Recovering from Burnout

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…


“In 5 Years, You’ll Thank Me…”

“You may hate me now, but in 5 years, you’ll thank me…or maybe in May or in February…”

I didn’t want to believe my therapist when she said that to me. In fact, at the time, I wanted to throw something at her– a pillow, my shoe… something.

I walked in to session on Monday and mentioned that I had spent a good half hour going back and forth with a friend earlier that day about not wanting to email my advisor about being stuck on my literature search paper which is due in about 2 weeks.

I felt like a broken record when talking to my friend. Yes, I know that waiting longer to email my advisor for help will only keep me stuck longer. Yes, I know that the important thing right now is to ask for help and not be worried about her perception of me. Yes, I know that once I get my question answered, I’ll be able to move on.

But I’ve always been one to worry about being seen as annoying. A nuisance. Being perceived as stupid. Bothering everyone around me. Disrupting other peoples’ schedules. I want everyone to like me. Secretly, I’m always afraid that people are judging me as being a stupid, incompetent, annoying person.

So I’d rather try to be independent and fix all issues on my own. I don’t like to ask for help from others. If I can find an answer via my own methods, even if it takes twice as long to complete a task, I will complete a task on my own. After all, asking unnecessary questions that can be answered via Google would be wasting someone else’s time.

So it was difficult on Monday when my therapist had me sit right there in her office and write out an email to my advisor. In the moment, I was pretty angry at her. But as I was initially stuck writing the email, she asked me: “What do you need? Tell your advisor what you need from her.”

I don’t like to admit that I have needs. What needs? Even after so many times, asking for an extra session is difficult for me, because I’m having to admit that I have needs. That I need something…and that I would waste my therapist’s time/bother her/make her spend extra time for me.

I will say… I *did* feel relieved after sending that email, and after my advisor responded, I was given a new direction to go. But in the moment, I low key hated my therapist for forcing me into that situation of writing an email and sending the email.

They say that the hardest to change are thoughts….but maybe 5 years down the road I’ll end up thanking my therapist for pushing me to endure these anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable situations.


“I Promise I’m Not Lying”

Recently, I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations with people regarding introversion and social settings.

Just yesterday, I had a conversation with someone, and I had mentioned that I was an introvert.

Less than half a second later, this person responded: “No you’re not.”
I responded with, “I promise you, I am!”

We ended up talking about how “typical” introverts and extroverts behave, and that I was appeared in social situations to be a typical extrovert because of how sociable and excited I get in social situations.

This is not the first time someone has labeled me as such: an extrovert.

I guess if you really wanted to, I would call myself an extroverted introvert. I do enjoy socializing, but little do people know that right after any party/social function/church, etc. I return and crash. As in–I need a good day or two to feel somewhat normal again and regain some energy. Often, though, I feel like a cell phone battery that drains faster than it can be charged.

A similar situation happens when I (finally) choose to tell people around me that I have social anxiety disorder. “What? No you don’t! But you’re so… comfortable with people around you!” is the common response that I hear from others. Again, my common response is: “I promise you, I’m not lying!”

But, again… most people don’t know the (many) coping mechanisms that I’ve developed over the years: I’ll usually drag some friend or good acquaintance along to go to said social function or feared social situation with me. If I have to go to a dinner or other event, and I don’t know anyone well there, I will make up an excuse/reason for why I can no longer attend (e.g. too much work, too tired, not feeling well, etc.) If I know one person at a given social event, I will often cling to the person that I know. It’s not until after this event that said acquaintance/friend finally sees that the act of attending social functions is a distressing situation for me.

One of these days, instead of trying to convince people I’m not lying, I’ll just calmly explain that I’m a socially anxious extroverted introvert. Just to watch the wheels spin in their heads. Until I get that answer down– I’ll just say: “I promise, I’m not lying!”

