Wellness

Why Self-Care Hasn’t Cured Your Burnout

The way out isn’t endless leisure. It’s finding meaningful work, outside of your career.

PhotoAttractive, Westend61, Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images

Almost everyone I know is facing some form of reckoning around ambition right now. After enduring the past two years of pandemic stress, remote work chaos, inflation, and domestic turmoil, we’re examining our careers through new eyes. From the friend who recently proclaimed her paid work “pointless” and her hobbies “the only thing I care about” to the relative suddenly pinching pennies to manage an early retirement to the advice seekers wanting to know how to feel more passionate about their careers, so many people seem to be questioning their previous notions of what work means and how it fits into their lives.

The common wisdom about burnout suggests that the remedy is extra rest, self-care, and self-reflection — a sensible path for those who are overworked. But what happens when your time of self-care transforms into a Dalí-esque realm of melting clocks and blurred boundaries? Because I’ve found that after a while, extra rest often morphs into extended midday napping, self-care increasingly takes the shape of an inability to even look at job listings let alone apply for jobs, and self-reflection regularly transforms into what feels like a permanent state of angst and big-picture despair: What’s worth doing as the world heats to boiling?

Maybe the real problem is that we’ve fundamentally misunderstood ambition all along. Instead of recognizing how our drive to succeed is inextricably linked to our longing for a rich, satisfying life on every level, we’ve surgically removed careerism from the big picture of a life. It’s not surprising that career aspirations, when divorced from the context of other desires, would feel unsteady. Who really wants to become “someone,” if that someone doesn’t feel whole when she leaves the office or feels lost without the structure of work?

In misunderstanding work, we’re also misunderstanding burnout. Instead of signaling lethargy, maybe sometimes burnout signals a desire for more life, not less. Your burnout might mean that you’re much more ambitious than you think — about everything in your life, not just your career.

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One of the most common misconceptions about depressed people is that they’re cynical about life. Yet in many cases, a depressed person’s disenchantment belies an underlying optimism — they believe life should be joyful and exciting and passionate. Likewise, people with severe burnout might blame themselves (“I’m lazy,” “I can’t focus,”) or their circumstances (“I hate this job”), but the heart of the problem is often that they love to work very hard at some task that just feels right. And when they can’t get that kind of engagement, they’re frustrated and bewildered. Their disinterest isn’t laziness; it’s idealism, drive, hunger, and raw ambition.

In the midst of a period of burnout, it’s easy to believe that what you crave is freedom from ambition. But the long-term cure is often more ambition — an ambition that feels gratifying and organic and can be applied to everything you care deeply about.

The challenge of meaningful work is making sure it stays meaningful. The deeper you dig emotionally to make what you make, the more meaningful it feels, yes. But you have to keep digging in new areas, which is hard to do. Once you’ve written the novel, toured with the band, staffed the nonprofit, created the business, you often find yourself returned to the start of the whole process all over again. You might lose the thread, or lose faith in yourself, and you might misread these natural emotional reactions to big challenges as burnout.

Your burnout might mean that you’re much more ambitious than you think — about everything in your life, not just your career.

You stop working so hard. You step back from what’s meaningful, and soon it’s difficult to find your way back in.

If you’ve lost your drive for meaningful work, sometimes what helps is not to stop working, but to replace the labor you’re resisting with new activities that offer different flavors of engagement and satisfaction. Instead of endless rest, it sometimes helps to find new ways to engage with work and your wider existence.

For me, physically hard work often helps with that. The sensation of getting a concrete physical job completed, where you sweat and heave and struggle and then you can look at what you’ve done — touch it and take it in and feel proud of it? That’s a form of work that functions particularly well in a time when you’re supposed to be resting and reflecting and maybe you’re getting a teensy bit neurotic as a result of all of that rest. You’re lifted out of your head and into the physical world, you remember what your muscles are built to do, and you return to an animal state of sensual engagement with the task in front of you.

One of my most vivid memories is stepping into the bathtub in the upstairs bathroom of my mother’s house, covered in dirt and bugs and scrapes, after hours of pulling ivy out of her backyard. My father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack a few weeks before that, and I took two months off to mourn. What I discovered was that even when I could barely talk or breathe or communicate my despair, I could still listen to music and wrestle with stubborn vines and feel a deep sense of satisfaction in getting just a few square feet of ivy cleared. This was ivy that had been growing for decades in the same place, so the vines were like tree trunks and required a ton of back strength to remove.

I was doing work that was designed for a machine. It was pointlessly difficult, and it felt intensely gratifying in a meditative way, providing a level of engagement and satisfaction I wasn’t able to reach with my usual so-called meaningful work. Hard work that ultimately has no value in the world whatsoever can be one of the most relaxing activities available to someone who’s struggling to understand what they want to do with their lives.

Why is that true? Why do we naturally find ourselves soothed by gargantuan, impossible tasks that we know we’ll never conquer? And why do we sometimes find ourselves deeply attached to repetitive, pointless, absurdly stupid tasks that achieve zero useful results, like sorting shells into piles even though you’re not keeping any of them, or fishing and then throwing each fish back, or playing a frankly tedious video game that reproduces a sense of productivity while you sit in the same place on the couch for hours?

