I woke up one August morning to find a letter waiting on my dining room table. The only words were "I love you. I believe."
It was from my girlfriend. It had been a long few months of tireless work for the both of us, and we often found ourselves wondering if things would ever get better. It seemed like a hopeful low point in our lives as we were both consumed by timelines and obligations.
Little did we know that August was just the beginning of a 6 month stretch that would slowly take its toll on our lives.
A while back Kieran Tie struck a chord with me in an article he wrote about the subject.
Burning out is more common than we think; it's a topic that doesn't fair well in the "everything is fine" blueprint for western civilization. Burnout can manifest itself anywhere in the range of comprising life goals, to mental and physical destruction.
Unfortunately, I experienced the latter.
As I've been conducting an autopsy of what went wrong, it seems as though burning out all starts with powerlessness.
How to Become Powerless
Becoming powerless is not an instant change, but rather a series of memory leaks which happen undetected over time. Becoming powerless is a silent virus which does not make itself known until the host is dying.
First, you must believe that what you are doing is important and urgent. There is an internalization that all things depend on the task at hand.
Next, you come to the conclusion that the things you're working on are more important than your personal life. In the grand scheme of what you are affecting, it is easy to see how a single human life is meaningless.
With the foundation of self sacrifice, the floodgates are open for little concessions to be made, which can strip away your sense of self. Looking back at years I've spent with different organizations, these are some of the major red flags to look out for:
- Top-down delegation. Your timelines and priorities are dictated to you with no room to push back.
- Lack of two-way communication. There is no lane of communication with stakeholders, or you are purposely shielded from speaking to those who influence you directly.
- Serving between conflicting teams. Being an effective liaison requires you to stand behind the needs of multiple teams, which is brutal if one or both sides are unreasonable.
- Being directly managed. The inability to take several steps in one direction without having the reigns pulled, which is both frustrating and massively detrimental to the project at hand.
- Lack of Transparency. Big decisions and meaningful conversations seem to happen behind closed doors.
These are just a few things that can create a sense of powerlessness within a healthy individual. Even just one of these little realities has the potential to build up over time, eventually reversing your own ambition into a sense of self-hatred and confusion.
Loss of Control, Loss of Life
My personal experience is one of the more extreme cases of what losing autonomy can do to a human mind. I would consider myself to be abnormally ambitious, thus making the consequences of powerlessness that much more extreme:
First came the fear of sleep. My brain would refuse to shut off, slow down, or do anything other than think about ways to make my projects more likely to succeed.
Over time, this expanded into a subconscious fear of everything. I had personally spent so much time working in my apartment that going home could cause a panic attack (I've never had a panic attack before). Because my interactions with people had almost entirely been in the context of work, for a while I would be terrified to be around other people.
Extremes in good or bad news felt like a development of split personalities. Small tasks had been monumentally crushing, but victories were equally euphoric. This contributed to forking into two mindsets with independent story lines. It is worth noting that stress is a leading factor in developing bi-polar II disorder.
Memory loss is an easy casualty of the mind. I would commonly forget things, including entire days. I was physically incapable of committing memories.
At the worst moments, things got bad enough to the extreme of mental illness. The effects of sleep deprivation are well documented. Short term loss of sleep is similar to intoxication, but long-term fatigue is deadly. Extreme deprivation causes the brain to destroy itself in the short term to keep pushing forward, with the immediate effects spanning as far as psychosis. This is indistinguishable from short term schizophrenia.
I can only imagine how I had been acting differently during this time, and people were likely forced to guess why. Assumptions are usually less forgiving than reality, so it's hard to imagine that anything positive came from not talking about what I had been going through.
Taking Life Back
Most people on the wrong side of power don't have the time or money to turn things around immediately. That said, it doesn't need to take months of inactivity to start feeling like yourself again.
First things first, get some rest... no, but for real. Rest means sleep and things you enjoy, besides working. Making social appearances and launching side projects do not count as resting.
Put things into perspective and realize that nothing is worth losing your life or sanity over. You personally suffer the most from your distress, and benefit the least. Think about what matters to you, who you are, and if what you're doing will truly make you who you want to be.
Doing things you love is what we use to define ourselves as human beings. Without this, your perception of self becomes inseparable from what you produce.
It's key to communicate to those around you that what you're going through isn't acceptable. Saying that you're busy is meaningless when everybody is 'busy.' Telling people that you're dying will probably be seen as an exaggeration to be ignored. There is a middle ground here needed to be taken seriously.
Your mindset is what got you here. There are those who rush head first into challenges, and there are those who avoid them: you are the former. What small adjustments could you have made to sidestep some of your burdens? A change is necessary if you hope to continue on surviving.
Word to the Unwise
There are a number of underlying reasons as to why you pick to stand and fight. As a grown adult, continuing this trend is a choice. For every endeavor you chose to accept, there may have been a series of conversations which could have saved you from a dark path downwards.
Becoming powerless chemically results in hopelessness, but remember that you are the same person who beat the odds to get here in the first place. If you've already arrived at this point, you already have what it takes to recover.