I looked at my planner and felt that familiar feeling of dread building up in my body as I looked at what I had planned for the day. It was going to be another day that was completely booked from morning until late night. At the time, I was a junior year in college and I was beyond stressed that year. My days seemed like an endless blur of waking up before dawn to run on the treadmill at my university’s small gym before heading off to a full day of classes and then sometimes working two jobs in the same day. And both of those jobs required long commutes filled with heavy Dallas rush hour traffic which, let me tell you, is pretty awful. It was a schedule I had chosen optimistically at the beginning of the year without fully realizing the reality of the commitment I was taking on.
I had taken on such a busy schedule because they were all things I wanted to do and things that I thought I “should” do. But instead of filling me with purpose like I thought they would, these things were draining me of life and energy. I felt like I was running on fumes and never had an opportunity to recharge. The reality is that I had taken on more than I could handle. It felt like everything was careening out of control and I was hanging on for dear life.
I don’t have many memories of those months because of the constant stress I was under. When doctors tell you that stress affects your ability to concentrate and your ability to consolidate memories, I can tell you that that is absolutely true. Most of that time is a blur of stress and panic for me where I felt like I was perpetually on the verge of burnout. Without my planner, I couldn’t have kept track of everything going on because I simply couldn’t remember it. But there are two memories from that time that are stuck in my mind.
The first memory is of stopping back at my apartment after my part time job in the evening with only ten minutes to spare before I needed to head out to a mentorship meeting as part of my internship program. I quickly dropped off my work bag, poured myself a bowl of cereal which I promptly inhaled as my “dinner”, gave a quick “hello” and “goodbye” in a strained voice to my roommates, and dashed out the door again. In my mind, I felt like I was turning into an exhausted hamster stuck running on a hamster wheel that was spinning out of control. And I had no idea how to get off.
The second memory from this time is sitting in my apartment on a Friday night and feeling completely depleted mentally and physically. My friends talked about going to First Friday Mass at the Cistercian Abbey and then going to a popular bar afterwards to socialize. But as much as I wanted to be part of their plans, I just couldn’t do it. I stayed behind even though I so badly wanted to spend time with them and then I just crashed. It was probably the most sleep I’d gotten in months and I slept so soundly that it felt like no time had passed between when my head hit the pillow and I woke up to the sunshine the next morning. No pun intended but it was a wake-up call for me. I didn’t necessarily have the answer to my problem but I knew that I couldn’t keep doing things the way I currently was. I had officially reached burnout.
I wish I could say that I hopped off that hamster wheel from that moment on but, in reality, I spent the rest of the school year struggling through in a daze and trying to push through. I quit my part time job which helped a little but it wasn’t the full answer. When I returned home for the summer, I was perpetually exhausted no matter how much sleep I got. Every day, I would nod off in the early afternoon as my body struggled to recover from all of the stress I put myself through. I spent the summer resting, trying to recover, and reflecting on what had led me to reach this point of complete emotional and physical exhaustion.
While I was home, I realized that I was relentlessly and needlessly pushing myself to “do it all” at the expense of my wellbeing. In the worst way possible, I learned that I wasn’t taking care of myself. Instead of choosing a balance between rest and work, I just chose work. It was a hard lesson to learn: that I need to have compassion towards myself and to recognize my limits. It was tempting to beat myself up over this choice and the effects it had on me. But I also learned that berating myself for this would only perpetuate the feelings burnout that I was trying to leave behind me. While I would never tell a friend that she was foolish for trying to “do it all”, I was saying those things to myself without a second thought. I was setting up a double standard where I gave others permission to be balanced and to be forgiven, but I wasn’t allowing myself the same. Being compassionate and merciful towards myself was not only a gentler approach but also one that helped me feel whole and fulfilled rather than perpetually tired and drained.
Since then, it hasn’t been a smooth journey towards being merciful towards myself. Though it wasn’t as severe, I overscheduled myself my last year of grad school. But I have gotten better since then. I try to embrace small, daily acts of compassion towards myself and towards others. I recognize that it isn’t about “doing it all” but rather about being fully present in each moment and embracing balance in the best way I can, without expecting perfection. I learned that I can’t love others well until I love and am merciful towards myself. This Lent, I encourage you to embrace loving yourself just as much as you love those around you. How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you aren’t loving yourself? How can you choose self-compassion and your physical and emotional wellbeing over the pressure to “do more” and the lie that doing more means you are important?
Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago who, in addition to owning her own private practice, leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It’s Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves.