I burned out without realising it

I felt a pang of disappointment reading my last post – “My Kindness Project… I am on a mission”. Clearly I didn’t live up to my mission. That was my first reaction. But also, that is the reaction that I have conditioned into myself. These are the unhelpful thought patterns that have turned into habits of self sabotage.

If I rethink this, maybe I took a detour, and this detour was necessary for me to recognise the importance of this mission.

Since that last post, I have moved interstate with my boyfriend of one year. A risky move so early in our relationship but I needed to move nonetheless to reconnect with my family, friends and myself, and he was willing to make the leap with me. (I have paused most of my connections with friends due to COVID-19). I have spent the last month adjusting to a new normal living in Melbourne; trying to figure out what it means to share almost everyday of my life with the same person, a person that I am genuinely still getting to know; managing an ever-growing workload at a high-pressure corporate job (where I clock in 1-2 cries a week on average); worry about the growing COVID figures locally; and the emotional exertion of educating myself on BLM and having challenging conversations. (Disclaimer: I acknowledge my privilege that I am educating myself on the matter and not living it or bearing its burden for hundreds of years – but maybe if I took better care of myself as a priority, then I could be a more productive ally to others…)

So… today, at another daunting day at work, I sent off an email thinking it was nice that I was giving a stakeholder the “heads up”. In return, I received an email flagging that they should’ve received this information earlier and a multitude of “today COB” deadlines. Instant panic mode. The negative thoughts started flooding in: “I can’t do anything right”, “She hates me”, “There’s no way I can get all this information in time, I’m a failure”, “This project is going to fall apart”, “My reputation will be ruined.”

Five minutes later, I jump into a crucial meeting that falls into a big mess, and get a work chat message from a colleague “FYI bad news with a customer, we’ll talk about it in our WIP” (my next meeting). I somehow get through the next WIP in one frail piece and as I hang up, I am immediately overwhelmed with the gravitas of the shit pile that I’ve ended up in. I see no way out. My first thought is “There’s no way I can get through this. I want to quit! But I can’t let all these people down, my reputation will be destroyed and I’ll never be able to set foot in a big company again!” The feeling of being in this deep well of disaster overwhelms me and my chest feels heavy, breathing quickens, and the tears fall fast. It happened so quickly I didn’t even comprehend and then suddenly I recognise the awful feeling… I’m going to have a panic attack.

I don’t have these very often, and I’m lucky that I don’t. But I also know, if I’m having a panic attack (or very close), it’s a troubling sign for me. It signals: Emergency! Red flags! SOS! I kept wanting to fight through it, soldier on, but my family around me pushed me to speak up to my manager. This needs action now and is not sustainable anymore. Thankfully, talking to the most incredibly supportive manager, he made me realise that I’m burnt out and I have reached breaking point, I am past my limits and can’t do anymore.

Hearing this, I can see now how this escalated without me noticing. The slow build of casual weekly/daily tears, working till 10pm, waking up dreading work and the tightening shoulders. The continual push from others to squeeze more and more results out of me, and my acceptance to keep piling the weight on myself because I believe I’m a “good worker” and “I will get through it by pushing myself to be better”. The casual mentions to colleagues that I’m struggling but also dismissing it with feigned positivity that I’ll get there eventually. The debilitating fear and dread before every time I call a colleague and ask a request, or deliver bad news, when I know they’re going to react and dump complaints or excuses on me that I struggle to emotionally hold. I used to be excited to work with people and be challenged, but now I want to avoid any phone calls like the plague, any ping of an email feels me with dread, and I’m filled with constant anxiety that something is going to go wrong, like all my hard work is for nothing. These are the moments that build up and hurt me. They hurt my self-confidence, they damage my passion and love for my job, and they continue to squash my own needs for others and the “results I must deliver for the business”. Bottom line is, I’m not putting myself first and I’m feeling the consequences.

I NEED to prioritise myself. It’s crunch time, and it’s not sustainable for me to continue like this. I have always conceptually known this is important, but sometimes the horrific experience of a panic attack or being close to one, is the stark reminder I need to put a spotlight on how important this is.

Plan to prioritise myself as #1 (v1):

  • Build a routine of self-soothing/mindfulness activities: Yoga worked for me in the past to slow down my thoughts, I should bring it back. By being more mindful, it will help me with the next two steps.
  • Catching self sabotaging thoughts and labelling it as so. I’ve always said this was good to do but always struggled to commit. Maybe I could find a way to track.
  • Identify what my needs and boundaries are, so I can better recognise moments that are triggering
  • Practising assertiveness or pushing back when my needs are being ignored/forgotten, not apologising just for the sake of it and using language that is healthy and respectful, not people pleasing.
  • Rewarding myself for exhibiting parts of this plan

I have called this plan v1 because I don’t enjoy working with finality. I know that tends to push me into a corner, feel too rigid, and then I am overwhelmed with the weight of it that I don’t even start at all.

I actually did finish reading “The Kindness Project” book I spoke about in my last post. I personally didn’t find it ground breaking but there are definitely learnings that I can take from it and apply here. I will definitely evolve and refine this plan, adding more detail and make it more actionable. The most important first step is to take action and keep reminding myself that I am unapologetically, my #1 priority.

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