How many burnouts does it take to thrive? Short answer: for me, a lot.
I’m not sure how many times it happened over the course of my eight-year fortune-100 finance career, but over and over again, after long, pressure-filled hours of client and internal deadlines to sell high dollar/high visibility outsourcing projects (my dad would send me the WSJ articles to confirm), I’d end up anxious, tired, irritable, heavy, mildly depressed, SO over my job, and concerned for my future. I was fighting burnout.
Is this just my life? Is this affecting my long-term health? Was this the way work was supposed to feel? Adulthood too? Success? My parents didn’t romanticize work, but they also didn’t hate it — but my situation must be worse. I mean, how would I ever meet a partner? Get married? Have kids? Enjoy hobbies? Feel some sort of fulfillment, balance, or get in the driver’s seat of my own life?
I asked these questions a lot, when it got bad.
But then, my thoughts would shift back to the perks, because it wasn’t all bad; in fact, there were a lot of great things about my finance career. There were people who really got sh*t done, an attractive salary, bonuses, 401K matching, employee stock, the best health insurance you can get (in a time when it really counted), innovative trainings, opportunities for career growth, flexibility, the ability to shape my role to be more about training and mentoring people, international travel, world-wide company recognition, and the list goes on.
So what ends up being the straw to break the camel’s back? It’s different for everyone and their own life circumstances, but I’ll share from my own experience, because these scenarios can really happen to anyone. I think lot of us dive into a pros-and-cons analysis in many areas of our lives, especially around big decisions — questioning whether you’re dating the right person, if you should you move to a new city, end that friendship that’s gotten super difficult — and sometimes, it helps; other times, it leaves you more confused. But I believe the answer may not be something you can quantify on paper and it may take some time to figure out. For me, it was a combination of experiences that served as wake up calls to help me get back in touch with my heart, gut, and intuition.
Let me explain…
First was the perfect storm. I traveled to India to teach a three-week training where I realized, as I gave what was historically one of my favorite presentations that I felt completely dispassionate about the subject. I realized couldn’t teach finance anymore. This was “wakeup moment #1” I also closed on my first condo while in India, came home to the new condo to learn that the second story living room flooded with gallons of water from the nearby HVAC closet. Wow, not what I was expecting the first week in my new home! And then my boss told me I needed to be in NYC the Monday after Thanksgiving (i.e. four days from now). After negotiating my time on-site to no avail, I knew I was in for many late nights with a very demanding team.
Then, a few weeks into the project tired, stressed, and cranky, I ended up, in my finest form, yelling at a man in the revolving door of the Marriott hotel, after Grinchingly dragging my suitcase through Times Square as I watched the tourists joyfully celebrating what was now the holiday season. Proud moment? The exact opposite. This was not the me I wanted to be and was extremely out of character. I didn’t yell at people, and I felt disappointed by my actions.
It’s amazing how an angry moment with a complete stranger can make you question your actions and cause you to start to really examine your life. In this moment, I realized in hindsight, something in me had shifted. This was what I call my “wakeup moment #2.” I then slept five hours, struggled through the rest of my project, and flew back to Chicago.
Now that the project was over, I had breathing room, and the first time in a while to reflect. I went to see my therapist to tell her, yet again, about my vicious cycle of dreadful work projects and their accompanying emotional rollercoasters. In that session, I had my third, and most pivotal “wakeup moment #3” when she asked me: “Liz, how many more times will you let yourself go through this?”
It was a jaw-drop moment, but I was so good at concealing emotion that I probably just smiled.
The question seemed so simple, yet the timing of words — from the right, trusted person — can literally transform your perspective. It was then, a pit in my throat, fumbling for a logical response moment, that I knew in my heart that my life was about to change. In what felt like a split second, I went from being a victim of my circumstances to becoming an empowered woman. I could suddenly see that my career path was 100 percent my choice – no one else’s. I started to think about what could be next. I reminded myself of the financial support I’d built up over the years, a subconscious preparation for when this time would come.
In what felt like a split second, I went from being a victim of my circumstances to becoming an empowered woman. I could suddenly see that my career path was 100 percent my choice – no one else’s.
Over the course of the next few weeks, as I continued to rest and introspect, the mental shifting continued. I started to recognize all of the skills I had learned over the years were assets to take with me wherever I went next. I allowed myself to think about the kinds of work I would be most excited about. I truly allowed myself to entertain a desire that was buried so deep inside of me; a desire to live a different kind of life, one that defined success in a way that felt authentic to me, and one filled with much more joy. I didn’t know exactly what that life looked like, but I knew I was curious and as ready as I’d ever be to make the leap.
