Burnout and the Millennial Condition

Hi, my name is Robyn, and I’m a millennial.

Hi, Robyn.

Millennials are the generation that people love to hate. We’re lazy, immature and largely responsible for the failing state of economies all over the world, especially the cow’s milk industry. We’re liberal snowflakes and angry pussy-hatted protesters. We’re progressive, artisanal and a good number of us still live with our parents.

We’re also depressed, anxious and burnt out.

Yes, burnt out.

If you’re a millennial and you haven’t yet read the Buzzfeed article ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’ by Anne Helen Petersen, go and read it now. I’ll wait.

Done?

Did it feel like a gut punch? No? High-five for being a well-adjusted human being. But if Anne Helen was strumming your pain with her fingers and telling your life with her words, you are not alone. We are even less alone than I thought we were when I first started writing this because yesterday BBC Three ran an article featuring responses from fellow millennials about how burnout looks in their lives.

Click here for commiseration. Also here.

In case you start thinking ‘Millennial Burnout’ is just another one of those disorders that only affects rich kids from first world countries – stop. Don’t think that. What is wrong with you? I’m a not-rich adult from a developing island state and let me be the first to tell you, that shit is real. Perhaps even more real in an economy that depends heavily on unstable external support and where I’m the first person in my immediate family to pursue tertiary education.

The pressure to perform, to achieve, and to never stop never stopping can easily lead to feelings of overwhelm and underachievement. You have to be on your A-game at all times – opportunity only knocks once. In a fractured health care system where most workers only have baskets to carry water, you have to go above and beyond to help the people who need it. In a society where Facebook and Instagram are as ubiquitous as breadfruit trees you are constantly comparing yourself to everyone else.

We know it’s unhealthy. The lines between work and life have become so blurred that for most of us work doesn’t end when we leave to go home. At home we’re answering work emails, work phone calls, taking work home with us to get it done in time. We – I – sacrifice family time and rest to get a little further ahead on this project or that meeting.

And even though we realize that something’s not quite right, we keep doing it. Sleep suffers, our concentration starts to slip, fatigue starts to drift in. But how can we stop? We’ve got to keep on keeping on because there’s more work to be done, more achievements to unlock, and you’re never going to get that promotion if the boss thinks you can’t handle the job.

I only go to sleep after dragging myself away from the work I brought home. I dream about work meetings going awry. The first thing on my mind when I wake up is ideas for Powerpoint presentations. I reply to work emails at 5 in the morning, and most days I am so tired that without coffee I barely function. I can’t remember how to relax, I obsess over to-do lists and I feel guilty if I take a night off to rest because there are so many things that need doing.

And it’s not just work, it’s the whole shebang. Bills and student loans, grocery shopping and car maintenance and all the little things that add up to keeping us afloat and financially solvent. We call it ‘adulting’. Our parents would have probably called it ‘life’. But life in 2019 is very different from “the way things used to be”, as Granny likes to remind me.

In every corner there’s another concern to preoccupy our thoughts: climate change, the environment, human rights, motherfucking R. Kelly, crime and violence. I live in St. James and even though the State of Emergency supposedly expired in January, I drive past cops at checkpoints twice a day. Not exactly a low-stress work commute.

This morning I texted my best friend, all the way across the world, and asked “Do you ever just feel tired?” To her everlasting credit she immediately demanded to know what was wrong. As I spilled my guts about the mental and emotional fatigue that have plagued me since med school she listened and reassured me that I wasn’t a crazy perfectionist snowflake. And then she told me her own story of overwhelm and I felt less alone.

It’s not just us and the readers over at BBC Three. Petersen’s original article went viral because it resonated with thousands of people. While I’m sure we’d all prefer to have something less depressing in common, it’s clear that this isn’t just some excuse for lazy, entitled failed adults. Haters, step off now.

True to form, millennials have gone all out to find ways to re-pep our step: #selfcare mani-pedis, meditation apps, a smorgasbord of life-changing ‘magics’. But in her essay Anne Helen asserts that no amount of self-help books, life hacks or yoga retreats will fix us. Houston, we have a problem.

Instead she invites us to find joy and meaning by living life, instead of optimizing it. A difficult concept for a generation used to curated social media streams, helicopter parenting and efficient schedules. Can we really stop moving long enough to simply enjoy things as they are? Are we even built that way?

