For twenty-two years, I’ve been on overdrive. You can even ask my mother, who signed me up for dance class at an early age simply because I never stopped moving. Some things never change.
I would work, work, work(cue Rihanna) and never stop to pause to take a breath out of fear that if I did pause to rest, or actually enjoy myself, then my successes would come crashing down, leaving me back at square one. I thought to myself, “I’ve worked too hard to stop now.” I used to live by the motto “sleep is for the weak.” I’ve never actually learned what it meant to be present in the moment. I never basked in the joy of the now and celebrated the reaped benefits of my hard work. Instead of patting myself on the back or kicking my heels off in honor of a job well done, I sat and plotted my next big undertaking.
When I graduated from college with honors, instead of spending my final moments lauding the triumphs with friends and family, I was physically en route to a new internship. When I won Miss New Jersey, instead of giving myself at least a minute to pause to reflect that I achieved a lifelong dream, I had one foot on the Miss America stage and the other on a plane to present research in India. When this summer rolled around and I was in a transitional phase where I was working 9-5, I actually had free time and nearly lost my mind. For the first time in my life, I had absolutely nothing to do after the clock struck 5 and I was encouraged to go out and enjoy my day. Enjoy? What does that even mean? As someone who is fueled by passion and purpose, having empty time on my hands was something that I had been taught to equate to deficiency.
Silence is deafening. Being alone can be drowning. In solace we are forced to confront our truths. Being physically by ourselves means we are left alone with our thoughts, our insecurities, and the fears that terrify us to the core. No one can talk over those loud thoughts. We numb ourselves with endless busywork because we are afraid that those long suppressed feelings of inadequacy, or the hole in our heart from that first painstaking break-up that never truly healed, or those harsh arguments from a quarrel that we never quite could forget, would all resurface if we just quietly let ourselves be.
When I allowed myself to stop, those twenty-two years of endless stress and exhaustion finally caught up to me and filled the gaps that were once filled by activity. I felt void and depleted. Day after day I struggled to find the motivation to follow through with the lofty dreams I’ve always drifted on. I was hopeless, cynical, angry, and bitter. I began to ask myself, “When did I become so stale? When did I stop chasing head first after a vision for a better tomorrow, a full soul, an essence that craved more than the need to survive?” I pressed autopilot in just waiting for the ‘next week, the next month, the when I graduate,’ instead of embracing the bruised knees, the sore muscles, and the gasping for air that accompanies the endless race. I was burnt out.
Beating burnout is not a walk in the park, nor will it happen overnight. There are still many days where I find myself spiraling rapidly into a pit of exhaustion because I’m so focused on meeting deadlines that I forget to well, actually live, but I’ve resolved to be better because no moment is ever promised. A large part of my job is preaching self-care to undergraduate students, but I would be(and sometimes am) a hypocrite for ensuring they show themselves enough grace to take the needed time to regroup without actually following through on those acts myself. Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget the brilliance of the little things that make the big things come alive.
Stop, look, and listen(baby)
Just stop. Stop whatever you’re doing, take your fingers away from the keyboard, and pause. Do you feel fulfilled in the moment that is the right now? Not the ‘when it’s Friday at 5 o’ clock’ or ‘when I go on vacation,’ but in the now? You have to constantly check in with yourself and ask yourself those hard, deep questions that will get you sincerely pondering about your current state. What brings you joy? The this-feels-good-all-the-way-down-through-my-fingers-and-toes/makes-my-soul-breathe/fills-my-lungs-with-purpose type joy? Are you doing it enough? I go through a weekly checklist asking myself, “Did I take a dance class this week? Did I write something for pleasure this week? Did I read this week? Did I go to the gym this week? Did I spend time outside this week? Did I laugh this week?” If the answers to 3/4 of these questions are ‘no’ I drop what I’m doing and take action to make one of the ‘no’ answers into a ‘yes.’ In order to perform to maximum potential, you need to spend quality time doing the things you enjoy, or else you will find yourself deflated and unable to find the energy to value yourself and your work.
Fall Off Your Wagon
Sometimes in order to recognize and acknowledge that burnout actually exists in your life, you have to fall off your wagon. This summer, I came home from work to lay in my bed and watch Netflix every. single. night. I was miserable. Binge-watching TV is totally not me and all along I knew I was falling into a pit, but wasn’t ready to face up to myself and actually admit that I was feeling hopeless. I was situating myself in the shows and became detached from reality. I couldn’t write anything substantial, I was shutting people out, and even convinced myself out of a dance audition because I wasn’t feeling motivated enough to prepare. I had fallen off of my wagon. As painful and cringe-worthy as it is to actually write that, had I not hit my bottom, I may have still been coming home to get lost in another show, and talked myself out of more opportunities because I was in denial. It also made me realize that my relationship with God was lacking and I was relying on things I couldn’t control, rather than going directly to the source to comfort and guide my woes.
When school started, I went and spoke to a counselor about my struggles. Talking through my experiences with someone who was there simply to listen and didn’t have any preconceived notion of me allowed me to validate my truths and gave me the hope I needed to start propelling myself forward again. I highly suggest speaking to someone to give you a fresh perspective, and most importantly, help you to recognize that you’re not alone in your feelings, no matter how miserly you may feel at the time. One of the most powerful writings I’ve read are that of Brene Brown, where she says,”Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Hitting rock bottom can be easily turned into an impetus for success beyond belief. I’ve now been able to turn that mindset of “sleep is for the weak” into “I cannot be good for anyone else if I am not good for myself, first.”
Celebrate the small victories
This has been a hard one for me. I’ve always been afraid that if I took a day off or took a vacation that I would miss something of vital importance or others would look at me and believe that I wasn’t working hard enough. I thought others would view my successes as undeserved. This is a mindset I’ve been struggling to break free of, but I’m learning that when we celebrate the smallest of victories, we are able to change our own perspectives and find the light in the shadows. Even on my darkest days and even during my failures, I am still searching for the silver lining. Even when I don’t have praises on my heart, I still glorify God for the difficulties, and in turn, my blessings begin to appear in even the tiniest of places. Sometimes you have to grab a margarita on a random Tuesday night because you aced a paper you spent hours working on. Sometimes you have to have a solo dance party in your room because someone uses the #ckj100 hashtag and said that it inspired them to read some of your choices. Sometimes you have to plan a mini-roadtrip with your significant other to fall asleep curled up on a chilly beach just because sometimes things are happening so fast that you forget how sweet it is to be loved by one another. I’ve learned that not everyone is always going to celebrate you. You have to learn to cherish your own achievements because only you have known the daily struggle of how arduous it actually took to get there.
Enjoying the small things – a sunset in Norfolk, VA with my love
Don’t let burnout beat you.