These past few weeks and months have been tiring and stressful–to say the least.
To give you an idea of how far behind in “life” I am, the calendar on my wall still shows “August”. Yes, self, I too wish that it was still August, rather than… almost November (!!!).
I began to crack at the seams last week when I posted a three-word post on Facebook–“I Give Up”…or roughly thereabouts. I did not intend for this status message to get so much attention from my Facebook friends. In fact, I posted this status message in Chinese for a reason, to intentionally get less less attention (or so I was hoping). But there I was, within minutes of posting the message with friends from near and far posting and asking me whether I was OK. “What do you want to give up on?” “Are you OK?” “What do you want me to pray for you about?” I appreciated the concern from near and far, but still have not yet found the adequate words to describe what I wanted to give up on, or whether I am “fine” now.
The Road to Burnout
It was later that evening that I realized that I had been experiencing burnout for a few weeks now. Expectations from all areas of my life have contributed to this severe burnout that I’ve been experiencing. Academically, I face the pressure and expectations from my adviser and my department to meet certain deadlines. As a teaching assistant, I face expectations to be a knowledgeable and competent instructor. In my apartment life, I face expectations from myself to be a good and responsible housemate to my fellow roommates. Socially, I feel expectations to be a good friend. I feel responsible when I commit to something (a volunteer organization that I had joined during the summer) and feel the need to invest all my time and energy into the organization.
It was then that I began to realize…. this is burnout. I’m completely and utterly depleted. I have no more resources to give to others, let alone myself. I am burned out in all aspects and areas of my life.
When was the last time I had time to give to myself? How long had it been since I paid attention to my own needs? Or better yet… what are my needs? For months on end, the rhythm of life had been teaching or academic-related research during the week, and during the weekend, I would spend my time with church friends (socializing), or volunteering. If I had time at home, I would be doing dishes/laundry/cleaning/organizing/grocery shopping, etc. (this is considered “me” time, right?)
I Have Needs?
It is natural for me to place others’ needs at the expense of my own.
-Often, my departmentmates will comment how “invested” I am in my teaching. But I know no other way. It is natural for me to put my students’ needs in front of my own. In previous quarters, if I had a busy schedule, I would always have time to meet with students–even if it meant I didn’t eat lunch that day or pee all day… because I wanted to be available to my students.
-For my adviser, I try (and am increasingly failing!) at trying to meet deadlines that I think are like jumping through hoops. I don’t want to be a nuisance to my adviser, so I try to solve all difficulties on my own, at the expense of important deadlines.
-When I have extra time, I generally try to go out of my way to do my apartmentmates’ dishes or take out the trash and recycling (among other household chores…) On the other hand, I never have the expectation that my apartmentmates will go out of their way to do anything for me. Helping out at “home” is just one way that I feel that I’m being a good and responsible housemate.
-When I agree to show up to a social event or an event that I have previously registered for, I almost always stick to my promise. Even if there are quite a few people who don’t show up, I feel responsible and guilty if I don’t show up, because… I’ve promised my friends that I would be there.
Listening to and Respecting my own Needs
I know that the only way to crawl out of this feeling of burnout is to listen to and respect my own needs, which goes against my entire being. I have needs? And…they are important?
Growing up in Chinese culture, I learned from a young age to care for others’ needs before my own. To respect my parents’ and other elders’ wishes before mine. This cultural expectation is compounded on top of my natural personality to meet other people’s needs and wishes above my own. When I see that someone else is hurt or tired, my natural tendency is to run to them and ask them what they need…even if I may be falling apart myself.
A fellow blogger described this experience perfectly:
“I perceived myself as useful and worthy if I was “doing”. How glorious to receive your parents’ love and public affection for helping them and being respectful. They glow when other parents tell them how lucky they are to have such an obedient daughter.”
I always wondered why my snappy/snarky nature never showed up in therapy. The side of me that pisses people off when I am tired and “can’t hold it together” and causes relationship breakdowns. The passive-aggressive side of me that shows up when I want to, but cannot communicate my needs.
It was after this experience with burnout that I realized that likewise, my therapy persona tries to be “respectful”, “perfect”, and “well-behaved”. It is no wonder these patterns keep popping up again and again in my normal life, but never in therapy. Whether I am conscious of this process or not, even in the therapy room, when I am supposed to be “getting my needs met”, I am always trying to make the process as ‘smooth and easy as possible’ for my therapist. I don’t want to be an annoying person, so I hold back my thoughts and behaviors that would be perceived as “rude” or “impolite”, because I don’t want to be seen in a negative light.
A fellow blogger wrote this about their therapy process which threw off my entire “therapy moral compass”
“I am not there to be good, well behaved, or to make life easy. I am there to play these patterns out and have them repaired in the safety of therapeutic relationship. I won’t learn by being “the good client.” I won’t heal by hiding my true feelings, emotions and behavioural impulses.”
When I first came across this statement, my gut reaction was to respond: But you ARE in therapy to be a good client. You ARE in therapy to learn to hide your impulses and to control your emotions.
And I realized, I have been in therapy to be a good client. But at some point, carrying this “good client mask” around is no longer going to serve me well. It for sure won’t help me to learn to recognize and respect my needs…