Posted on February 25, 2021
One thing many of us struggle with is being still. We find ways to make sure we don’t slow down for long. We use something to keep us moving, busy, and avoiding our fears and feelings. Maybe it’s a career, a side hustle, hobby, or general life goals. But whatever “it” is, it’s in the future. And so we spend the present focused on what’s next.
Me? My thing was education. I spent the first 25 years of my life working toward the next degree. High school diploma, Bachelor of Science, Master of Education, Doctorate of Philosophy. Being a full-time student was my job, but it didn’t feel like enough. To fill my limited free time, I held down jobs as a nanny, hostess, advocacy intern, and graduate research assistant.
If the drug was being busy, I was a junkie. Doing one thing at a time was never enough. I hustled in a culture that told me hustling equals success and respect. I chased resume lines like they would define my worth as human. As if, at a certain point in the future, I would finally feel like I made it. Like I had reached the mountaintop and conquered life at its own game.
One spring afternoon during my Master’s program, I’m sitting in the office of my clinical supervisor, Oliver.
“I’m going to apply to Ph.D. programs,” I say.
I expect this might shock him since most students in my program become licensed professional counselors. But it doesn’t seem to.“Tell me more about that,” Oliver says.
“Well, I don’t want my career capped off as a therapist seeing clients from 9 to 5. I want a degree that will allow me to teach at a university and make me credible enough to write books and deliver large-scale presentations on mental health.”
“Do you believe you won’t be credible as a writer or presenter without a Ph.D.?”
I actually have to think about that question for a moment.
“No, not necessarily. I just might not have the same reach. Or as many opportunities. I’d have a harder time securing a teaching position at a university.”
“What area of psychology are you interested in teaching?” he asks.
“Well as you know, my experience is mainly counseling and clinical work. But I’m also considering social and personality psychology programs,” I say.
“OK. And what kind of research would you want to do?”
I glance over at his bookshelf. There are textbooks on psychotherapy theories, substance abuse and addiction, multicultural counseling, the DSM-IV, works by Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and Aaron Beck. There is so much. Too much. I’m interested in all of it, and none of it at the same time. I don’t have a focus. Just a misguided desire to achieve what other psychologists and academics had before me.
“I guess I view the research part as the means to an end.”
Oliver raises his eyebrow, looking puzzled for the first time, and asks me what I mean.
“Well, it’s not conducting research that excites me. I know I’ll have to do research, but I see it more as the prerequisite needed to become a professor. Research isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
There’s a long pause. I watch him forming his thoughts to be deliberate, concise.
“You know,” he begins. “When I was about your age, I considered getting a Ph.D., too. I told my own supervisor this, and he was very encouraging. His only piece of advice was to be prepared for the culture of ‘publish or perish’. Are you familiar with that?”
I nod. I often hear the stress-inducing stories from the doctoral students in my classes.
“Then you’ll know there is immense pressure on graduate students to publish as many research articles as possible. The quantity of publications in high-impact journals exceeds everything else when it comes to being competitive on the faculty job market. And once on the job market, the ‘publish or perish’ mindset is critical to maintain for a tenure-track position. My supervisor suggested that unless I was very passionate about research and open to a competitive environment, I might want to consider a different path.
“So, I thought long and hard about my motivations and realized what I really love is working with people. I stopped after my Master’s, so I could begin counseling people as soon as possible. Now every day on the job looks different; I attend task force meetings, mentor graduate students like you, have my own supervisor, and work with clients on mental health and substance use. I love my roles.”
He takes a sharp inhale before continuing. “Now, Taylor, you’re a high achiever. You might not think of yourself this way, as many high achievers don’t. But you’re clearly very driven and motivated. I’m sure you could excel in a Ph.D. program. If you want to be a tenure-track professor, you’re right; there is no other way. If you’re passionate about research and want to publish articles in scientific journals, then this path would make sense for you. But I’d be wary of discrediting yourself or your ability to succeed without a doctorate. I want to be supportive and helpful in any way I can.”
I sit back in my chair and swallow hard, digesting everything he said. I can’t articulate a burning desire to conduct research or publish scholarly articles at a high volume. All I want is a continuation of the work I’m already doing: attending class seminars, discussing case studies and grounded theory research, counseling college students, and writing about and presenting on topics in mental health.
I want to use existing research to help other people, not pioneer research to advance my career. I just don’t know that yet.
I leave his office feeling supported and confused. Up to this point, my self-worth came from a strong work ethic and big career ambitions. My identity was based on solid academic performance. I wanted to be a writer and educator without realizing the ways I already was. In retrospect it’s clear this is what Oliver was trying to get me to see. But I’d have to learn the hard way.
When our ambitions and accomplishments take precedence over our joy and creativity, hustle culture wins.
“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.
“You must achieve more,” society adds.
And before we know it, our dreams no longer belong to us.
I went on to attend a Ph.D. program in psychology. And one year later, disillusioned and burned-out, I withdrew. I took my time gaining clarity on my goals and purpose. And I found it. Eventually. Just not in the ways I thought. Sometimes if we want to get ahead, we have to stop moving so fast.
Why Hustle Culture is Toxic
I once heard someone say, “If you don’t have at least one mental breakdown in front of your advisor, you’re not doing graduate school right.”
Nothing about that sounded “right” to me. Why should the marker of success be poor mental health? Why do we glorify overworking ourselves to the point of exhaustion? I thought about times when I felt most effective at work. They happened to be times when I felt most socially connected, joyful, and optimistic. I was busy, yes. But I had a say over how I allocated my time, and I ensured as much of it centered on hanging out with friends, working out, traveling, and trying new things as it did on work tasks. My happiness wasn’t a result of the quality of my work; it was the prerequisite for quality work.
When our sole focus is on all the things we still need to accomplish, we lose sight of how we’re already equipped to serve people. When our first priority is keeping our schedule full, we lose sight of what fulfills us. Hustling promotes quantity over quality, time spent over time spent well, scarcity over abundance, and competition over collaboration.
