How I Got Into And Managed To Walk Away From Burnout

Photo: Ron Lach, pidjoe | Canva
Woman not present with her family while on a weekend getaway at a cabin

How did a self-care-promoting, work-life balance advocate wake up one day and realize that burnout had gripped my life? When did I stop taking my own advice about well-being in favor of chasing validation? And what could I do to escape the cycle and find a new, more sustainable way of being?

These are the questions I found myself asking about a year ago after my partner looked at me and said, "It’s like you’re not even here." Hearing that felt like a punch to the gut. And it also inspired me to take a look in the mirror and make some big changes.

Today, I’m sharing the story of my burnout intervention and how I’ve spent the last year of my life making a concerted effort to break free from the toxic cycle.

How did I find out I was burnt out? 

Most people who know me probably wouldn’t expect me to describe myself with the words burned out.

I’m a longtime proponent of being realistic about my own capacity (and have been for years), an avid practitioner and lover of yoga and mindfulness, and a human who values relationships and well-being over all else. I’m also a staunch advocate for taking time off, resting, and caring for myself, and I support my colleagues, friends, and family in doing the same.

So, how the heck did I find myself totally burned out?

For starters, I actually didn’t make the discovery. My partner did.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2022, my partner and I took our then four-year-old daughter to a cabin to spend what was supposed to be a restful and rejuvenating weekend away. In theory, it should have been easy enough to enjoy the break. Who wouldn’t want to luxuriate in a few days off with the people they love?

But, at one point during the trip, my partner turned to me and said, "It’s like you’re not even here."

How could I not be here when here was supposed to be such a wonderful place? Especially when being present with the people I love has always been a self-purported top priority.

This was my awakening moment. To hear that I wasn’t living up to that personal value in the eyes of my partner and our child was stunning. I also felt waves of shame. Nothing makes you feel like a fraud quite like realizing you aren’t practicing what you preach. Funny how that can happen without even realizing it.

Burnout: a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion where it’s difficult to engage in activities you normally find meaningful.

RELATED: 9 Scary Warning Signs You're Completely Burnt Out

How did I create the state of burnout? 

I’d been working as a solopreneur and building my business for nearly six years at that time. Despite all odds, my business actually grew during the pandemic. And I was busy.

I had my client work, my business development work, writing and marketing work, and I had a child. But that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that the way I gained my sense of worth was through doing, and mostly for other people.

Going back to my childhood, I remember being the kid who made sure the group project was completed, who helped mediate issues between differing groups, and who took pride in getting stuff done, even at a young age. The feedback and feelings I got were feelings of calm (I know now that it was actually about control), and of affirmations from those around me.

So, I kept going.

Fast forward to adulthood, I worked hard and leaned into almost every job and project I did. When I started my work in digital products, I didn’t have the background or skills that were expected but I learned and pushed myself, earning more responsibilities as a result. I even remember a boss saying to me that he had no idea how I had the throughput I did (meaning I was able to do more with less time than anyone he’d had on his team before).

When I started my business, I kept investing in this attitude. I wasn’t 100 percent certain that I’d succeed, but I had a hunch that if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be due to a lack of effort on my part. I knew I’d do whatever it took to make it work. And I did. I built a business that continues to provide me with challenging and engaging work with clients who I am proud to serve. But the difference for me today versus a year ago is that I don’t feel burned out anymore because I’ve changed the way I relate to the things that I do.

Why are we participating in this burnout cycle? What’s causing it, and how do we break free?

These are the big questions I set out to answer during my year of unlearning. And today I’m in a radically different place, but it required a lot of introspection and routine-shifting to break free from the toxic cycle.

Here’s what I learned:

To get to the root of burnout, I had to ask myself some really critical questions, like:

  • Why am I obsessed with doing so much, or saying yes to things even when I don’t have the capacity or desire?
  • Would turning things down make me feel less accomplished, or like I should be doing more?
  • In turn, would stepping away from those commitments make me value myself less, or feel less worthy?
  • Is burnout actually rooted in my own self-worth and need for validation?

Discovering the answers to these questions felt uncomfortable and forced me to face some deeply-rooted narratives.

And here’s the thing: this phenomenon is not unique to me. In fact, a recent study found that 42 percent of workers polled said they were burned out. This cycle is quite common for Americans, especially among women, minority groups, and young people who feel a resounding pressure to meet unrealistic expectations.

RELATED: 12 Essential Steps To Help You Recover From Extreme Burnout, Fatigue & Exhaustion

So, how did I get to a radically different place?