As we millennials move into middle age, a time of life where the dirt settles and the patterns form a picture*, will we get a grip on the subconscious motives that drive us to burn out? Can we stop the imminent crash and burn in time to avoid debilitating illness? (Fibromyalgia is a legitimate concern). Will we ever move out of of our parents’ houses??

Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion.

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*Quote paraphrased from Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem ‘Mental Health’. Go and read it now. Thank me later.

Visions (but not like, the high kind)

Lately I’ve been feeling really stressed out at work. Proper stress: headaches, stomach aches, feeling like I was about to explode from internal pressure. I was freaking out about my work responsibilities which seemed to loom ever larger in my paranoid imagination, but in reality were only so intimidating because I was setting the bar so very high for myself.

I started listening to this podcast a few months ago. And while it’s a kick-ass repository of career advice and entertaining conversations on how to be awesome at your job, it was also setting me up for failure. Every new technique I learnt, I wanted to start doing immediately. I judged my own growth against concepts and ideas from more experienced professionals and found myself painfully lacking. I threw myself into a fit, trying to ‘catch up’ and ‘do it all’. My control freak tendencies came out full force.

And week after week, my job resisted all attempts at micromanaging. Shockingly, people are impossible to control. I know this is breaking news to you guys, so maybe take a second to get used to this epiphany. Patients do whatever the hell they want, responsibilities and priorities shift all the time, colleagues do not share your work ethic, etc etc.

Mercifully, the culmination of all this stress was a breakthrough and not a breakdown. Driving home on the verge of tears for the fifth Monday in a row I let my thoughts swirl around the car interior like angry wasps. Then among the wasps, wisps of remembered conversations and podcasts snippets coalesced to remind me of a word I had forgotten in my desperate scramble to control.

Vision.

I didn’t have any. Or I had too much. I didn’t know, because in the middle of all this over-thinking and I had never actually stopped to think about what I wanted to make happen. I was furiously building a boat on dry land without ever having dreamed of the sea.

So I started dreaming, and I started writing things down. I wrote quickly, more concerned with getting the ideas out of my head before they exploded my head. I edited after, because I have standards.

And incredibly I felt lighter. The stress had shifted from an angry hornet’s nest to a more manageable ball of barbed wire. I knew what I was aiming for now, what the end result should look like, and I had something I could show to other people and ask for help so I’d feel less alone. It was incredible.

In his seminal work, Stephen Covey talks about how important it is for a leader to have vision. He makes the analogy of a group of people in a forest working to clear a path, with managers directing the machete-wielders to chop down the right set of trees. But the leader is the one who climbs up, looks around and yells, ‘Wrong forest!’

And honestly, I understood that when I was reading it. Yes, obviously vision is important. 2+2=4. Duh. But I didn’t really get it until I had finished mapping my own visions and realized, with great humility, that this was the most important part of the job all along.

‘Balance’

I started a 30-day yoga challenge a few weeks ago and as I sank my forehead to the mat for the first time the instructor asked us to think about the reason we started this challenge and what we hoped to take away. One word popped into my mind, strolling across my consciousness like the fantasy I have where I’m forty fifty years old with grey locs sweeping the floor, dressed in a mumu with my arms flung open like I’m hugging the world.

balance

I’m not alone, right? Please tell me all have weird visions of our future selves.

Amidst work obligations, family life and a depressing sort of loneliness, balance looks like working less, writing more and being kind to my body. It looks like weekends that are open to possibilities; it looks like returning to the yoga mat over and over again; it looks like expanding my circle of intimacy – finding new friends and staying connected with old ones.

Balance looks like aligning my practices with my goals. Just after graduation I spread my sails wide, wanting to test as many waters as I could. Now I’m finding my current and I feel a tug in that special direction. Away from some things, necessarily, but towards other things that resonate more deeply.

I hope that by focusing on balance in the coming months I can end 2018 with a little more stability and sureness of purpose. I hope my anxiety lessens (and so far it has ) and I hope my life aligns itself in the direction I’ve always intuitively wanted to go.

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Pax.