Perhaps what’s most toxic about hustle culture is delusions of worthiness. If we believe we are only worth how much or how hard we work, what happens when we need a break? What happens when our body sends us signals of exhaustion through aches, pains, and irritability? We ignore the cues. We equate these symptoms to laziness and inadequacy. We believe we are less worthy. Even if it’s not ourselves who suffer initially, maybe it’s our significant other, our kids, our friends. Our colleagues. No one benefits when we don’t make the time to show up well in our relationships.
Negative implications seem to arise from one of two things. First, you might be addicted to the chase of ambition like I was. When this happens, your purpose (your “why”) is unclear. You think to garner respect you must shoot for the stars even if you’re not sure what you’re aiming for exactly. Let me tell you: that’s a recipe for disaster. And burnout.
On the other hand, you might already be in the right occupation and feel certain of your purpose. That’s amazing. But if you don’t know how to rest or slow down, that can also be detrimental. Those in the helping professions like physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and educators have the highest rates of burn-out for this reason. It’s a result of high demands on both physical and emotional resources but limited opportunities for time off to unwind. What compounds this distress is our cultural glorification of hustling. It’s as if a lack of free time is a rite of passage to prove determination. But honestly, working so hard you hit a wall isn’t admirable. It’s not even productive.
So, what’s the solution? How can we move away from hustle culture and toward intentional rest? Because, believe it or not, doing so might take you further than you could’ve gone otherwise.
How Slowing Down Takes You Farther
We all know the tortoise and the hare fable. The hare is so confident in his speed he falls asleep during the race. Meanwhile, the tortoise, moving slower but never giving up, ultimately passes the hare and wins the race.
OK, so it’s a cute kids’ story about perseverance. But does that apply to adults in the workplace? Actually I think it applies best in the workplace context. I’m a living example that you can actually get ahead if you’re steady and deliberate as opposed to fast and furious.
When I left the Ph.D. program, I didn’t have a backup plan. I didn’t have a job waiting for me. No ideas on how to spend my time. I let go of all expectations and decided to trust the process. Thankfully, just days later, my former advisor offered me a full-time remote position that provided me with flexibility, familiarity, and financial stability. This job allowed me the freedom to sink into stillness. To be OK with meeting expectations without overachieving. To get comfortable with extra time without trying to fill it. To stop comparing my productivity to others. I slowed down to a near halt and took it for what it was: a total reset.
During this reflective period, I began to remember my “why”. For some of us, this question might be spiritual (e.g., Why did God put me here? What am I being called to do?) and for others, it might be strictly vocational (e.g., Why am I interested in this? Why do I gravitate toward this line of work?). We only remember our “why” when we take the time to quiet the noise and make space for our own voice to rise. You might be able to accomplish this in a 5-minute check-in with yourself before bed. But I have a feeling if you’ve been running on fumes for a while, burned out from nonstop grinding and feeling lost on the journey, it may take much longer. For me, it took about a year.
I waited until feelings of restlessness and curiosity began to emerge. This felt like my nudge; it was finally time to explore new career paths. This wasn’t fear, desperation, or insecurity. You can tell the difference based on whether your desire to move forward brings you peace and excitement rather than anxiety and immediacy.
Ultimately, I found a job that fits my experience, professional goals, personality, and purpose. But what made the new position perfect wasn’t simply how well it fit. It was my new mindset: your identity does not come from your career. Your worth is not contingent on how hard you work.
Releasing ourselves from this trap is the greatest gift of self-compassion. One thing they don’t teach you about obstacles is that sometimes they’re not put in your path as hurdles to overcome. Sometimes they’re there to signal it’s time to change course. But only you have the wisdom to know the difference. And it requires you to slow down enough to notice.
Posted on February 9, 2021
I’m on the phone with my dad. Again. We’re discussing the dilemma of whether to leave or stay in my Ph.D. program. Well, really I’m discussing it out loud to myself while he graciously stays on the line.
I’ve been seeking answers for months. Desperate for the perfect piece of advice that will magically clarify everything and point me in the right direction. I haven’t yet figured out how to listen to my intuition and not outward noise.
Presumably exhausted with my circular thinking, my dad eventually cuts in.
“Did I ever tell you about when I switched careers from broadcast journalism to finance?” he asks.
I pause. He proceeds to describe his early years of being overworked and underpaid, worrying about financial stability, questioning the vitality of the industry, and ultimately taking on a chance on his side hobby (the stock market).
He says only in retrospect is it clear that what we leave behind can serve us well in the next thing. For example, those journalism skills (research, writing, and speaking) landed him a radio show about investments that helped grow his client base.
Not once did my dad suggest I leave the Ph.D. program. He simply told a story and let me choose what I took away from it. Exactly like what I just did here with you.
So, is it true that stories resonate more with us than facts or advice? And if so, why?
Psychologist Jerome Bruner found that facts are 22% more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. This is because our brains store and retrieve memories easier when there is emotion attached to the memory.
Effective storytelling elicits emotions such as sadness, joy, anger, surprise and stirs up virtues like hope and curiosity. Stories move us and even compel us toward action. They might influence, inspire, or inform. In my opinion, the most memorable stories do all three.
Emotions are critical in decision-making. Indeed, one study found that patients with damage to the part of the brain responsible for processing emotion had significant impairments in decision-making. It seems facts and advice alone won’t do much to move the needle.
Kendall Haven, an expert in the science of story structure, writes: “Your goal in every communication is to influence your target audience (change their current attitudes, belief, knowledge, and behavior). Information alone rarely changes any of these.”
I’d go a step further to say that your intention as the speaker or writer also impacts how well it sticks. My dad had no stake in the game when he shared his career change journey with me. It was simply an offering of empathy and support.
Have you ever shared a personal struggle with someone and they used it as an opportunity to air their grievances? Maybe you sought advice about work from someone who just got fired from the company or about martial struggles from someone newly divorced.
Stories stick when they’re told from healed scars not open wounds. Pay attention to the storyteller’s intention. The best ones will guide from love, not instruct from pain.
As Maya Angelou so famously wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Another reason stories work better than advice is that they disarm the listener by taking down their defenses. We might not even know we have walls up when we ask for advice, but we often do.