I realized that doing things for the sake of feeling a sense of worth was a toxic cycle and, in order to live a full life, I knew that I needed to walk away from burnout and reclaim myself.

Even a year later, it doesn’t come naturally and I have come to accept that this may be more of a lifelong practice than a box to check. That said, I’ve found a few approaches that have helped me significantly and I want to share them with you.

This is by no means an exhaustive list or a one-size-fits-all model, but they definitely allowed me to move the needle in my own battle with self-worth and burnout.

Here are my top 3 tips for breaking up with burnout:

1. Find a muse

To break with the habits and tendencies I wanted to ditch, I found it especially helpful to channel oppositional energy, so I adopted a muse! I called her Slacker Jackie and modeled her after 90s grunge musicians — a persona who was OK with doing less, drawing inward, and being a little light on commitments. She was cool! And we hung out for about 6 months while I tried to learn how to do less, guilt-free.

During this time, I got comfortable with simple things (like sitting on the couch despite having dirty dishes in the sink), as well as more complex shifts (such as not picking up any threads that weren’t mine to own, mentally or logistically). This leads me to my next practice…

2. Fight the urge to say yes

To beat burnout, I had to make a concerted effort not to overuse the word Yes. In every situation, I started asking myself if I actually wanted to do something. If so, what level of participation was I comfortable with, and were there ways I could remove myself from the role of coordinating that effort?

For example, old me would frequently say yes to social engagements, then immediately jump in to facilitate the plans or coordinate consensus with a group. While it may not seem like a big thing, when this is the default behavior with every interaction, it takes a lot of energy. I forced myself to pump the brakes and wait for the other person — the one who had invited me to hang out — to get the ball rolling and follow up.

The result? I see some people less often, but that helped me realize that those relationships may have been a little one-sided, allowing me to reallocate my energy elsewhere. If you’re struggling with this aspect, I invite you to try the not mine mantra where you allow yourself to step away from responsibilities that aren’t actually yours (rather than leaning in and taking over).

3. Question the impulse to do

As someone with doer energy, I can empathize with anyone who has that knee-jerk reaction to step in and problem-solve, even if it doesn’t always serve us energetically.

To make changes in my life, I had to start questioning my relationship with doing and how it had fueled my toxic burnout cycle. A particularly helpful resource on this front was Tricia Hersey. I heard a podcast interview with her and subsequently read her book. It deepened my understanding of how my experience with work, my worth, and doing was a product of my environment. I also revisited Tara Brach’s work on unworthiness and radical acceptance, and absolutely recommend her teachings to anyone on this journey.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Say 'No' Without Feeling Guilty, According To A Psychologist

After a whole year, what did I discover (and why should you join me here)?

I now know that I’m capable of connecting with my own inherent worth and worthiness. And the more I do it, the more it becomes a virtuous circle (rather than a vicious cycle of doing to access worthiness).

While things are much better now, it’s not always simple. Like most healthy habits, the road ahead will likely require repeated recommitment and moments of pause to remember why it’s worth the effort.

In fact, it can feel a bit lonely at times. Before, I was used to taking on a lot of things that weren’t mine to own or saying yes to a lot of engagements that weren’t actually best for me. The newfound space can feel a little cavernous at times, but I’m doing my best to reframe it as freedom rather than loneliness. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The other unexpected side effect of this journey is that I feel a little strange sometimes. Even after a year of practice, it’s still uncomfortable to go against many of the messages we receive day in and day out (to do more, to be more, to have more). This takes effort, which means I feel like a bit of a weirdo at times. But Slacker Jackie would probably take that as a compliment, right?

The moral of the story

Burnout can be a debilitating feeling, but learning to value myself and honor my worthiness as something that’s innate rather than earned has been one of the most freeing feelings I’ve experienced. And I truly believe that with the right practices and commitment, it’s something we can all access. That doesn’t make it easy or linear, but so far it sure feels like breaking up with burnout was worth it.

Have you ever experienced burnout? It is happening to you, like, right now? I see you, and I feel for you, and I hope my tips offer some relief as you navigate a new way of living. 

RELATED: 12 Signals You’re Struggling With Burnout & Need A Break ASAP

Jackie Colburn has deep expertise in technology and digital product and is passionate about helping teams design experiences that improve people’s lives. She’s also a speaker, coach, and co-author of the Remote Design Sprint Guide. Her work has been featured in Inc. Magazine and recent projects include work with teams at Target, Allina Health, and Marquette University.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.