack.

Take for example, busy. When we are constantly running around and we don’t give ourselves time to rest, our body takes that as a cue to amp up the support. So we exhaust food, sleep, rest, and all the other things we have control over, then our adrenaline kicks in. Simply to fit everything in our schedule, we need to have our bodies compensate, so we let it. And it’s fun, right? Adrenaline highs are great, and this is exactly what we experience when we are moving and shaking and changing the world. Eventually though, our bodies hit a point where they can’t produce any more adrenaline, and our adrenal glands give us the “see ya later!” At that point, you have burnout.

As I consider these two specific periods of burnout in my life, I come to one very clear conclusion: I didn’t have any boundaries set for myself. I thought I would just let life come at me as it would, and that I would simply just take it. Let me tell you, this approach is almost as useful as dodging snow flakes on a snow day.

Boundaries — giving yourself permission and space to state what’s right for you.

I let my relationships define my boundaries in high school. Sports ruled my schedule. Achieving perfect grades in college meant the world to me, and I was willing to give up my life for it. I allowed grad school to tell me what was right for me, not the other way around. This, my friends, is dangerous living.

A dear mentor of mine throughout college gave me an analogy that I’ll never forget. She was an incredibly busy woman, with tons on her schedule, continually meeting new people. And I adored her — and still do. She explained to me that everyone was designed to have a different size plate — some have a teacup saucer, some have a dinner plate, and some people have a pizza pan. We can only carry as much as our plate allows, and we would be foolish to compare plates. No two are alike. I didn’t exactly see it then, but I sure do now — we all have different boundaries. Different definitions to what is right for us that helps us understand how much we can carry in our days.

In my household (of three single women — my framily), we’ve been talking a lot lately about what it looks like to set boundaries in our lives after all three of us realized that we were dying a slow death over-committing to work, ministry, people, and anything else you can pack into a schedule. We all came to a point where we realized we needed to stop thinking it was a distant future wish and make it a here and now reality. In all of our wrestling with the idea, I’ve come to a few conclusions about burnout and how boundaries play a role.

Boundaries are a declaration of voice. I’m still certainly trying to figure out what’s right for me, and I truly think we always are learning that. But I’m realizing that clarifying those things for myself — actually writing them out — gives me a voice in spaces I don’t feel like I have one. When I was in grad school, I felt like I had no control over my schedule. People outside of school would always try to “challenge” me to take something off my plate, but the reality was I felt like I honestly couldn’t do it. From my point of view, I simply had no ability to say no to anything I had already committed to. Looking back, I realize that my lack of power over my schedule wasn’t because I couldn’t do anything about it but was more of a matter of not bringing my own voice into it.

Boundaries are a stance on self-worth. I’ll give and give and give until I’m sick. I’ve done it before, and I certainly know I’m capable of it again. Setting boundaries is a clear way to give myself permission to give back to myself. What my own boundaries communicate is what’s me and what isn’t me, and also tells other people what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t if they’re going to be in my life. There’s nothing I love more than clear, honest, truthful communication, and communicating boundaries is a big matter in the academy of self-worth.

Be willing to say no, but also be willing to accept it. We’ve all heard it: “Be willing to say no.” But what we often also don’t hear is that we need to accept no from other people. I’m a go-getter kind of person, always up for life’s next grad adventure; however, I really only love the next adventure when I can share it with someone else. When people used to tell me “no,” I would get so irritated at the fact that they were just “letting life pass them by” and dragging me along with them. After a couple significant run-ins with burnout, I realized that I have a lot to learn from these “no” people in my life — they have clearer boundaries that I needed to be willing to accept. Because really, accepting their boundaries is a “yes and amen” to their voice and their self-worth. And it’s also a stance on what we are willing to accept culturally.

So where am I now? Better. Not perfect. Not 100%, but better. It’s been ten months since graduation, and there are still days I show up and want to cry because I can’t clearly see who I am. Then there are other days that I breathe fresh air, recognizing the woman I know to be the true me. I’ve had to do a lot of searching, sitting, and rebuilding what I destroyed over the past two years, and what I’ve realized is that I have to pursue the things that make me come alive — the gifts that have been instilled in me. Sometimes that means I say no. It means I don’t raise my hand. I defer on something fun and adventurous. And to our culture, that communicates apathy and detachment; I think it’s the most beautiful representation of passion and clarity.

Howard Thurman claims one of my favorite quotes of all time, which also happens to be hanging in my office as a daily reminder: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs are more people who are truly living.” There’s an upside-down rhythm to the world we live in. Not having boundaries is not truly living. But when we can give ourselves limits to work within, we thrive greater than we ever could. That, tribe, is truly living.

You Belong.

My desire is that you have a deep sense of belonging in this life journey. If you connected to what you read, please subscribe to my personal blog to join the tribe of fellow sojourners.

About Kristyn Emmer

Kristyn is a social maximizer, mountain seeker, organizational communication junkie. Although a proud Wisconsinite, she found herself in Fort Collins, CO as the Career Communities and Veterans Career Coordinator at Colorado State University. She’s passionate about finding ways to come along side people in living out their hopes and dreams, connecting people to “their people,” and helping others tell and share their unique story well.

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