Career & Finance

How Therapy Helped Heal My Workplace Burnout as a Black Woman

how to avoid work burnout as a black woman"
how to avoid work burnout as a black woman
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider

“I’m happy I slowed down… there is abundance in stillness,” I texted my best friend one afternoon over a holiday break. It was the first break in almost four years that I wasn’t dreading returning to the grind of being a publicist.

I knew I was unhappy a few months after starting a new job, but I couldn’t quite understand why. Unable to get to the bottom of my feelings, I sought therapy in hopes of getting an unbiased opinion on what was happening inside of my head. As I was telling my therapist what I was experiencing at work and in my personal life, she guided me through my emotions and helped me understand that I was, in fact, suffering from workplace burnout. And it made sense. I was working 12-14 hour days, having anxiety attacks before and during work, sleeping poorly, and dealing with an unstable mood. My workload and virtual work setting only added to my feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion.

Despite what I was struggling with, I started meeting expectations at work with the help of tools I started to learn in therapy. I learned how to set boundaries, speak up for myself, and develop healthy coping habits from therapy. After implementing these changes, my performance skyrocketed. But unfortunately, even though I was able to overcome what I was experiencing at work, I had some personal issues come up at the same time that, in turn, affected my work, too. I decided to take a leave of absence to recover from burnout and nurture my relationship with myself and the perfectionism tendencies I struggle with in both my personal and professional life.

As a Black woman who comes from a working-class family, it felt like I was swimming in a sea of unknown issues. I didn’t know how to get to the solutions. But through therapy, I was able to cope with and remedy my burnout, and I’ve been better for it. Here’s how I did it:

I learned to acknowledge my struggles

The first step I took to overcome burnout was getting honest with myself about my relationship with perfectionism and acknowledging that I was actually burnt out. In my experience, it’s hard for Black women to have the courage to speak up about what they are going through, whether that’s at work or outside of it. I’ve always had the mentality of not giving something energy if I didn’t want to deal with it. When I had friction with my family, friends, or work, I would avoid the situation and act like it didn’t exist. Throughout therapy, I learned that when you don’t acknowledge an issue or if you continue to let it fester, you are still giving it your energy. This led me to acknowledge my toxic relationship with perfectionism. If I didn’t come to this realization and deal with it, it would become a bigger detriment to myself in life and at work.

When you don’t acknowledge an issue or if you continue to let it fester, you are still giving it your energy.

Having a Black woman as a therapist eased my fear of feeling unworthy. She understood me. During my leave of absence, I took the time to think deeper about my relationship with work and my career, and through that, I leaned into the self-work I needed to do to acknowledge my struggle with perfectionism. This gave me so much confidence to continue to unlearn what I have been telling myself about my performance at work. Speaking up for yourself is like a muscle you have to exercise for you to master. Even though I’m not perfect at this yet, I have seen a lot of growth from speaking the truth to my experience.

I released my expectations and embraced change

Taking a leave of absence was a daunting and exhilarating experience. I had no idea how my professional or personal life would unfold because of it. Like many Black women who were sold the dream of climbing the corporate ladder and how it equated to our self-worth, embracing this change was hard but necessary to push me out of my comfort zone. Perfectionism was tied to my identity, so going from having a strict 9-5 schedule to having autonomy over my life helped me release the high expectations I didn’t realize I set for myself. Releasing these expectations led me on a journey of dealing with my self-doubt and the shield I built for myself by putting all of my worth into what I was able to produce.

Throughout the time I spent with my therapist, we talked a lot about the importance of rest. When I was knee-deep in burnout, rest didn’t seem attainable even though I knew I desperately needed it. However, once I worked on why I had unrealistic expectations of myself and why I thought I always had to push myself so hard, I was able to think about what I actually wanted instead of what I thought I had to do to feel accomplished.

This unlocked a feeling of peace inside me that I truly didn’t know existed. Releasing the expectations I set for myself allowed me to have a new perspective on work-life balance and embrace that it was time to make some changes. It was hard for me to understand at first why I felt like I didn’t belong in certain workplaces anymore or why I had a gut feeling to “do less” than what I was used to doing, but once I came to terms with knowing that what I was feeling was valid, it made me feel more connected with myself. I was not the same person I was years ago when I first started working, and it’s OK to shift my priorities—allowing much-needed rest in order to succeed instead of thinking success came from running myself into the ground.

I focused on my intentions over my goals

In therapy, I learned how to change my mindset around how I approach my day and my goals. I had the time and space to rethink how I approached what I wanted to accomplish and think bigger about the meaning behind that accomplishment. So now, instead of writing down a to-do list or a long list of goals, I write an intentions list. Adopting an intentions list over a traditional to-do list has helped me redefine what’s important to me and has helped me accept that it’s OK to not get everything done on my list all the time. Plus, it has allowed me to focus on non-work related things I want to do for my well-being, such as meditating, taking a walk, and not checking my phone for the first 30 minutes of being awake. Before, I wouldn’t consider these “to-dos,” but now I know how important it is for me to prioritize my well-being before my work.

Focusing on my intentions has helped me not become fixated on the things I don’t get to accomplish in a day and instead, makes me proud of what I am working toward. After a couple of months of doing this method, I was more fulfilled about what I was accomplishing. It improved my overall mood toward what was on my plate. Having a meaning behind what I wanted to do and understanding why I wanted to do something has made a big difference in my self-esteem. It has also created a space for me to not be confined to just checking things off on my list.

I want Black women to know that needing help and support is a right, not a privilege.

We all have been in a space where it feels like we need extra hours in a day, but trying to get everything done on our plate despite not having enough time to do it is where burnout lives and thrives. Learning to prioritize my intentions has made a giant impact on me not slipping back into perfectionism and burnout.

I continuously prioritize work-life balance, self-work, and therapy

I am happy to be on the other side of burnout (for now), but therapy has taught me that the work doesn’t stop. Of course, I still get wrapped up in my head sometimes. I think about all the things I should be doing and what it would look like to other people if I didn’t. Acknowledging my struggles and incorporating rest, intentions, and much-needed downtime into my schedule has had the biggest impact on my life, and it’s something I intend to keep incorporating to prevent workplace burnout.

For years I would make to-do lists that were related to work. Now, I carve out space for my daily walks, meditating, reading, watching my favorite childhood TV shows or movies, taking vacations, and doing outside activities like rollerblading and riding my bike. I’ve seen such a shift in my personal and work life due to this. Now, when I start work, it’s easier for me to sit down and focus.

I’m learning how to manage my expectations with what I want to do versus what was expected of me to do, and I spend my time doing work I’m passionate about instead of work I feel like I have to do to be considered successful. If there is one thing I learned from my therapy, it’s that I deserve this.

I want Black women to know that needing help and support is a right, not a privilege. It can open up their world, help them find inner peace, and define their own version of success like it did for me. Therapy for Black Girls is a fantastic resource for any Black woman looking for a therapist, and I highly recommend it to any Black woman in need of support.