Clouds and their Silver Linings

The recent deluge haranguing Montego Bay has put a damper on so many things. Parties are in danger of being rained out, employees have yet another excuse for being late, and most frustratingly I can’t get the sunshine time my laundry needs to dry.

While I’m stuck in this limbo land of weather, I am realizing with greater certainty how important it is to be patient, with the world and myself. All good things take time; seeds and stories and life plans must germinate before they can flourish. Though Montego Bay is utterly miserable in a downpour, the rain brings much needed refreshment to a parched and grimy landscape.

In an effort to remind myself about this need to be patient I started a ‘Future journal’. In it I have been writing down all the things I think I need to have a good life. It seems materialistic, but by writing down these worldly wants I find that I can filter out most of my day-to-day whims (which are never necessities but still somehow make me feel like I’m missing something vital) and focus on the true essentials.

In the middle of this cold front I also managed to get sick again, which has reminded me to pace myself and listen more keenly to what my body is saying. Right now it’s saying that I need a health dose of Vitamin C and more blankets. But I hope the lessons in patience and listening will stick around even after my sneezing fits are over.

 

You are (meant to be) here.

I am often overwhelmed by day to day decision-making. Simple choices like what to have for breakfast, or which route to drive home, or what outfit to wear build themselves up in my mind, until somehow they have acquired more space than they should. Suddenly my decision to stop at the supermarket after work has the same weight as deciding to pursue postgraduate education.

Often, too, it feels like all my decisions are the wrong ones. When I follow my instincts, when I don’t follow my instincts – no matter how I try to weigh the pros and cons I still end up feeling like I let the right choice slip away.

Last week I was running late to pick my partner up from work. As usual my series of choices led me down the wrong path: tardiness. But as I crested the hill, I caught a glimpse of the sunset on the horizon. The brilliantly scarlet star was seconds away from sinking out of view, and I got to watch those seconds.

Almost instantly I felt a wave of calm and certainty. All the choices I had made that day – wrong, right or indifferent – had led me to this exact moment, and I couldn’t have timed it better if I tried. It suddenly didn’t matter that I was late – lateness happens. All that mattered was that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

 

Dawnchaser

I love travelling.

I love the quiet stillness that enters my mind when I’m riding along though noisy traffic or empty back roads with serene pastures. There’s a weight that feels lifted off my shoulders, a loosening of the usual necktie of anxiety and suddenly I can breathe. I can think without over thinking. I can decide without second guessing. Best of all, I can sleep.

Travelling in the wee hours of the morning is even better because now it’s combined with the mysterious delight of being awake when no one else is. That feeling also leaves me at peace and content.

Maybe this is a metaphor of some sorts. A reminder to cherish the journey more than the destination.

And isn’t that the whole point of life anyway?

Getting Okay with Being Happy

There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.
-Oscar Wilde

Does anyone else find that they are most miserable when they finally get what they want? I’m not talking about the feeling of almost-but-not-quite-satisfaction when you have nothing else to wish for (and come on, we’re human beings. There will always be something else to wish for). I mean the other feeling. The feeling that there’s something wrong with you being happy.

Am I crazy? Yes. Am I alone in my craziness? I really hope not.

My life has been coming together in a way that is entirely surprising and entirely unfamiliar to me. So far everything is on track (I am knocking on ALL the wood, universe): my career, my personal life, my finances. And I’m a little bit (okay, a lot) baffled by how coordinated it all seems. Granted, on the inside I’m still a wibbling mess trying to pass off as an adult. But on the outside and in the big picture things look kinda sorta maybe okay.

And that freaks me the hell out. Instead of enjoying the good times while they’re here I am anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the storm after the calm. When will this all be dragged away from me, I wonder frantically. How long can happiness be mine??

As if there’s something inherently wrong with me being happy. As if the universe in some way needs to balance out this time of contentment with an equally horrible tragedy. When in reality no one is taking stock of the good times to balance them out with bad, and for God’s sake what is so wrong with being happy?

Freud blames my parents. I blame the messed up way my mind works sometimes, tricking me into thinking that I’m only doing well if I’m suffering. Why do our brains lie to us? Is there some magic way to stop the lies, or at least ignore them?

Maybe the only answer is the daily reminder to be gentle with myself, and appreciate each moment as it happens. Which is a good enough answer for me.