The first working day after the New Year, which happened to be about one month before my 30th birthday, I put in my notice. I was the most nervous I ever remember being in my entire life, but I knew I had to do this. Many people around me thought I was being impulsive and that I’d regret this decision, especially without having a specific job lined up. And as hard as it was to ignore these voices, especially as a recovering people pleaser, I knew not to listen to them. I knew this was the first big move I was making for myself. Finally. I felt liberated.
The first working day after the New Year, which happened to be about one month before my 30th birthday, I put in my notice.
Upon returning my laptop, I took three months off — I made a pact with myself that I would only commit to things that brought me joy. So it all started with watching Breaking Bad and House of Cards — both quite uplifting, I know. Then, as spring approached, I frequented the farmer’s market, started cooking, and went to yoga. I traveled a bit domestically. I enjoyed my home (sans flooding). I lost weight (not because I tried). My body started to feel like my own — I stopped beating myself up for not being thin enough. I started to cherish my body with immense gratitude, especially after all the work stress it had endured. I felt truly peaceful and calm, something I’m not sure I had ever felt before.
And while there were many wins, there were still fears and challenges. I questioned a lot of my beliefs, my relationships with friends, family, and partners, my perspective on work and finances, and how society and patriarchy can shape women as individuals and professionals. It was a lot to handle. At times, I questioned whether I’d ever want to work again, which really scared me, as a single woman supporting herself, but more importantly as a woman who had “driven” tattooed on her forehead for so many years. My therapist reassured me I wasn’t going to be sitting on the couch for forever and instilled faith in me that I’d want to learn and challenge myself in new ways one day.
And she was right! I got the natural urge to brainstorm what I’d most like doing for a living and I reached out to people who were doing similar things. I, humbly, put one foot in front of the other and one thing led to the next.
It’s been almost five years since I left corporate life. I’ve been coaching, training, writing, and speaking to empower people to make the change in their lives they so badly want. I love the work I do, the people I work with, and the fact that I can honestly be myself for a living. I have reinvented my life and my relationship to work, and while, yes, I still stress (because I am human), I can honestly say I am now thriving. I am living the life that feels SO meant for me and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
So what is the ultimate tipping point to end the madness and commit to living a new way? Wanting your new future more than you want your current reality (and sometimes it just takes someone you care about to point that out to you).
I continue to learn throughout this journey, but here are a few of my biggest insights if you’re sick of feeling burned out and thinking about a change:
Remember that no one is immune to burnout.
And just because you burn out, does not mean you have to leave your career. Burnout is complicated, but I view it as a function of both personal habits or your mindset, as well as your organization’s culture and the environments you surround yourself in. Focus on your role in your current circumstances — ideally with a trained professional — before you jump.
Your feelings are your gateway to happiness, fulfillment, empathy for others, and burnout prevention.
Feel them, have compassion for them, get curious about where they come from if they concern you and never let anyone tell you you’re too emotional, sensitive, or just plain too much.
Boundary building is a life-long journey, if you’ve committed to a life of constantly growing into your best self.
Your boundaries will get challenged as your goals get bigger — you’ll think you’ve done all your work (and more) and you’ll be challenged again. Executing these boundaries will help you protect your greatest asset, your energy, and prevent burnout.
The ability to be creative and use your intuition is priceless.
It’s what drives innovation, and the thing that my clients come to me saying is a “missing piece” they can’t define. This is something I craved most in corporate America, and one of the reasons I burned out so frequently was that I rarely was able to use my intuition. Your intuition is the gateway to creativity, innovation, authenticity, fulfillment, and sustainable growth. It marries your brain, heart, and soul, and when you do too many things that go against your intuition, you start to feel stressed, lose energy, and get really run down.
In our society, and many workplaces, there is a subconscious (or conscious) bias that women are still viewed as caregivers.
We are encouraged to take care of people, situations, etc., and do the emotional labor of keeping things “peaceful” not only in the office, but at home. While we may be really good at this, it can put immense pressure on us, limit our potential, and lead to burnout. I encourage you to start, and ask yourself why you are constantly the caregiver and what would life be like if you took your foot off the gas pedal a little bit. It could make all the difference.
Editor’s Note: This is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional therapy, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical/mental health condition.