Growing and Being Stretched

I’ve been growing tomato plants now inside my apartment — yes INSIDE — my apartment for the past few months now. We have a yearly tradition at my university known as “Picnic Day” similar to a campus-wide open house where there are activities all around campus and tons of exhibits for the community at large as well.

Each year, they give away free plants as well. I’d never been too interested in gardening when I was growing up. I would help my mom in the garden, but that was the extent of my “gardening interests”. It wasn’t until I took two little tomato plants home in the heat that I remember talking to them like they were my little pets or children. I remember quietly whispering to them, and telling them “Momma won’t let you die. Don’t you worry.”

Of course, I had my doubts… I don’t have a balcony in my apartment, and I’ve never really gardened before. So it was truly an experiment in the making. I remember thinking in my mind: I’ll probably kill these things in a couple weeks, so it won’t really matter much.

But with some sunlight, water, and love, they grew and grew….

I was actually getting kind of impatient because they were growing so slowly (compared to outside tomato plants) and after the first blooms on my Early Girl started showing up, I was thinking that perhaps flowers would start blooming by the end of July. But alas, July came and went, and…. still no flowers!

Everyone around me suggested multiple options: Did you water it enough? Have you been giving them enough fertilizer? Do they have enough sunlight on them?  As well-intentioned as everyone was, I wanted to give them time. For apartment tomato leaves, they were looking WONDERFUL, but I was also starting to give up on them and lose patience with them. My roommate has (had) been commenting for weeks that she didn’t want them in the apartment anymore. I kept telling myself: August. If they don’t form flowers in August, then I’ll get rid of them. A few people actually suggested “stressing them out”– an idea that I had negated immediately. Stress out my babies?? How could I?

This week, since I’ve been so busy with teaching, I’ve actually been neglecting the plants (a bit). I haven’t been watering them as often, so the soil was actually completely dry when I watered it earlier, and a couple patches of leaves are looking diseased and wilted. On top of that, it’s been quite hot where I am. Today, when one of my new roommates moved in, I showed her some plants, and curiously, I saw that the first flowers had bloomed on one of the tomato plants!

4 months! 4 months for the flower to finally bloom!

But what do you know… it actually took (some) neglect to get the flowers to –finally — start blooming. Does it mean that I don’t love these tomato plants? Not at all! But in order to push them to start forming flowers (and eventually tomatoes), the tomatoes can’t get too comfortable in a nice air-conditioned controlled environment.

Isn’t it interesting that being stretched outside of our comfort zones in therapy is similar to this process. Sometimes I’m angry with my therapist after session for pushing me outside of my comfort zone, because it’s uncomfortable, it’s different, and it’s new. It feels like she’s neglecting me on some level. I feel discouraged that I’m not making progress, yet being stretched outside of my comfort zone hurts. But it’s this process that produces results. This process of being “stressed” that will actually get flowers to grow– and eventually tomatoes to come out.

But just like my tomato plants, if I’m never stretched beyond this comfort zone, I can be a pretty tomato plant with lots of green, healthy leaves, content in this condition….but on some level, I’m not living to my full potential…

My tomato plants were nice and pretty as a decoration with green, bushy leaves. But me as a newbie gardener, I wanted to see tomato flowers open up! (And hopefully actual tomatoes coming out of those flowers!!)

Can’t wait to see everything else my tomato plants are going to teach me during this process. Now, I get to be the dutiful “bee” and pollinate them everyday! 🙂


No Out of Session Contact–I Hate This.

I feel so dead after my therapy appointment. And my stomach would like to thank my therapist immensely for the indigestion I experienced upon returning home. Thank God for probiotics, though.

I’d been feeling a mix of emotions for a few weeks now. I had previously settled into a good rhythm with one appointment every other week. But recently, because of so many changes, the time in between appointments felt like forever and pretty overwhelming. In addition to feeling like the actual time in between appointments was too long, I longed for more connection(?) with my therapist. I wasn’t (and still am not) looking for friendship in this connection. But…maybe caring? If my recent dreams are any indication, I’d LOVE to be in her family.