When sharing my graduate school dilemma with a friend, he said, “You could pick a different research area” or “Maybe give it another year and then decide.”
These were valid suggestions. But since I already found myself wanting to withdraw, I subconsciously disregarded any advice on staying. I might have been more receptive had he shared a time when he felt disillusioned at work, sought support from a supervisor, implemented some changes, and decided that staying paid off.
Research conducted with experienced lawyers and judges showed that stories (and the emotions they evoked) were more persuasive in their rulings than the facts of the case alone.
But unlike the courtroom pursuit of objective truth and justice, our daily lives are full of ambiguity. We seek advice for issues that rarely have one “right” answer. A well-told story leaves space for the listener to interpret their own meaning or course of action.
This is why stories have such persuasive power. One study argues stories disrupt “the ability to evaluate facts, rather than just biasing a person to think positively.”
This isn’t to suggest we avoid advice altogether. Sometimes honest feedback or data-driven arguments are exactly what someone needs. But there are additional ways to help others like asking how you can best be supportive, offering a past struggle as guidance, or simply listening.
Anyone can share facts. Sally can tell you that 40 million adults struggle with anxiety disorders nationwide. But what if she tells you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, and the physical sensation of being in fight-or-flight mode?
Maybe you can relate or utilize it to relate to others. She stops becoming a statistic and starts becoming a human. There is more emotion and vulnerability attached to one’s testimony than expertise alone.
Credibility matters. We find people more credible if they can demonstrate they’ve walked in our shoes. The benefit of receiving empathy is that we feel less alone. Stories allow the personal to become the universal. They help us normalize experiences that otherwise feel abnormal.
As Glennon Doyle wrote in Untamed, “Imagination is the first step on the bridge of compassion. It is the shortest distance between two people, two cultures, two ideologies, two experiences.”
Unlike advice to be followed or discarded, stories allow the listener to approach it from where they currently are. The listener can consider their call to action on their own terms. They might wonder: What resonated most with me? Would I have responded similarly? What would I have done differently in that scenario?
My dad’s story about changing careers illustrated that he could understand my predicament because he went through something similar decades ago. It also provided me a tangible way to envision solutions and find hope in unexpected directions.
So, how might you tell a story the next time someone asks for your advice?
My dad didn’t begin with “I think you should leave your Ph.D. program because I left journalism and it turned out great…” No. He let his experience speak for itself.
Malcolm Gladwell is a master nonfiction writer, weaving story within story like a Russian nesting doll to build suspense and drive home a point.
Think about why your favorite novels resonate with you. They make you feel something without the narrator telling you how to feel.
This is most applicable in job interviews or large-scale presentations, but the STAR method (situation, task, action, resolution) provides a framework for responding to a question with a meaningful story.
Make sure the problematic situation(s) is apparent, especially if there is more than one. What made it so challenging? Did you have the tools or resources to address the situation? If not, how did you find them?
Failure is our receipt for courage. Our failures show the world: “Hey, here is something or someone I took a bold chance on!” Not everything in life has to work out how we planned for the risk to have been worth it.
Failure forces a reset and encourages self-reflection, innovative ideas, and recalibrated goals. The only successful people I trust are those who know failure personally and don’t fear discussing it.
Samuel Smiles wrote, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success…and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
The next time you find yourself in a position to advise a friend, family member, or colleague, tap into your storybook reservoir. What have you experienced — or failed at — that might help them? If you have a beating heart, chances are you have plenty of material.
Posted on February 5, 2021
The older I get, the less my decisions feel like decisions and the more they feel like an uncovering and honoring of what I already know. I’m making the right moves when it feels like I’m returning to myself rather than becoming someone new.
I write a lot about my decision to withdraw from my Ph.D. program. That’s because it’s one of the most significant, life-altering decisions I’ve ever made.
It didn’t feel much like a decision at all.
In my ideal world, I would have decided to stay and graduate. I would have found my rhythm, churned out publications and presentations, and wrote a groundbreaking dissertation. I was looking for every reason to override what I already knew in my gut for the comfort of remaining in place. I wanted to choose comfort over surrender. Certainty over uncertainty. Even though I was unhappy.
It wasn’t until I quieted my mind (doubts, what-ifs, pros-and-cons) and the outside noise (advice, suggestions, research) that my intuition finally had space to rise and make itself known. I firmly believe that everything we need to make a decision already lives inside of us. The problem isn’t knowing what to do; the problem is that we don’t trust ourselves.
To remedy this, I’ve starting giving my fear the floor. I sit with a pencil and paper and let all my anxieties, concerns, and self-doubts speak up. I acknowledge my fear and show it gratitude for just trying to keep me safe.
And then I let wisdom have a turn. For example, if my fear said: “What if you drop out and everyone thinks you’re not intelligent or hard-working and you can’t find a job?” then wisdom might say: “What if you withdraw and end up in a career that fulfills you?”
Another example is if fear said: “What if you move to a new city but it doesn’t meet your expectations and you end up lonely?” then wisdom might say: “What if you move and the city exceeds your expectations and you find the adventure and connection you crave?”
Both outcomes are equally possible. Not all fear is irrational; it might have some important points worth considering. But one thing I’ve learned is that making decisions from a place of fear does not work. With fear guiding us, we might think we have control, but it always leaves us broken-hearted, disillusioned, more anxious, unsatisfied, bored, lonely, or complacent. It either sends us straight into things that aren’t right for us or keeps us from the things that are.
This is not to say that our intuition always tells us what we want to hear. That inner voice, God, the universe—no matter what you call it—only promises to show you what you NEED, not necessarily what you want.
When I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I would walk past the famous tower on the way from class to my car every day. Engraved on the front of the tower reads: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. What I didn’t understand then is that first the truth will scare the living shit out of you. You’ll try to fight the truth, ignore it, or run from it. The truth might force you to admit wrongdoing, face your biggest fear, acknowledge failure, and run straight toward the unknown. And that’s precisely what it takes to become free.
The scariest part of the jump is the anticipatory walk to the ledge. After the jump, we revel in the exhilaration and courage it required of us. No, not every leap of faith leads to a soft landing. But I can’t think of a single one I’ve taken that wasn’t worth the scars sustained.
