After 1 year in business as full-time entrepreneur, I reached a level of mental and physical exhaustion I never knew existed. I learned the hard way that you can absolutely LOVE the crap out of your job, but lead yourself to total burnout. It took a breaking point to remind me what the most important things in life are.
My Experience with Burnout
At the end of July, I reached a point where I needed to re-evaluate my life and my work-life balance (or lack thereof). I learned the hard way that you can absolutely LOVE the crap out of your job, but lead yourself to total burnout.
I’d spent the past year as an enthusiastic new full-time business owner hustling my ass off and maxing out my schedule in a relentless attempt to reach what we all typically define as success, which really had no definition to me at this point besides earning money and doing lots of things. Being busy seemed to me to be characteristic of success so I put as much on my plate as possible, constantly thinking of ways to diversify and scale my business — not to mention the multiple jobs I’d been simultaneously working (four at one point) for years before that. I was afraid of failing and I wore my overwhelmed, overdriven nervous system as a badge of honour.
To sum up my workload, I had weekly YouTube videos to brainstorm, script, film, edit and upload, deadlines with brand deals to meet, client work, a blog and a community of now more than 150,000 people to manage—creating posts and responding to comments, questions, messages, email—and still some side contract work as a nutritionist I was doing earlier this year. I also decided to add more to the mix by creating and launching a 4-week online program. It was a whole other beast I’d chosen to tackle without fully considering the amount of work and mental recuperation it required. But it was a dream of mine and I was damn proud that I did it.
On top of that though, I was also managing back-end duties like website maintenance, troubleshooting, the complicated intricacies of email marketing, and all the other aspects of running a small wellness business such as day-to-day research, writing, blogging, photography, accounting, email, negotiating partnerships, and recipe testing and creating. The pressure I was under was through the roof and my work schedule was becoming a disaster.
Once you’ve created your latest piece of content, you’re inevitably onto the next with no time to lose. Things get old fast online, so it’s a constant, never-ending cycle. This is where I learned that it was essential to set strict boundaries for myself, and most importantly, adhere to them.
My goal over the past year had been to push through fears and live outside my comfort zone—operating under the notion that discomfort is what helps us grow—which I wholeheartedly stand by. I’m forever glad I chose to push myself for a long while because I definitely would not be who I am, know what I now know, or have as much confidence as I do now. But eventually it caught up with me.
How I Knew I Needed a Break
Earlier in 2019 I started noticing mild depression that would come and go. I chalked it up to PMS, but as the months went on, depression snuck in at random and more frequent times throughout the month. It was clear my unwavering sadness—often accompanied by anxiety and crying spells—wasn’t going away. If anything, it was getting worse. Mornings that used to be full of energy and excitement to start my day started to become riddled with anxiety. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to do work. I didn’t have energy. I felt listless, lethargic, and completely overwhelmed by my never-ending to-do list as menial tasks started to become tremendously difficult to carry out. I was physically and mentally exhausted, a feeling I described as though my body and brain were “made of molasses”. I incessantly checked up on social media and refreshed my email inbox any chance I got. It was as if my brain had no power to do actual work so it resorted to mindless scrolling and stat-checking out of habit. But spending time on social media only made me feel worse by comparing myself to other people and fuelling the perfectionism I’d already been struggling with. All of it contributed to my feelings of emptiness and lack of control.
I knew I needed a break but for some reason I just kept going, until, at the end of July while trying desperately to finish editing a video, I broke down into hysterical tears. I could physically not stop crying. My mind felt numb as I sat on the floor and sobbed.
I reached the pinnacle of burnout.
I lost all productivity. All zest. All motivation. And I had the pressure that nobody had put on me but myself to continue to perform and deliver. What made it worse were two things. First, I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I loved my job. Why had it become so mentally taxing? For a while I had no idea that I was experiencing burnout so I kept working and I kept searching elsewhere for answers. Is my thyroid dysfunctional? Am I low in iron? And secondly, aside from my incredibly supportive partner Sean, it felt like I had nobody to talk to, nor did my online community have any idea that I was dealing with some mental health issues.
Working from home for an entire year took an emotional toll on me that I didn’t expect. After quitting my job, I left behind meaningful relationships with my coworkers that I’d spent years building. They were my family and my support system, not only because we got to know each other so well, but because we also shared so much in common as fellow nutritionists and entrepreneurs. I was now working by myself, making decisions by myself, and trying to navigate a puzzling new set of emotions as a full-time entrepreneur… by myself.
Once I reached my breaking point, I had an epiphany. I not only realized I didn’t want to live like this, but I didn’t need to live like this. I knew I needed to take a break and completely withdraw myself for a little while from all of the things that lead me to burnout in the first place. But most importantly, I needed to make some major lifestyle changes going forward. And so I made the definitive choice to take a break from work and social media for a couple weeks to regain my sanity.
I spent the first couple days of my time off feeling uneasy. I had to catch my impulses to grab my phone and check up on things, I felt undeserving of time off as I compared my situation to others, and I felt guilty about it altogether as taking a break felt so foreign to me. Of course I’ve gone on vacations or enjoyed weekends with no work, but I’ve never really stopped. Social media is something I’d never actually taken a break from since I first started using it for my business over 6 years ago. Kind of unbelievable when I think about it. This meant work was always on my mind, photos were always being taken, video ideas were constantly being brainstormed, stats were constantly being checked, the comparison devil was always on my shoulder, and my need to “succeed” never left my brain. I was “on” at all times, even if I was theoretically “off”.