In the past, I would’ve just sent an email explaining the stuff that was going on, and this one email would serve multiple purposes: A) Getting whatever was going on out of my mind B) Give my therapist a heads up for what I was planning to bring into session C) Allowing me a way to “open up” to feel more connected to said therapist D) Probably more reasons I can’t think of right now…

And..I get it. I get it. Ethics. Boundaries. I get why my therapist won’t allow out of session contact. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept or understand on an emotional level.

It stretches me way beyond my comfort zone to where I have to talk and work through issues in session, without using other forms of communication as back up [such as text/emailing]. And THAT is uncomfortable.

But another layer of discomfort that I feel is the fact that I have always felt cared for by my previous therapists & teachers from this out of session or outside of the classroom contact.

One of the earliest memories I have is from 6th grade. It was springtime, and I remember there was a week where I was getting time-out every single day (mainly due to not turning in homework & later not having enough “tickets” to submit with late homework assignments). There were a few weeks in a row that my mom had to sign a paper for late homework assignments. It was just BAD. I was half doing it for attention as well, since I knew my teacher would be on time-out duty… But I remember one evening after I got home from school, my parents got a phone call from my 6th grade teacher. I had assumed that my teacher was calling because of late homework assignments/a bad test grade, or something along those lines. But surprisingly, she called and asked to talk to me! It wasn’t a long phone call, but she called to simply encourage me. She had somehow picked up on the fact that I wasn’t too happy around that time, and called me to let me know that the school year would be over soon, and to reassure me that everything would be OK. I remember feeling special in that moment. For the first time (ever) I felt like one of my teachers noticed me for being me. My teacher didn’t judge me and simply label me as “lazy” or “stubborn”, and took time out of her evening to call me and encourage me.

It’s this need/wish/desire [this type of care/attention] that I experience so strongly. Probably, the reason why this feeling keeps repeating itself time after time with teacher after teacher and therapist after therapist, but never gets resolved, is that I’ve concluded that this is a stupid desire/wish to have. This feeling comes bubbling up, and I shut it down. “Nope, I don’t want to talk about it.” “It’s not an important subject to talk about.” “Forget that I even mentioned it.” At times, I pretend that this wish/desire/need doesn’t exist at all. Distraction works like a charm during the day. But it is at night, when I’m alone with my thoughts that this wish/desire/need comes bubbling back up.

I get it. I get my therapist’s rules/boundaries about out of session contact. But not getting this wish/desire/need filled is more frustrating than being stretched/challenged to talk & work through issues in session.

But hopefully with the combination of both not being able to have contact out of session and being forced to talk about this eventually, it’ll get easier….


Hopeful for the Future

Last week was quite the (good) overwhelming week.

Like experience always dictates, the situation I was anxious about [professor rejecting &/or not willing to be on my committee] did NOT come to pass. In fact, the professor I spoke to last week was quite interested in my paper idea.

Silly anxiety.

I had avoided conversation with this professor for (almost) an entire school year because I didn’t know how this professor would respond, or whether he’d agree to be on my committee.

It’s interesting, though, because for the first time after this interaction with this professor, I feel hopeful for the future. After I finish this paper (if, and when I do, that is…) the next step is trying to find five professors for my qualifying exam committee. Certainly a jump up in difficulty for this socially anxious individual. Previously, I would’ve told myself “I’m gonna die or have a heart attack.” or “I’ll never be able to do this.”

But for the first time, I feel hopeful about the next step. I can do this. Really. At this point, I have hope that I’ll be able to get through this. I remember after the meeting with the professor last week, I had this thought in my mind: It’ll only get easier and better after this. I’ve gone through the process once (of having to get to know/meet/ email professors about asking whether they’d be on my committee) and I can certainly do it again.

Sure, I still do think that at times, I wish I could take a pill and wish anxiety away forever. But perhaps doing the hard work NOW will make the process that much easier down the road.