Do you know that feeling when you fall in love? It’s hard to put into words. I think it’s why artists, musicians, and writers spend their entire lives trying. The closest I’ve ever come to describing it is this:
It wasn’t a thought. It wasn’t a feeling. It was a landing. A homecoming. An unexpected knowing.
It didn’t seem like a peek into the future of what we would become. It seemed like a quiet, inner acceptance of what we already were. Perhaps what we had always been and would always be.
Love is a mysterious force because it doesn’t require logical decision-making skills. All it requires is the courage to jump without certainty of a soft landing.
So, how to decide when you’re undecided? Ask a different question if you want a new answer. Allow your fear to speak. Allow your wisdom to respond. Then take the prefrontal cortex out of it. Get still. Get quiet. Pay attention to your body. What does returning to yourself feel like?
I once heard Bob Goff say in a podcast interview: “We don’t need more information. What we need is a safer place to process the information we already have. Not being told what to do…but who we already are.”
Posted on January 21, 2021
I’m sitting at my desk on a Saturday trying to get work done. It’s November of 2019. But just like every day for the past three months, I can’t complete a single task. Just opening my email inbox has become painful. I have little to no motivation, energy, or joy.
When I describe this apathy and fatigue to a therapist, she says: “If we’re anxious for long enough, we’ll eventually become depressed.”
That must be it. Maybe I’m depressed. Research shows that low to mild levels of anxiety can be normal and healthy; they keep us alert, safe, proactive, and productive. Manageable anxiety drives us to overcome challenges at work, propose effective solutions, and collaborate on shared goals.
But now my tank reads empty. I procrastinate on everything. I’m too tired to be anxious. Since anxiety no longer has a productive place to go, it disappears.
After a year of living this way, I decide to make a major career shift. I withdraw from my Ph.D. program. And for the first time, I have no concrete plans for the future. My sole focus becomes rediscovering what makes me happy. And then something amazing happens.
Healthy anxiety returns in the form of motivation. My passion to write and create is reignited. I’m inspired and excited about the future again. And from this excitement erupts a realization: I hadn’t been clinically depressed at all. I was burned out.
But what’s the difference? And why do we — including clinicians — often confuse the two?
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and impacts over 264 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Although depression can arise at any point in one’s lifetime (and more than once), it typically first occurs between ages 18–25.
Symptoms include depressed mood, anhedonia (i.e., diminished pleasure or interest in things), change in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, feeling worthless or guilty, fatigue, poor concentration, psychomotor agitation, and thoughts of suicide or death.
Although symptoms fall on a spectrum of severity like any clinical disorder, one must experience at least 5 symptoms for at least 2+ weeks to meet diagnostic criteria. Depression is pervasive; it makes it difficult for one to experience joy in nearly all areas of life for much (if not all) of the day on most days.
Some people can pinpoint exactly what they believe to be the cause of their depression such as a major life transition, stressful life event, or past abuse and trauma. It’s important to note that major depressive disorder is different from grief and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although these things can certainly coexist.
Others experience depression and have no idea why. This can lead to feelings of guilt. Maybe you’ve thought “I have everything I need. I shouldn’t feel this way” or “Others have it much worse than I do”. But discounting the reality of our mental health only worsens symptoms. There are often other factors at play beyond our control like genetics and biochemistry.
The good news is that depression is one of the most widely researched topics in mental health. It is also one of the most treatable. There are many scientifically validated interventions and strategies to improve daily functioning.
In some cases, it’s possible to minimize or eradicate symptoms of depression through self-employed strategies.
Changes in diet have been shown to improve overall mood and alleviate depressive symptoms. Increasing one’s intake of selenium (e.g., Brazil nuts, whole grains), vitamin D (oily fish, eggs), Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., flaxseed, walnuts), antioxidants (e.g., berries, vegetables), and protein (e.g., animal or plant-based like tofu, lentils, and chickpeas) can improve mood and sleep.
The benefits of exercise in treating depression are also well-established. For example, one study found that depressed adults who began walking for 20 to 40 minutes 3x per week for at least 6 weeks showed a significant reduction in symptoms compared to a group that did not exercise regularly.
If you’re not yet ready to consider psychotherapy or medication, implementing a healthier diet and regular exercise into your routine has shown significant benefits. Setting and accomplishing small goals is also helpful in alleviating depression.
None of these treatment approaches should be considered in isolation. Indeed, many doctors and clinicians recommend a combination of therapy, improved diet and exercise, and medication.
I’m a major advocate for the importance of therapy in treating mental health. Research shows that people who engage in therapy have better psychological outcomes compared to those who do not.
Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common modalities for treating depression and anxiety, there are additional approaches guiding therapeutic intervention.
No matter which approach works best for you and your therapist, the process is designed to be a collaborative effort to identify unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your depression.
I’ve seen a handful of therapists throughout my lifetime and can personally attest to its immeasurable benefit to the quality of my life. No need to wait until you’re depressed either. There’s a reason we go to the doctor for check-ups, not just when we’re sick. It’s preventive. Here are some tips on beginning your search for a therapist.
Although there is still a stigma surrounding the use of medication in treating mental health, antidepressants can literally save lives. After consulting your doctor or psychotherapist, you may find it helpful, even imperative, to supplement treatment with an antidepressant. Others find their depression lifts over time without medication.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most commonly prescribed medications worldwide. It’s always important to discuss potential side effects with your doctor and/or therapist. Since I am neither, this article won’t outline the pros and cons of antidepressant use. However, I encourage everyone to do their own research and advocate for their needs.
Ultimately, this decision should be between you and your healthcare professional(s). If you or someone you know is in crisis, here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1940s but was not systematically analyzed until the 1970s by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger.
Thanks to the research of psychologist Christina Maslach, three major clusters of burnout have since been identified.
1. Emotional and physical exhaustion
2. Cynicism and depersonalization (i.e., perception of observing oneself from outside one’s body)
3. Diminished sense of personal effectiveness
Other symptoms include fatigue, body aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. Cynicism may manifest through anger, frustration, or feelings of isolation. Changes in appetite and sleep may occur as well.
