Before You Burnout

By Mel Englund

I’ve been a perfectionist since my Junior year of high school.  How I became one is a story in and of itself (and to be honest I don’t fully understand it, either), but I do remember the shift mentally when it fully grasped hold of me.  Homework took longer, my hobbies became more of a competition with myself instead of only an outlet of enjoyment, and I began to only quantify my worth by the level of work I could produce (Somehow I still remained fun at parties; thank god for being a perfectionist with a sense of humor).   

Perfectionism carried on into my adulthood and is still very much a part of me today.  I see it in myself everyday while serving with Energy Corps, actually. Taking on assignments, I’m pretty adamant on finding the best solutions to things, and when I’m “on a roll” at work I have no issues carrying that over well into off-work hours since that’s my peak performance.  If I’m not spending my time at the office being productive as much as possible, I panic internally. Considering how energy-intensive mentally focusing on work can be, —not physically, since I’m a human potato in an office chair for 8 plus hours— it’s no shock that I experienced a period of burnout during my time here.   

Burnout is characterized by feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, low motivation, and decreased personal efficacy.  A study back in 2015 looked into the correlation of perfectionism and burnout in 43 studies over 20 years and found the correlation to be quite high.  They found two main dimensions of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns.  Simply put: 

  • Striving = setting high personal goals and proactively working towards those goals.  This is not linked to burnout. 
  • Concerns = constant fear of failing, making mistakes, or letting oneself and others down, and the need for constant self-validation.  This is significantly linked to burnout. 

During my burnout period, it was unbelievably hard for me to focus on anything, the smallest tasks drained me, and my usual happy-go-lucky and goofy demeanor was more rigid.  Recognizing this and wanting to get out of this “funk”, and being no stranger to burnout, I spent a hefty amount of time on self-reflection. 

I understood my burnout was from overworking myself and setting standards at an unreachable level (damn you unrealistically aspirational to-do lists).  Taking a step back, I asked myself what I needed mentally and what would help me move forward in a healthy way. For one, not consuming my entire life in work needed to happen.  I hadn’t even realized that when I got home I got into the routine of reading a book about community resilience and taking notes and specifically watching Ted talks about service-related topics.  I had consumed my off time with a need to be constantly productive. Having a separation of reading and learning for pleasure vs reading and learning purely for service/work is important and a good start.   

I also allowed myself to not be so hard on myself (much easier said than done, still not exactly great at this either).  This means that if I have moments where my brain needs a break, I allow myself to take it. A lot of the time my mental breaks are just me writing my thoughts and reflecting how I feel on a piece of scratch paper in the office.  This tiny action and practice significantly helped me in terms of understanding where I was at and how I was feeling. 

Overall, my biggest piece of advice before you burnout is: Learn how to identify burnout in yourself, reflect on why it’s happening, and ask yourself what you need from yourself at that moment.  While everyone has different tactics for combating burnout, those are just what I found to be helpful.  Hopefully they can help someone who may be feeling, or prone to feeling, burnout. A little bit of self-care and love goes a long way.  As this Cecilia Tran, a woman who I just found on Google, said, “Self-care means giving yourself permission to pause.” 

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