I’m hopeful for the future. 🙂

An Easy Way Out

Can I just take a pill and hope for the anxiety to be gone forever? Wouldn’t that be easier than doing all this hard work? Why focus on changing thoughts and behaviors instead? WHY? People who rely on anti-anxiety meds are luckier than me…

I often have this internal debate with myself when I think about anxiety and anxiety-provoking situations. I remember a few years ago, Yoda asked me this question that I thought about again for the first time today: “Is it possible that you consider yourself a victim in this situation? What might be the reason that you feel this way? Let’s explore this further…

I really didn’t know how to answer Yoda’s question at the time. Did I consider a victim of anxiety? I don’t remember what I considered at the time, but something current T said today reminded me of that question…

I’ll be honest and say part of me is particularly resistant to do all the work involved in getting through anxiety. I know it’s not true, but it’s always been my perception that people who take anti-anxiety meds, SSRIs, SNRIs, etc. have it easier when it comes to overcoming issues. Kind of as if medication was an “easy way out” that helps them do half the battle of working through difficult things. I know I’m hugely biased thinking that medication makes things “easier”, because for most people who are on medication, medication allows them to function in daily life.

I had a similar reaction a few years back (wanting an easy way out) when I sprained my ankle. I remember going to the clinic to get my ankle checked out, and the doctor suggested that I get an X-Ray just to make sure that no bone was broken. I happily hobbled on over to get an X-ray because some part of me was hoping that this time I might have a broken or fractured bone instead?? Alas, no broken bone. I remember feeling so disappointed, I went home and cried after the appointment. In some ways, the frustration level of having a sprained ankle is worse than having a broken bone. Recovery time with a sprained ankle and broken bone is about the same amount of time (6 to 8 weeks), but after a sprained ankle comes intense physical therapy. Without PT, the ankle ligament is weakened, and a person is more likely to sprain the ankle (or roll it out again). Granted, I’ve never broken a bone before, but breaking a bone seems much “easier” to deal with. Casting, or getting a boot on a broken bone, and voila! Good as new–kind of. Bones heal much, much faster than ligaments. So I remember after my sprained ankle diagnosis, I felt so frustrated. Why is it always my ligaments? Why never a bone? Why do I have to go through so much pain when I got injured, during recovery, and after recovery?

Perhaps one day after I’ve made huge, huge strides toward overcoming these feared and anxiety-provoking situations, I’ll be glad that I didn’t take the easy way out. But for now– I just wish I could take a magic pill that would take my anxiety and anxious thoughts away.


Getting over Anxiety Hurdles–Kind Of…

Today I clumsily jumped over a hurdle in my “anxiety journey” that a friend basically dragged me through.

I’m working in earnest to finish my MA thesis paper (-ish thing) this quarter. But for this paper, I’ve needed to have three people on my committee– my advisor, and two other professors. During fall quarter, I had one professor outside of my department agree to sign on as part of my committee, but I had been holding off and avoiding trying to find a third committee member basically for an entire year.

Today, I had a friend who basically sat there, typed out an email for me to request a meeting with my third (potential) committee member (I corrected the grammar and made the email more of my “voice”) and she clicked “send” for me. That’s how she dragged me over that hurdle.

I swear, though. Every social-anxiety-related thought and fear came up with this committee member situation. Talking in person seemed (and still seems!) intimidating. Emailing was intimidating. And often, it seems like I go around and around in circles with this same fear when I mention it in therapy.

More often than not, I want to face this situation, but I would rather not deal with the unpleasant effects of anxiety (mostly racing heartbeat and sometimes shortness of breath in my situation) so I avoid anxiety-provoking situations. Obviously, though, anxiety’s best friend is avoidance, so this type of situation never gets better.