Unlike depression, burnout is not traditionally recognized as a medical diagnosis. Most countries, including the United States, describe burnout as an occupational condition. Indeed, this is a key difference; the cause of depression may be unclear or arise “out of the blue”, while burnout more clearly results from an occupational source or work stress.
One report argues the five main causes of burnout are: 1) unreasonable time pressure, 2) lack of managerial support, 3) lack of role clarity, 4) unmanageable workload, and 5) unfair treatment.
So, who is most likely to experience burnout?
Freudenberger (1974) argues it is primarily “the dedicated and the committed”. This is why those in the helping professions (e.g., physicians, nurses, social workers, counselors) are experience burnout at higher rates. These are roles marked by long hours and excessive demand of one’s energy, resources, and emotional capacity.
More women than men tend to experience burnout in their lifetime. Some studies suggest this is due to differences in work conditions; women make up more of the helping profession/human services job sector and have been shown to have, on average, less authority in the workplace.
My experience as a burned-out graduate student looked like cynicism, irritability, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. I was emotionally exhausted and felt unable to focus on even the most mundane tasks. I had lost my sense of purpose, direction, and meaning in the work I was doing.
Of course, I didn’t attribute this to burnout at the time. I didn’t yet have the language for it. It seemed neither did my therapist.
Researcher and author Brené Brown shares she once heard a priest say: “If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.”
We live in a culture that prioritizes hustle and productivity at the cost of employee or student wellbeing.
Unfortunately, because burnout is not considered a clinical mental health disorder like depression, it’s harder to obtain an accurate diagnosis and receive proper solutions.
When my exhaustion first arose, I thought the problem was me. I believed if I just pushed harder, worked more, and stuck it out things would magically improve. Or at least I would adjust to the pressure.
But I was wrong. Who wants apathy in place of misery? I wanted to feel alive again. So, after a year, instead of continuing to drown, I chose to get out of the water.
When I left the culture of academia, I regained my sense of clarity, purpose, and drive. I took my intellectual curiosity with me and utilized it in ways better suited to my values and goals.
It’s clear in retrospect that not only was I not the problem but neither was my burnout. The problem? A profession or work environment that doesn’t fit and leads to depletion.
Indeed, Freudenberger argued that since burnout is linked to undesirable job conditions, it should therefore be approached at an organizational level not just at an individual level. His suggestions include shorter working hours and more staff supervision, support, and training.
Quitting one’s job is not always the feasible — or even optimal — choice in many cases. There are other science-backed strategies to alleviate symptoms of burnout.
This includes everything from improving our diet (i.e., meal planning over vending machine runs) and making time for exercise. We make time for things we prioritize. Those 20 minutes spent scrolling could be reallocated to a brisk walk outside the building. Five minutes of a lunch break could be spent practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, meditating or praying.
One thing I’ve started doing is tracking my daily activities in an Excel spreadsheet. In the evenings, I give the day an overall rating from -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. At the end of the month, I track how much time spent on which tasks were most likely to result in a higher rating for the day. Then I schedule my time accordingly.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put in a 2-week notice.
It starts with considering: which elements of my job are fixed, and which ones can I alter? Can you delegate certain tasks to others? What projects can you put on hold? Can you temporarily work from a new environment or at home? Sometimes implementing these changes requires advocating for your needs to a boss or supervisor. Don’t be afraid to do so. It will likely improve the quality of your work.
One of the hardest parts of both depression and burnout is feeling like you’re in it alone. There can be shame wrapped up in our exhaustion, which inhibits us from reaching out for support.
Research shows that support systems help us better cope with stress and improve our motivation. Support can come from anywhere: friends, family, colleagues, or therapists. It can also provide us different but equally important things such as emotional support, comfort, advice, information, or a new perspective.
Much like depression, burnout leaves us feeling trapped and helpless. But we get to choose how we respond to our circumstances.
It’s important to a) name what we’re feeling, b) take steps to change/improve our circumstances where we can, and c) establish connections to those who can help in circumstances we cannot. Then we will be on the road to recovery.
If it feels like you’re drowning, look for a life raft nearby to catch your breath. And if that doesn’t help, it might be time to get out and swim in new waters as I did.
Posted on November 12, 2020
I’ve been thinking lately about how the plans we make for our lives rarely come true the way we expect. Of course, this is something people tell you as you age. We hear teachers, pastors, and parents constantly say things about expecting the unexpected, as counterintuitive as it may be.
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans…” you know, the usual clichés. But I don’t think we fully grasp what that means until we have enough life experience, or at least one major formative event, to look back and recognize just how true this is. I know with an unshakeable confidence now that God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want.
One of the most beautiful things about childhood is the wild imagination. To create fearlessly, to dream tirelessly, and to imagine wildly are all markers of the innocence of childhood. You dream about what your life will look like as a teenager, then college student, then young adult, then parent, etc.
As a child, I used to write because of the pure joy it gave me to tell stories. The prospect of using the exact same words and language as many others before me yet the story was new every time? It was pure magic. Stories are magic.
But as the years go by, some slower than others, walls form in our minds and our hearts. These walls are often cultural messages about who a young woman or man should be. They are societal messages about what success should look like. Sometimes they’re familial messages about what values you should have. Or internal messages about whether you’re good enough and why or why not.
Time passes and it becomes harder to create with abandon, to imagine without fear, and to dream out loud. I’ve come to understand it’s the walls, the barriers, within us that are often the hardest to overcome. They hinder our ability to tell honest stories.
How many of us have willingly settled for less even though we knew we deserved more? Or perhaps you made assumptions about others that led you to treat them worse than they deserved? Maybe you’ve doubted your innate abilities and gifts, pursued things for the wrong reasons, criticized yourself too much, or silenced your own voice out of fear? Of course. We’re human.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes and less-than-ideal decisions over the years. But from those decisions, I’ve gained important lessons, funny memories, and formative experiences. They weren’t experiences I planned. In fact, they were sometimes ones I actively tried to avoid.
