“I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them. And it’s taken me years to understand the true ramifications of that mindset.”
– Anne Helen Peterson
Yes, I’m still thinking about that piece on millennial burnout from a couple of links posts ago, and the many, many think pieces I’ve read following up on it or responding to it since.
Ironic, I know, since I just wrote a post myself not too long ago about deciding that the hustle was still worth the amount of effort it takes. I still believe it is. But it took a conversation on the (fabulous) NPR podcast It’s Been a Minute to really articulate the feeling of burnout that I seem to personally experience. The author Anne Helen Peterson sat down with host Sam Sanders to talk about her own misconceptions of what burnout actually is, as opposed to how we tend to think about it. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey–or more specifically it’s a treadmill run where you don’t actually get anywhere.
“You reach the point of collapse…and then you keep going.”
I appreciate that this is not unique to my generation, but I am a firm believer that every generation has a unique combination of circumstances and variables that make them culturally distinct enough to trace broad trends. Peterson doesn’t make any points I haven’t thought of or written about before, but she articulated the mental load of some of the circumstances of millennial:
- Graduating in a recession, with fewer entry level jobs available, and fewer jobs overall which will set us up for what have become the traditional routes to retirement
- Lots of us are getting more stability ten years on…meaning we’re getting to traditional adulthood phases of lives and careers a decade later than most of us anticipated
- The change of digital pace. My freshman year, Facebook was brand new and now it’s destroying Western democracy (or so it feels)
- The way we self perpetuate burnout circumstances by not enforcing boundaries or insisting that others in our communities enforce their own boundaries either (answering emails late at night, women doing the “second shift” without thinking about it, always been online and accessible, etc.)
- The feeling that if we aren’t being successful–making enough money, out of debt, in a fulfilling job, generally living our bliss–that the fault is someone ours and ours alone. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in hard work, but I also know that there are things such as systemic realities that can significantly affect how much pay off you see, no matter how hard the work.
“Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”
This, I realized reading the piece, is how I experience burnout. I have lived in the space for a long time–not in all aspects of my life, but enough to make an impact. Whether it was struggling in a toxic job, working the hours necessary to make it as a full-time freelancer, or just the slog of budgeting aggressively to pay down debt, there have been points where I have felt like all I wanted to do was sleep for a year. But of course, that is not an option. For any of us! Life goes on, whether or not you have the energy to deal with it.
In my case, it’s a privilege problem in some ways, to be sure. My struggles are not the same as a woman in poverty, a single provider, in an abusive household, or any of the thousands of other circumstances much tougher women survive every single day. There are class elements of this, gender elements of this, privilege elements and racial elements. There is no such thing as a universal experience. But the sheer amount of statistical evidence that this feeling of burnout is a genuine phenomenon and a widespread thing are frankly too much to ignore.
The description of errand paralysis really struck me because it was the individual symptom I fall prey to most easily.
You know that feeling you get when you look at your list of To Dos and honestly are unable to make yourself do even small tasks that should not overwhelm you, but do? I feel like I live in this mental space.
Peterson herself exclaims, “That term sounds ridiculous; that’s such a bourgeois problem…but I think that everyone has a to do list in their head, right, in their head, written out–whatever. And there’s a bottom half of that to do list–and everyone’s is different–but what happens is that that bottom half keeps not getting done and it weighs on you in a way that you internalize.”
I have found myself putting off incredibly basic chores that do not, on the surface, phase me in the slightest but that in the moment feel insurmountably hard. I have also been incredibly harsh on myself for this inability to get small tasks done. It’s a hamster wheel of anxiety and it has absolutely contributed to the darker periods of my overall mental state.
“When the treadmill keeps going but the dopamine runs out.”
I also shared this previously, but the description above from Hank Green on burnout also resonated. As I said, the beautiful and difficult trouble with life is that it goes on. It doesn’t stop. And while I believe firmly that hard work is a component of success, I and others in my generation sometimes struggle to explain this general, pervasive feeling of demoralization. I believe this is why irony is our generational language in comedy, trolling is an unfortunate generational pastime, and we invented the shrug emoji. As the Peterson article delves into, we’re working hard: there is an abundance of evidence to back this up. But it feels (or is) for diminishing returns when compared to our parents or grandparents. The treadmill keeps going.
I don’t have any solutions to this, and obviously I’m still working out the reality of stress, money, ambition, career, and opportunity in my own life. But having this expanded framework of burnout has helped put a lot of past experience into perspective for me in a new way. I can now see when I was operating with nothing but fumes in the tank and what the long term toll of that was on my body and brain. I can see how choosing different habits, lifestyle options, or priorities has helped actually put some gas back into that depleted tank. I’m no longer burned out as I once was, but I know that the possibility is much closer than I would wish and one or two bad turns could put me back there again.
Have you burned out? How did it look and feel to you personally? What, if anything, has helped or are you still on the treadmill?