We love these things because they remove the pressure of accomplishment. Doing arbitrary, stupid s*** that feels like work breaks us out of the jail of overachievement and reacquaints us with enjoyment in a way that our usual “work” sometimes can’t. When you see someone playing Breath of the Wild on a couch for months on end, what you’re seeing is an overachiever whose drives are so passionate, whose idealism is so overpowering, that they’ve chosen the only path that recreates all of that extreme ambition without any of the deep pain of feeling how out of step the desires of their soul are with the structures and systems of our culture.

Playing video games for hours on end is viewed as worthless by many because it’s work with no monetary or social value — which is also what makes it feel like salvation. It’s work that’s been freed from the heaviness and pressure of living your best life, of becoming some better, purer, more successful, idealized version of yourself — in other words, becoming someone other than who you actually are.

Burnout means being alienated not just from your work but from your own body and mind. It means being ill-acquainted with the life-embracing, exertion-loving, energetic madness at the heart of your animal self, a self that has been so inundated with messages about what’s valuable and what’s impressive and what’s respectable that this energy no longer makes itself known to you at all because it’s just too painful. That’s why burnout isn’t always cured by setting up a life that feels more leisurely. Sometimes burnout is addressed by noticing how much drive and ambition and lust for life are lurking just beneath the surface of your disillusionment.

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This is what I’ve discovered over the course of many life crises: I’m a person who loves hard work even more than I love the completion of the work or the recognition that comes with doing the work well. Sure, I’ve learned to take pride in the things I make. But what I enjoy the most is just engaging with a task fully, struggling to break through the frustrating parts, trusting that I’ll find some solution or even just knowing that I won’t and that all I’m really supposed to do is chip away slowly at something pretty impossible and maybe even a little bit arbitrary.

When I try to stuff “leisure” into the space where all of that work went, I tend to discover new forms of malaise and dissatisfaction.

Understanding this about myself has shifted my way of navigating the world of work. I became a writer in part because it didn’t require inhabiting workplaces that felt inhumane and uninspiring to me as a young person. But working from home for decades has consequences, and one of them is that it can inadvertently make life smaller and make work smaller. I’ve sometimes been tempted to apply my overachiever nature to doing less and less work — not a terrible thing! But when I try to stuff “leisure” into the space where all of that work went, I tend to discover new forms of malaise and dissatisfaction.

The answer to this state of affairs isn’t always to rest and relax and reflect on where you are. The answer is sometimes to try on the more ambitious version of a goal for size to see if it feels more motivating.

You have to experiment. You have to be open to the fact that you might actually love all kinds of work that you’ve told yourself for years were useless or unimportant or embarrassing. The paradox here is that if you’re a natural overachiever, you might also discover that you can’t engage with any activity unless you have either incredibly ambitious or completely unambitious aims for it. For example, I love writing music more than anything else, so if I’m doing it, I ping pong between “I don’t care if anything comes of this” and “I want to be touring internationally in two years.” That’s actually natural.

What I find extremely unmotivating is some in-between point like “I will finish one mediocre album and play it for people against their will.” Modest goals don’t fit my wildly ambitious desire to make music. I don’t want to hit some middling target, to make something mediocre. My goal might not be to create a whole life around music, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll stay ambitious about my music-writing goals if I talk as if my music is just a silly little hobby that fills up my leisure time.

Sometimes our supposed laziness is just disrupted ambition: We want some things so badly that we can’t stand to experience how deeply and completely we want them.

Maybe instead of jogging, you want to train for a marathon. Maybe instead of fiddling around on your guitar, you want to take classical guitar lessons. Maybe instead of charting a slow path up the ladder in your industry, you want to figure out how to become the boss. Maybe instead of writing a book that’s a little bit like that great book you just read, you want to write something much more sprawling and difficult. Sometimes in spite of your fears and your inexperience, what you really want is to take a leap and believe that you could aim higher than you tend to aim. Sometimes it doesn’t help or inspire a person to be practical. You have to get a little bit unrealistic in order to reacquaint yourself with your truest desires.

Sometimes our supposed laziness is just disrupted ambition: We want some things so badly that we can’t stand to experience how deeply and completely we want them.

Some of the happiest people I know are people who tend to start with modest ambitions and then quickly find themselves throwing a tremendous amount of energy into them. Curiously, they aren’t always that ambitious about their primary jobs, but they’re ambitious about everything else they do, whether it’s gardening, rock climbing, volunteering, painting, weight lifting, writing poetry, political organizing, or cooking. Many of them felt listless and depressed back when they expected their primary source of income to make them happy, but now they have more energy for their jobs and all of their other activities, in part because they stopped feeling embarrassed by how ambitious and exuberant they felt about their true interests and started to really savor and also respect their most absurd desires.

They learned to understand their hunger for hard work. They learned to recognize how deeply and thoroughly focused and engaged and driven they were. They discovered how overwhelming their love of their most treasured pursuits was. And they figured out how to apply all of those ardent desires to their lives at large.

In our anxious quest to redesign our systems to make them more humane and more accountable, we can’t either focus solely on rest or treat a life that’s dominated by career ambition as complete. We have to recognize and celebrate the basic joys of feeling driven — waking up in the morning with a hunger for life itself, wanting to pack each precious day with all of the passions and the people we love the most.