A few years ago, I got very stressed, and that stress caused a very big flare of arthritis. The good news is that the flare allowed me to get a diagnosis for the variety of complaints I’d had over the years prior to that time. The bad news is that the stress itself and the work I was doing was leading into an extreme case of burnout.
I find that like a lot of psychological terms, “burnout” is one of those words that loses its intensity and meaning with overuse. Everyone is burned out, just like everyone is “OCD” about one thing, or is “depressed” today. By generalizing and normalizing the terms, the terms themselves lose their oomph.
Burnout symptoms can look a lot like anxiety or depression
It includes features of apathy, listlessness, fatigue and avoidance. Paired with chronic pain and the new emotional reality of the isolation of working from home full time, it was damned hard to sift out amid all the other things I had going on at the moment.
The key to discerning burnout from other kinds of states is that it is usually surrounding one specific area of life or activity. I’m burned out professionally. Most of the rest of my life is flourishing and exciting.
However, it has persisted, even past the adjustment curve of learning to enjoy working from home and learning what to do to cut down on feeling isolated. It has persisted past the reduction of a good deal of my physical pain. It has persisted through a number of projects, companies, and working situations.
It’s time to face the burnout
The fact of the matter is that my emotional interest in working on the internet has burned to the ground. I do not care about the success or failures of my clients. I don’t care if I get the work done on time. I only care that I make enough money to pay my bills. Even then, I’ve failed to do that a few times and it hardly registered with me.
I know that this is a disservice to my clients. They need me to give a fuck. I literally have no fucks to give. I know I can’t keep taking on clients and subjecting them to my apathy. I can sometimes buy in a little longer if I like the company or my team. I can sometimes get myself to go there if I like the products I’m shilling. But overall, I have no emotional energy left for this work.
Doing the work without meaning and passion feels like it’s slowly killing my soul.
The way I’ve been dealing with this is to put in my time at work, get the things done, and then spend most of the day working on things I do care about: writing projects, grad school work, making ASMR videos. This has helped me limp through, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem. I don’t want to do this anymore.
Wildfires are a fruitful metaphor for me
What I have come to realize is that the damage is done. The emotion has been burned off, and there is no way to rekindle it. There is no fuel left for it to burn. I sat with the metaphor of wildfires to work my way through this reality. Since I started grad school in California in 2017, I’ve been able to witness the destruction and power of wildfires in real life, and to see what happens to the landscape after they go through. My graduate school is near where the mudslides devastated Montecito, and I was able to see the drastic changes that occurred then, too. And, because I’m still visiting monthly, I’ve also been able to watch how it regrows. How it comes back to life. This physical reality of the natural world has been really helpful for me to envision my interior landscape.
The burnout that happened was devastating. It reduced forests of my self and work-identity to ash. My career was destroyed in that fire. Everything I’ve done has been a futile effort to shore up the old system.
This space – my heart-space where my career once was – this space is no longer a dense full-shade forest with a shadowed pine-needle strewn floor. It’s full-sun. It’s not as acidic. The soil is rich with ash. Sure there are pine tree saplings sprouting up everywhere, but they are having to compete with everything else around them. And the things that once thrived in dense shade are no longer able to grow here. There are no more pillar-like sentinel trees holding up the canopy. There is no canopy at all.
What grows back in this new landscape? Small things. It thrives on diversity. On a lot of little plants dropping roots and luring in more birds and bugs. It grows on seeds and spores and luck. Sure, some of the same kinds of plants grow here, but not all of them. And not all in the same way. The little yellow flowers are more profuse, the big purple ones are more rare.
Making Career Changes
Using this rich, detailed metaphor, I’ve realized a few things about my career.
- It is doing a disservice to my clients to take them on if I can’t commit to helping them.
- It’s okay to say no to clients I can’t help.
- I need to dabble more – to diversify the things I’m doing to make an income and to do them with a lighter touch.
Physically, I’ve accepted the reality that I probably won’t ever work full-time again. My illness requires that I work from home, and it demands enough time off that even after grad school is over, I won’t have that kind of energy.
What I hadn’t accepted until this week was that I will be reducing and limiting my SEO projects going forward. And that I will be doing lower-commitment, lower-stakes “side hustle” sorts of work to create some diversity and variety in my workday.
I mean, I still have to pay the bills. I just need to do it in a way that isn’t soul-killing.