Piecing myself together after burnout

The process of finding the root cause and addressing it

I am gradually recovering from a period of burnout — I was still functional but there was a chronic fatigue that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I rested, apathy to things I used to care about, unstable emotions, a profound persistent sadness, a desire to quit the world, pervasive anger, etc.

On the surface, everything was going well:

But this was the first time since I have moved to San Francisco that I was experiencing burnout —It was also the first time that I didn’t have a reason why. I had several possible reasons, but none of them felt right to me:

  • unprocessed grief and guilt for not being present with my family
  • the feeling of disconnection and alienation
  • stress and exhaustion from work (hey explaining distributed consensus is hard, trying to make it into an accessible format is even harder)
  • reading too much
  • feeling the weight of work — being exposed to material on poverty and inequality everyday (and how far we are from alleviating them) was severely depressing and taxing. I got angry, incredulous, sad, hopeless, impatient — with all the guilt I feel: why am I not doing more, what can I do to do more, why are all these people suffering just because they were born in the wrong place, the list goes on
  • people’s expectations
  • deferring my life plan: I am paranoid I am not doing what I should be doing
  • not traveling enough — exposure to new experiences
  • imbalance between all my needs, ambitions, desires and responsibilities
  • not having proper boundaries and taking better care of myself — diet, exercise, rest, play — but what boundaries can I talk about when there is just so much to do?
  • self-blame and anger from above, and also frustration for not being constitutionally stronger. I want to do more, but I can’t
  • all of the above

The root cause

They were probably all contributing to my burnout, but I felt there were deeper underlying issues. I could have just gone on a long sabbatical, but I knew if I didn’t find the root cause, it would keep happening over and over again.

It took weeks, probably months, but finally it all came together:

I wanted to be a good person to everybody. A good child to my parents, a good co-worker to my organization, a good friend to my friends, a good citizen of this world. I either kept on giving more than I could or I was growing resentful of always having to and wanting to do the right good thing. But I didn’t really stop to ask myself, what in the hell, does good even mean, or what were my true motivations behind wanting to be good?

I blamed myself for everything. For being too sensitive, for having a weak constitution, for not being present enough, for not doing more, for not loving myself enough, for being too selfish, for working too much, for working too little, for everything I could possibly think of.

And that behavior was stemming from one root cause:

I was not seeing myself.

Burnout for me, was a consequence of a series of poor decisions, and poor decisions had risen out of a poor perception of myself in all dimensions — past, present, future, mental, emotional, physical; in context to people, and to the world.

It became simple and clear. I made these poor decisions, because I wanted to be equal to the privilege and love I was given. Yet I failed to realize that there is no doing, no work, no love, no presence for people I care about, no future — nothing but a void if I didn’t learn to preserve, pace, sustain and love myself.

Is exhausting myself till there is nothing left in me and giving more than I am the only way to prove my worth to the world? Or worse, to myself?

Was that the only way I could see myself, the only way I could be visible to people?

A person running on a negative balance is more of a hindrance than a valuable contributor, no matter how good her intentions are or how hard she tries to work. Being in it for the long haul and contributing meaningfully matters more than existing in an empty, sad, guilty shell.

If I gave great care to myself, wouldn’t the work I do, the way I express myself, the love I give, be more joyful, productive and effective? Which is better: work borne out of enthusiasm and love, or borne out of sheer desperation and the desire to quick-fix?

If I could see that, if I saw that I was already worthy of love simply because I exist, that I was loved, I would not have made short-sighted decisions to work a few extra hours, to sleep less, to eat terrible food, to be anxious about everything, to wallow in all that guilt.

It does not only feel bad, it is terribly inefficient, it isn’t productive, it makes my people upset when I am not well, but ironically these decisions were made because I simply wanted to be a better human being.

Piecing myself together

I started asking myself questions:

  • What makes me happy? Do not confuse happiness with short-term pleasure.
  • What do I care about? What I care about may not be the same as what makes me happy.
  • What are the core issues I always seem to struggle with? Identify repeating patterns.
  • What are my core weaknesses and strengths? They are the same qualities because I think everything is a double-edged sword.
  • What are my core philosophies and beliefs? These would be my guiding lights.
  • What are the core actions I’ll have to keep doing in order to keep myself well-balanced? (Since I tend to overdo certain things and forget the rest)
  • What would I be doing if I didn’t have financial insecurity? This is to ensure I am doing work that I want to, not out of perceived need.

I wrote everything into a document titled, “Core”, with the intention that it will be re-read regularly and evolve with new context and growth. I needed to understand what I truly wanted to do, versus beliefs conditioned into my consciousness. This makes me remember what is truly important to me, which is easy to forget with day to day busyness.

If I couldn’t see myself yet, at the very least, I can write down pieces of myself for my future selves to piece them together.

Sharing a piece

This is lifted directly out from my document:

If security is not an issue, I will

  • make anything I want
  • help anybody I want
  • read a lot
  • learn anything I want
  • travel a lot
  • love a lot

I realized I was already on the path to living the life I would have, even if I didn’t have to worry about security. It was just approached with guilt, obligation, oppression and weight instead of love, power, joy and one thing I keep forgetting because I was too busy wallowing in self-pity — how wonderful it is to have the capacity to feel, create and connect?

I can’t literally make anything I want or help anybody I want, but I can make more things and help a lot of people, now. The only thing that I wasn’t doing much was travel a lot, but I made some key adjustments and tradeoffs, and I am looking forward to traveling a lot more.

Once I remembered what truly matters and why they matter, letting go of the rest was easy.

This is definitely biased because I am writing about myself. This is not one of those annoying “30 steps to a better life (except forgetting we are all diverse human beings and the world is massively unequal)” post. Tell me if I sound like that. I’ll reflect morosely. I’ll be sharing more epiphanies and thoughts while I was sorting myself out — including one about doing what is right for ourselves and not what is common. This was meant to be that post, but I guess my inner-muse thought otherwise, as usual. As you can tell, my new life goal is to expose more of my true snarky self.

Thank you for reading, I deeply appreciate every single one of you. Not being snarky here, really.