I’ve done enough of my own research and article-searching to have a cognitive, brain-level understanding of how and why anxiety happens. I have enough knowledge about relaxation techniques, challenging negative thoughts, and the ins and outs of CBT techniques. What I’m missing at this point is forcing– or rather gently nudging(?) myself– into feared situations, follow-up and de-briefing after facing an anxiety-provoking situation, if I decide to face these situations.

Most articles and books will say that people with social anxiety fear judgment from others. On a deep brain level, that’s true. But in the moment (of an anxiety-provoking situation), I swear I don’t think I’m even considering the “judgment” aspect anymore. I’m just thinking: “Get me out of this place, because my heart is going to fly out of my chest at any moment. I’m definitely going to get a heart attack.” That’s what my body’s screaming at me. So in a sense, it’s almost the physical symptoms that are worse than the fear of others’ (perceived) judgments. Lessen the physical symptoms, and I’d venture to say that the fear of perceived judgment will decrease as well.

Who knows how long it will take my body (physically) to catch up with my brain. It used to be that a few years ago, this internal negative self-talk was very loud in my head. It is much quieter now– except for when I physically feel anxious.

Baby steps of self-awareness, I suppose…

Had I Met You In A Different Context

Had I Met You in a Different Context
Had I met you in a different context
Would it still be like this?
So awkward to admit certain feelings
And fantasies of mutual bliss

Had I met you in a different context
Would I be able to admit-
How much my soul longs for your affection
And for you to be my mom–for just a bit

Had I met you in a different context
Would I ever let you know-
How I long for a simple hug
Instead of avoiding and saying “I don’t know”

Had I met you in a different context
Would I be able to see-
That you’re not God atop a pedestal
And that you’re human–just like me

Had I met you in a different context
Would it be OK to say-
That I want more of your attention
Especially when we are away

Had I met you in a different context
I would want to say
I need a bit of assurance
And to know you’re not going away.

Had I met you in a different context
I would want you to know
How important this relationship is to me
And how I wish this relationship would grow

Getting *The* Diagnosis

Somehow, I managed to get up this morning for an 8 AM therapy appointment. Yes, 8 AM…

When I read the time, I was thinking… are you sure you mean 8 AM and not PM?? I believe I’d function MUCH better if it was an 8 PM appointment.

How do you put into words the feeling that occurs when you wish for something for years on end, and finally get it? I’d always envisioned the thrill of excitement, feeling light as a feather, motivated, excited, etc.

After asking for a sooner appointment and feeling like I was the biggest nuisance in the world, and was inconveniencing my therapist from her “life”, I got an appointment this morning.

Who knows, maybe it was the way I phrased things when I messaged my therapist to ask about an appointment, but I’m guessing something prompted her to think about my *original* diagnosis when I first started seeing her (unspecified anxiety–basically, “who knows what’s up with this client”) to today’s appointment.

She told me that she’d be “changing my diagnosis” after having observed me for some time, which surprised me, because I’ve never EVER had that discussion with my therapists before.

Of course, it came as no surprise to me when she said she’d be changing my diagnosis to social phobia/SM. So, I’m assuming it’s on paper now. I’ve suspected it for MANY years now. Maybe for the past 15 years or so, I’d been wanting someone to validate that. I’ve had therapists outright tell me: “No you don’t. This is what social phobia is…” and proceed to explain it, assuming that didn’t know a single thing about it. Apparently they didn’t realize the number of hours I’d spent on Google, in different forums, etc.

But it was weird that even though someone FINALLY validated everything I’d suspected for years, now it all feels so anti-climactic. I can only describe it as someone who’s been wishing to get their dream job, but once they get it, the reaction is… “Now what?” Because it doesn’t specifically change anything for me..

My feeling is that without the crutch of email to help bridge the gap in communicating what I’m too freaked out to verbalize, I’m forced to face all these issues head-on now. It’s like everything finally comes out into the open when I don’t have any of my other coping mechanisms to help me…

I guess my current therapist has been the first person to dig beyond everything…(whether I’m ready or willing or not!)