Yet amid the difficult seasons, I’ve also gone after what I wanted by applying to and getting jobs/internships for which I wasn’t sure I was qualified. I’ve voiced my opinions in classrooms and meetings. I’ve been honest even when it terrified me. I’ve trusted God and accepted uncertainty. I’ve taken chances that paid off. I’ve apologized and forgiven others.
So, what I’m trying to say is the idea of life working out the way you want it to doesn’t even make sense. How could any of us possibly predict all the people we’ve met, lessons learned, heartbreak endured, risks taken, and experiences that have shaped us?
Of course we have some say in the direction our lives go. This is not suggest we must all roam aimlessly without plans for the future. It’s simply to argue that those in-between moments, the unexpected moments of pain or joy, are what make a life.
This takes us back to the best thing about a child’s imagination. Children don’t dream about their future to be certain of it. They dream because the uncertainty is exhilarating to a young mind. Their imagination is boundless. All the different journeys are equally promising, equally open to possibilities. Our imagination never abandons us. Rather, we abandon it. Often by accident, without ever knowing.
I’m at somewhat of a crossroads in my life. I suppose we all always are. We are always facing forks in the road. Different paths to take. We just might not have our eyes open enough to notice. We assume we’ve already chosen our path, so we can’t possibly change course now. But a child who dreams of becoming a doctor or a teen who contemplates becoming a scientist doesn’t suddenly feel locked into this proposition. No, they become liberated by it.
We aren’t supposed to become prisoners of our dreams. The moment our dreams begin to confine us is the moment we need to explore other ones. Nothing squashes a dreamer’s spirit more than feeling trapped. If breaking free from a confined life means quitting a job, packing up and moving, leaving an unhealthy relationship, or taking a chance on a new one, then by all means we must do it.
The only certain thing about life is its uncertainty. I know that’s not a new idea but accepting this uncertainty while holding onto our creative imagination for dear life is the only meaningful way to live.
I used to chase degrees and resume lines like they would ultimately define my success in the world. As if, at a certain point, I would finally feel like I made it. I used to view everything I did as small steps toward reaching “my dreams”. But looking back on the last 26 years of my life, my fondest memories occurred during the seasons of my life when I didn’t know where the journey would take me. My favorite, happiest times occurred when I gave in fully to the present and let the future remain a blank state.
I think that’s why I’ve been a writer since I was little. You quite literally give yourself a blank page and lean into it. You don’t know what will end up on the page when you begin—you’re not even sure while you’re doing it. You just trust the process.
And it’s only after you finish writing that you read over the pages and acknowledge what you chose to fill it with. If you don’t like the story it tells, you know there is always another page waiting. But, on those lucky occasions when the words arrive effortlessly, they become the lighted torch you carry when the sky darkens and the road dissolves.
Posted on October 14, 2020
When it comes to our professional lives, we all want to be taken seriously and be viewed as competent, efficient, and valuable to our team, colleagues, or company. This is a basic, universal human need.
But problems arise when you begin attaching our self-worth to your levels of competency and productivity. Sometimes it takes years before this is clear to you and those around you.
For me? It took about 26 years and almost 3 degrees.
My self-worth was based on the quality of what I created, a strong work ethic, and “big” career goals. Specifically, these goals involved climbing the ladder of academic achievement by getting a Master’s degree and then pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology.
There were plenty of respectable motivations for doing this; I wanted to teach at a university, mentor college students, and inform people through research. But for all the honorable motivations, there were plenty of inadequate ones to which I was consciously unaware.
I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for the quality of my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid ofinadequacy and incompetence.
It was only after I left the doctoral program that I began to see how much these hidden, misguided motives were driving me. In fact, they drive many of us more than we know.
Perfectionism shows up differently for different people. Perfectionists are often mistaken for just high-achievers, but there are critical distinctions.
First, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking in which phrases like “never good enough” or “always procrastinating” are constantly echoing as self-criticisms in your head.
Perfectionists tend to be driven primarily by fear. Rather than a desire to achieve, you operate from a place of fear of failure. This fear is what propels you to achieve and obtain more and often leads to burn-out.
Perfectionism pushes you toward certain ambitions so that you can maintain a sense of worthiness. It leads you to believe you need more education or more expertise before you are credible enough.
As humans, we like to attach our identity to things we believe we can control. There is nothing fear loves more than convincing you that control is the key to life satisfaction. The irony is, of course, that we can never control outcomes.
There is wisdom in former NBA star Michael Jordan’s question, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” In other words, what is the point of worrying about failing at something you haven’t even tried yet?
But when you succumb to fear-based perfectionism, you stop paying attention to how you feel, what you want, and what makes you happy. When self-image takes precedence over creativity and joy, you allow perfectionism to triumph.
“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.
“You must achieve more,” perfectionism adds.
And before you know it, some of your dreams no longer belong to you.
Another danger of perfectionism its sneaky, covert nature. It evolves into almost indiscernible forms; it is merely a form of anxiety dressed in fancy clothes, clipboard in hand, reprimanding you for not trying hard enough or producing enough.
Perfectionism disguises itself in big ambitions and pretends to be the superpower not the villain, like an unhealthy, codependent relationship with an addict whose drug of choice is constant approval.
It also tricks you into believing it’s valued in society. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is valued. At least on the surface. But the value of what you produce can be at the cost of your well-being, mental health, and relationships. In fact, research suggests that those higher in perfectionistic tendencies experience more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Some of the harmful beliefs we acquire over time are “I am worthy of respect only if I am smart” and “I am worthy of being taken seriously only if I consistently work hard”. These are dangerous lessons. They are lessons I am still unlearning.
I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons why you worry about failing or not meeting expectations (even the ones you set for yourself). I do too, most days.
But trust me when I say from experience: only in releasing the illusion of control do we find the freedom to be the most authentic version of ourselves.
You might be too busy asking “how do I want to be seen?” to stop and consider “how am I already best equipped to serve people?” It wasn’t until I withdrew from the Ph.D. program that I began to acknowledge the credentials and experience I already had.
When you are too focused on all the things you think you “should” do or “should” become, you miss out on finding what truly fulfills you.
