I’m fine. you’re fine. except when we’re not.

what burnout really feels like.

Photo by Jen Hayashi

I’d always thought burnout was the feeling I felt at the end of each semester: complete and utter exhaustion, lack of motivation to do anything really. Which was fine, because hey, it’s winter break and we’re going to Hawaii and it’s fine. It’s fine.

But after reading Anna Davies’s article about overworked millennials, I realized that burnout isn’t that. No, burnout is the feeling I have during the semester: the feeling of a long, hard sprint; with the end in sight but far away. Anna compares it to being on a treadmill that’s going too fast; you can keep it up for now, but you can’t stop or slow down, or you’ll fall off.

And the thing is, it doesn’t suck. Most of the time, that is. It actually feels a lot like success; I take pride in listing out my various roles, my responsibilities, all the things I do. There’s pleasure in a busy schedule. Like, look at me, look at all the things I can do, be proud of me!

It’s watching the follower count go up on my personal and food Instagram accounts. It’s knowing that I am one of the most hardworking people in boxing class every morning. It’s running 13.25 miles to prep for my half marathon because most people don’t run more than 5. It’s a need to be better than everyone and succumbing to the internal competitiveness in me, a need to be better than myself.

Whatever anyone else does, I want to do more.

I spend my hour long commute reading social psych or marketing books, writing to-do lists on my phone, or making phone calls. I walk down the street doing the same. Even reading, which I do for pleasure, is like a competition: look how many books I read — look, I beat my Goodreads challenge goal already!

It’s going into the office at 8am on Wednesdays and staying past 5pm on Fridays because I want go above and beyond. It’s a compulsive need to power through all the work, like yesterday when I stayed past 7pm and the office seemed like an abandoned house; the only sounds that could be heard were the murmurs of the cleaning ladies and the clicking of my keyboard (and the keyboard of the co-op next to me, another testament of millennial overwork).

Even when no one’s around to see how late I stay or how early I come in, it’s an internal validation to myself — look how hard I’m working!

And it’s not just me. It’s you too. It’s you and all the other passionate, busy, hardworking (overworking?) millennials out there.

You push yourself and push yourself and everyone commends you on being “amazing” because you seem to be able to do it all — wow you’re such a real person!

Society commends you on having this capacity, on being this modern day version of the Renaissance man.

For me, I love the image I cultivate of myself: I get up early and workout, I work hard at work, I make myself healthy lunches and dinners everyday, I meet up with people and network, I run social media for a startup, am a campus rep for a mental health clothing brand and a brand ambassador for a health food restaurant, put passion and thought behind my own social media, clean my apartment and keep my own room clean, drink and have fun, read and write, don’t spend too much money because I’m investing it and already started a retirement account.

Just listing all of that out made me feel so good. It’s easier to love the things I do and this image I portray than my actual self, and sometimes this carefully built-up image and these accomplishments are the only things that keep me going. It’s not that I don’t want to do less, it’s that I can’t, I won’t let myself.

I don’t need rest days (or want them really) because when there’s free time I fill it. No time wasted, after all — it’s all about efficiency.

But sometimes, your body takes rest days for you.

I’ve laid in bed at 6:30pm, crippled by exhaustion. I’ve felt like throwing up from lack of sleep on the commute from work. I’ve broken down and cried for no reason; I’ve broken down and cried for all the reasons. I’ve broken down and cried when my parents simply asked, “How are you doing?”

I’m not okay, I sobbed. I’m not okay.

But then I pulled myself together. I’m fine, I told my dad. I’m fine most of the time, and sometimes I’m not fine, but that’s life and you just have to get through it.

I used to be less fine. I haven’t been less busy since freshman year, really, if anything maybe busier, but I think I’ve gotten significantly better at not being stressed.

The price I had paid for being busy then was debilitating exhaustion; laying in bed right after a full day of classes and then work with no energy to even look at my phone to check the time.

Now, I don’t remember what I look like without bags under my eyes or a constant feeling of tiredness under it all, but I push it away because I am better than that. I am functional, so I function.

Result? I’m stuck in this limbo of feeling like I’m ok but knowing that I can only last so long like this. But I’m not stressed like before. I’m not unhappy. I’m fine, except for when I’m not.

We’re all so busy trying to get a leg up on the next chapter of our lives that we’re losing out on enjoying the present chapter. I’m surrounded by people as busy and passionate as I am, and we all commiserate in the same way: we have too many things we love, too many obligations, too much investment in chasing success that we’re constantly overwhelmed.

But we’re ok, we tell ourselves. We’re young, we’re in happy, we’re ok.

We tell ourselves we can relax after we reach that next chapter of our lives: after we get that first job or promotion, after we finish school, but the reality is, there’s always something more.

We constantly find ways to be busy, because we don’t know what it feels like to not be. We get mildly anxious at the thought of doing nothing. It feels a little bare, a little empty, to not be busy, and that’s because we filled our lives with too much that even taking off one thing feels like creating an almost unbearable lightness.

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” my Passion Planner said one week. And I kept it in mind because it’s applicable and it’s true, but continued to be busy nonetheless. After all, I’m stuck in the hamster wheel of my own making, forever running in circles of responsibility.