You see, this is the nature of the beast when you have a business that revolves around social media. Once you’ve created your latest piece of content, you’re inevitably onto the next with no time to lose. Things get old fast online, so it’s a constant, never-ending cycle. This is where I learned that it was essential to set strict boundaries for myself, and most importantly, adhere to them.
It’s important that I emphasize here the fact that I love what I do, and that I never, ever cease to feel grateful for the job I have. Social media has tremendous advantages; it allows me to inspire thousands of people all over the world, something that would otherwise be next to impossible to do. My mission has always been to inspire or educate as many people as I can (or who are willing to listen). Plus, I get to use my creative skills and make a living out of it all at the same time. It’s a win-win-win situation.
Problems arise when we get lost in it, and this tendency isn’t unique to me. It’s a collective experience shared by most users of social networking sites and apps. We become addicted to the idea of large followings, our worth so tightly woven to the number of likes we get on a photo or video we’ve spent hours or days editing. Not to mention the comparison game we all play when we see others posting content that always seems to be better than ours.
As I began to re-evaluate my life, I realized that I’d lost touch with myself along the way. I was so caught up in doing what I’d learned, heard, or thought was best for being “successful”, unknowingly discarding what personally worked or felt best for me. I was in a limbo of sorts for a while between this awareness of what I wanted to do vs. what I was told I should do and once my burnout reared its ugly head, I was on a mission to overwrite the things that no longer served me. I wanted to create again from my heart (as lame as that sounds), and from inspiration that came to me without concerning myself with other people’s levels of success. I wanted to feel passion for my work again—not that I no longer enjoyed the content I created—but the level of pressure and overwhelm I was experiencing certainly made the process lacklustre.
My new mantra became “no stress”. I decided I wanted to live as stress-free as possible during my time off, albeit short, but also once I got back to work. That meant doing less and it also meant caring less. Like, a lot less. Not being constantly bombarded by random social posts helped with this.
I started revisiting old passions of mine such as expression through writing and poetry. I read through old posts on my personal poetry blog, Free Spirit Journal, to reconnect with the girl from a decade ago who first fell in love with the world of healthy living before I even studied nutrition or started a YouTube channel. I rekindled the parts of me that I put on the back burner for so long while I’d been frantically trying to keep up with the rat race, and in doing so, I remembered why and how I started my business and became an entrepreneur in the first place. This was integral to help me reconnect with my mission.
- went for walks in the park, enjoying the world around me
- went to bed early
- napped if I needed a nap
- cried if I needed to cry
- went camping
- unsubscribed from annoying mailing lists that were piling up in my inboxes
- took ashwagandha and other adaptogenic herbs to support my nervous system
- stopped taking photos of places I’d go or things I’d do
- stopped taking my phone with me or use it very much altogether besides for listening to podcasts and audiobooks
- let myself be bored (which proved to be a very important activity)
- started meditating every day
- practiced gratitude
- reached out to more of my friends
I finally gave myself the time and space to enjoy the life around me that I created for myself. The dream life that I dreamed about years before was right here, right now, before my eyes. I was in it, and finally letting myself properly live it.
I didn’t take a 6-month sabbatical to travel the seven seas and partake in a week long silent meditation retreat. All it took was slowing down, taking things off my plate, and not using social media to the point of draining all my mental and emotional energy to make major shifts to my wellbeing. In just a few days, my energy returned, my flow of inspiration came back, I felt more patient and calm, I felt motivated to work, and my attention span improved. I could listen and concentrate so much better after what seemed like years of dwindling focus and skyrocketing irritability. While I’ve been able to address the root causes of my burnout and make big improvements to my wellbeing, I know it’s going to take time for me to find the right balance.
It’s not a simple process and it can take time to recover from burnout or nervous exhaustion, so I’m treading carefully forward to prevent slipping back to old patterns. Habits are hard to break after all, aren’t they? But I now have steps in place going forward, such as streamlining different aspects of my business, setting boundaries, not spending so much time on social media, and not spreading myself so thin. In the past, success meant something along the lines of being busy with endless projects, infinite growth, and an arbitrary number of dollars in the bank. But it took burnout for me to ask myself, “To what end can all of those things exist?” You can have all of those things, but if you’re overworked and unhappy, none of it is worth it. And that’s the truth. I decided instead that if I feel calm, joyful, and a sense of true enjoyment and accomplishment is experienced with my work, I am successful.
We can’t love every single thing about the work we do, no matter what your job is. That’s just reality. But we can strive to make shifts where possible to improve our levels of enjoyment, reduce overwhelm, and find the best balance we can.
It often takes reaching a breaking point, the end of our rope, or even a diagnosis to force us to make changes. Isn’t that always the way? But I’ve felt more inspired than ever to share the life lessons I’ve been learning over the past few weeks and months and the lifestyle changes I’ve been making as I continue to fine tune the elusive work-life balance. If you’ve been on a similar path of burn out, chronic stress, or overwhelm, I feel you, and I’ll share more soon.
Here’s a reminder to you to give yourself permission to slow down and put your mental health first.