Instead of frantically searching for purpose, what if you can find purpose in where you currently are? What skills do you already possess that you’re passionate about? What are you already qualified for? What would you do with your life if you believed that who you are right now is already enough?
Believing you are worthy without all the extra stuff like degrees, awards, resume lines, or job titles is the only way to move forward. This is a radical idea in our culture but, more importantly, it is our antidote to perfectionism.
Posted on September 17, 2020
It has taken 26 years of life experience to draw the conclusion: what we fear most rarely if ever, comes true. No amount of preparation can fully mitigate the risks of living the life we want. If fear of the unknown is the only reason I have for not doing something, then I better find some other reasons.
As a child, I found solace from chronic anxiety through storytelling. It began by talking out loud to myself, making up stories, and playing different characters. Once I learned to write, these stories unfolded on paper. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I began to see the skills/hobbies/passions that emerge in childhood are strengths to be shared, not aspects to be hidden. What makes you feel weird as a kid is usually what makes you admirable as an adult.
There is something liberating about being present in the moment and surrendering control of the outcome. To quote Malcolm Gladwell, “Every option is open to you once you realize you can’t predict the future. It’s only our desire to predict the future that limits our choices.”
It’s easy to play the victim. Anyone can do that. But as Buddha taught, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Those who have wronged me rarely intended to cause harm, and ruminating on the ways I’ve been hurt only creates more pain. I feel physically and mentally lighter when I choose to forgive.
One of the side effects of a life of hustling is an occasional lack of awareness of our impact on people. It’s important to take time to process and reflect on the ways we have unintentionally hurt others. Maybe these instances are romantic, platonic, racial, familial, or professional. Most of my interpersonal mistakes have been due to ignorance and selfishness, not malice. Although reflecting on mistakes makes me want to run and hide at first, diving deep into the places I’d rather avoid is the most meaningful experience. Self-awareness is the only way I can forgive myself for having hurt people.
I used to be afraid of vulnerability for the same reasons we all are: we can’t predict the outcome. What if telling the truth doesn’t go well? What if I’m rejected? What if I offend someone? Fair questions. But not good enough fears to avoid vulnerability. When I have chosen to be emotionally vulnerable with others, the responses are almost always full of compassion, gratitude, and reciprocal vulnerability. The key is to know your motivations for doing so.
Sometimes we don’t view our passions as compatible with our career calling. I used to view my creative writing and storytelling as a side passion. Not to be shared. Not to be a profession. But my view has shifted because writing remains the one constant in my life. Now I understand that the thing I love to do most doesn’t have to be hidden behind the curtain. It can be front and center stage.
Bravery is not an absence of fear. Bravery is showing up as your full self in the presence of intense fear. It is taking the leap despite every fiber in your body screaming to run back to safety. It is honoring yourself and your beliefs in the face of criticism and judgment. Bravery is honesty and authenticity.
You know that inner voice of guidance and wisdom? Some might call it your gut, the universe, the angel on your shoulder, or your intuition. I call it God. And when I’m lost and confused, it is the only voice I listen to. It is the only voice that is eternally reliable. I’ve learned to listen by silencing outside noise (including my own mental chatter) and make space for God to speak to me.
I used to hesitate to speak up in class or meetings. But it’s better to speak up and have your idea shot down than to miss opportunities for your good ideas or thoughts to be heard. After learning how to advocate for what I want, stand up for what I believe in, offer an informed opinion, or admit a gap in knowledge, I’ve become more confident. I also recognize the importance of using my voice to amplify others’ voices who are being silenced.
It wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that all of life’s distractions and interruptions were stripped away. I was left with only my relationships and my faith. And what I realized? Those two things are all I need to be fulfilled.
It might be a cliché, but life really does begin at the end of our comfort zone. For me, that has been delivering presentations to a couple of hundred people, interviewing for graduate programs and jobs, quitting graduate programs and jobs, sharing my poetry, and telling someone “I love you” first. Some risks feel smaller than others, but they all have the power to radically change us for the better.
I became a master of compartmentalizing my feelings at a young age. I felt safer and more in control during conflicts when I didn’t engage in highly emotional reactions. But with any tactics we learn as children to function in our families, there are unintended consequences. Mine was a disconnect between what I thought and what I felt. I didn’t trust my emotional reactions; they felt primitive, unreliable, dramatic. I have since learned the importance of honoring and expressing my feelings. The best things in life — like falling in love — aren’t often logical anyways.
For a long time, I wanted to be a psychologist and professor. This dream wasn’t all for the wrong reasons by any means. I wanted to teach, mentor, help people, and work with college students. But for all the honorable motivations I had for pursuing a Ph.D., there were plenty of inadequate motivations too. I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid of inadequacy and incompetence. It was only after I left my doctoral program did I see these hidden, misguided motives clearly.
I took my first international trip when I was 16 to Guatemala. Since then, I’ve visited many countries, and I always keep a journal of my adventures. Years later when I reread my journals or flip through the pictures, I’m reminded of many memories, experiences, and feelings that might have otherwise been forgotten.
I used to wish I was more outgoing and talkative. But as my grandfather once said, “I find you learn a lot more by listening.” This is true. You also love others better when you listen. Most of the time people just want to be heard, not given advice.
For most of my life, I kept God at a distance, on a shelf where I could pull him down just when I needed him. But God doesn’t want to just be dusted off when it’s convenient for us. Would my best friend or boyfriend or parents be happy if I only engaged with them in the privacy of my home but mostly refused to be seen with them in the real world? God got my attention through a dark season of confusion and despair until I realized He needed to be front and center in my life. To me, this is the most compassionate, merciful way to get someone’s attention. We don’t think we need peace and salvation when we’re happy and coasting through life. We only recognize our need for saving when we feel like we’re drowning.
Opinions and advice can be helpful. But they can also cloud our judgment. Too many contradicting opinions can confuse us. When choosing between what others think I should do and what my gut tells me to do, I’m choosing my gut every time. You are the only person who gets to live your life.
Who we learn to be as children to function in our families is who we become as adults in the real world. This is developmental psychology 101. Patterns of how we learn to respond to conflict early on, express (or don’t express) our emotions, and offer and accept love are not easily understood until we become aware of our family history and dynamics.
As I get older, I become more aware of how tightly many adults are willing to hold onto their beliefs, even in the face of contradicting evidence. It’s as though a threat to one’s worldview is a threat to their character. But the people I respect most are willing to apologize, admit wrongdoing, and do better once they know better. I strive to be one of those people.
My first solo international travel experience occurred as a junior in college. I explored pockets of London by myself regularly and flew to several cities in the U.K. alone. It was exhilarating, slightly scary, and empowering. These experiences help us see just how capable and independent we are.
When we don’t have our values straight, we settle for situations and people that don’t recognize our value. I’ve been in relationships before where I mistook pain for love. Only once I became content being on my own did I become more selective about how and with whom I spend my time.
Being nice doesn’t equal being kind. Trying to keep the peace by brushing over conflict is only harmful in the long-run. My master’s program in counseling taught me the immeasurable benefits of offering constructive feedback (strengths, areas of growth, etc.) as well as being open to receiving feedback.
Young girls often have a fairytale conceptualization of romantic love. It comes from the movies we watch and stories we read. We grow up believing we must find a “soulmate” who will become our “other, better half” as if we were born half of a person. But I’ve learned that true love is a deliberate choice we make to share our already-full life with another person. True love is finding the person who helps you return to yourself when you’re at your worst. It isn’t just about picking the other up when they’re down, it’s holding them while they’re down. And then rising together.
I used to think quitting meant an admission of failure, that you got things wrong, or that you couldn’t accomplish what you set out to do. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes the most courageous and difficult choice we can make is the one to walk away.
When faced with a difficult decision, my first inclination was always to research, make a pros-and-cons list, and seek advice. Sometimes these are helpful parts of the process, but ultimately you are the only person who can decide what you want. To establish inner peace and find my answer, I’ve learned to quiet my mind and sit still in silence for several minutes. I try not to think or weigh my options, rather I stay present in the moment. I strongly believe the answers we seek already live inside of us; it is simply up to us to stay still long enough to let it surface.
Posted on September 13, 2020
When the coronavirus pandemic began, this new way of life required all of us to adapt. One thing the transition did for me was strip away all the distractions I used to avoid acknowledging my own unhappiness as a doctoral student in psychology. With most worldly interruptions gone, my focus narrowed on my work with data and research. Even on a good day, I was merely complacent.
Something needed to change, but I was looking for every reason to stay in the program. After all, I had worked my entire life to be exactly in this position. What else would I be doing? But I still wondered: how do we know if we’re experiencing universal challenges that can be overcome with time or simply a deep disconnect between our purpose and our circumstance?
One day as I was reading Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, four words on the page jumped out at me:
Be Still and Know.
Something inexplicably powerful came rushing over me. I burst into tears. My mind let go, and my body took over. I ran my fingers along my upper left rib cage, just below my heart, where I have those exact words tattooed in permanent ink. A realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I hadn’t been still. That was the problem. I hadn’t been still in over a year. On the contrary, I had been hurrying, consuming, seeking, researching, and doubting. I was looking for advice in all the wrong places.
At that moment, I sat up and relinquished all control. I surrendered, letting my shoulders fall away from my ears, my lower jaw release its tension, and my eyelids close shut. And what I discovered was that I did know. I had known all along but never stayed still long enough to let the knowing land on me.
My intuition spoke loud and clear: This is not meant to be your path. This is draining your creativity and confidence. It’s forcing you to hold values that you don’t share. It’s stifling your strengths and capitalizing on your weaknesses. It’s forcing you into a box that you were never meant to fit inside. It’s time to go another way.
I began to understand my doubts were never about being intelligent or capable or resourceful enough. It was never about self-efficacy; it was about self-preservation. I knew I could finish the doctoral program. But at what cost? Four more years of misery at worst or apathy at best? That is never a cost we should have to pay. The risks of ignoring what we know to be true are so much higher than the risks of walking away from the career path we’ve built.
Although there was now a deep knowing I needed to change course, the fear that accompanied it ran just as deep. Withdrawing felt scary and risky, while staying felt safe and predictable. So, what do most of us do when faced with a predicament like this? We put off action. We delay the uncomfortable conversations. We avoid the difficult decision because of the uncertain outcome.
Of course, avoiding our problems only backfires. Hiding gives fear more power. When we refuse to act, someone pays the price. Every lie costs someone something. But surrendering control of the outcome does not mean we must surrender control of our choices.
When we make the decision to listen to our intuition and take a risk, we are also choosing to relinquish control. We can’t be free and controlled by fear at the same time. We can’t make the jump while still clinging to the edge. It doesn’t work that way.
When I finally gathered the courage to share my official decision to withdraw from the Ph.D. program, the responses were full of compassion, understanding, and support. I returned to the creative endeavors I previously gave up in pursuit of academic prestige.
In determining your calling or purpose, there are some important questions to ask yourself:
It might take some exploring before you find your answer. But I have a feeling it’s the answer that has always lived inside of you. It doesn’t have to be the thing that pays your bills. It can be what you do outsideof the job that puts food on the table.
The truth is there is no valid step-by-step process on how to easily discover your calling. There is no universal checklist of things that must happen before you can know you’re on the right path. Just like falling in love, the answer is found in a gut feeling.
It will require great risk to pursue, but the strength of your faith will outweigh the fear if you let it. It will bring peace, not confusion. Connection, not isolation. Stillness, not hustle. And just like we might fall in love with a few of the wrong people before we find the right one, we might have to take a few wrong turns on the journey before we take the right one.
After walking away from my dream career in academia, I realized with a renewed clarity that my answer to all those important questions is one word. It’s one word that was stitched into my heart before I even had the capacity to write.
Stories. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, or listening to them. Stories breathe new life into me every time. I was designed to tell them. Our lives are stories, unfolding before our eyes every day like the turn of a fresh page. Some chapters we write, some happen to us, some we love, and some we can barely get through. But together they equate to a masterpiece of beauty and destruction, victory and defeat, pain and euphoria. And to write the ending all it takes is the courage to own them all.