Has Burnout Culture Made You Addicted to Ambition and Busyness?

Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic
Like most freelancers who juggle multiple clients, projects, and deadlines—sometimes seven days a week—I often feel like the dogs in this meme. That's to say, while I might be smiling on the outside, I'm completely overwhelmed by my circumstances, many of which are by my own choosing. But since society has conditioned me to believe that keeping a frantic pace is a sign of self-employment success, whenever another request for my time comes up, I generally say yes without question. And I know this is also true for my friends with full-time gigs, who often raise their hand to work on projects outside their job descriptions, and sometimes also juggle an after-hours side hustle in the name of forward momentum. Despite this existence of living on the edge of burnout, if we experience what feels like too many slow days in a row, it's easy to assume something's wrong, leading us to start wondering: Am I lazy, or something?

The problem here is many of us are conflating calmness with complacency. And it is a bona fide problem, to be clear, because not only are the two states simply not the same, but the construct itself is dangerous. On the work front, burnout is so rampant that this year the World Health Organization recognized it as an official condition that's "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." You know, the kind of unrelenting tension one experiences from the heavy workloads, frequent deadlines, and long hours that are now the norm in employment culture at large. Since it's the norm, understanding that not pushing ourselves to the brink is in itself a healthy pursuit of balance—not an exercise in coasting by.

Work aside, an overemphasis on having the most fun can be just as insidious. Many of us respond to our less-than-fulfilling workweeks by putting intense pressure on ourselves to have the most fun ever in our leisure time. Some RSVP to every social invite—to the detriment of their bank accounts, perhaps—because the thought of "wasting" a Saturday night fills them with anxiety. Others cram their PTO allotment with over-the-top vacations, during which they spend a chunk of time worrying about whether they're even enjoying themselves "enough." And then there are those who genuinely revel in the months filled with weekend weddings, houseguests, and marathon-training sessions, and feel deeply uncomfortable in times when nothing much is going on.

Of course, there are personal and professional benefits to glean from striving for a full life. "Many people are doing really productive things, which is great because it feels good to accomplish things, even small tasks," says Natalie Considine, LMHC, a psychotherapist in the Alma mental health co-practice community. "A boost of accomplishment can provide a heightened sense of satisfaction."

"If life is uneventful, then we think we are doing something wrong, because we look at what all of our peers are doing." —psychotherapist Natalie Considine, LMHC

However, the danger comes when a "normal" pace of life—one in which we're not swinging between extreme joy and intense stress, but existing in a calm middle ground—starts to feel mediocre and boring. "We can’t always be busy, because that leads to mental and physical exhaustion," Considine says, adding that this can result in insomnia, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and overall dissatisfaction with life.

So how did we get here? Considine says social media is a top culprit that's driving us to turn our lives into one long busy season. "Everyone posts carefully crafted updates of their lives that make even the most mundane activities look fun," she says. "It impacts our perception of what a successful life looks like. If life is uneventful, then we think we are doing something wrong, because we look at what all of our peers are doing." Think about it: Most of us wake up to a fresh highlight reel of hustle each morning—6 a.m. workout selfies! Elaborate intention lists! Quotes about chasing your dreams! So it follows that simply going to work, doing your essential tasks (and nothing more), and coming home to make dinner and FaceTime with your mom can feel uninspired, lazy, and even anxiety-provoking in comparison.

But for many people, that feeling of discomfort with coasting along started long before Instagram originated, and has nothing to do with its existence. "We have been programmed and shaped by our environment to feel this need for constant buzz, whether it’s [from] parents, society, or yourself," says life coach Katie Sandler. (Raise your hand if your childhood was packed with after-school sports, tutoring, music lessons, and playdates on top of school and homework?) "There seems to be a loss of appreciation for balance and contentment." Now—especially for millennials who were fortunate enough to be encouraged while growing up to find their passions—a high level of emotional investment in work can make unplugging and separating our jobs from our identities feel nearly impossible.

There's hope for learning to operate at a reasonable, sustainable pace—but doing so will require some reconditioning. The first step, says Sandler, is to be aware of how ambition addiction and boredom aversion show up for you—whether it's that Am I lazy? feeling when nothing major's happening at work or anxiety around gaps in your social calendar. Next, think about what kind of life you ideally want to live. "Don’t let it be dictated by your parents, friends, family, community or society," Sandler says. "Take inventory of your life on a daily basis and do so with gratitude. This will ultimately slow you down."

Considine adds that it's important to show yourself kindness when do judge yourself for not doing the absolute most; to regularly unplug from technology so you can identify a pace of life that feels good to you (not just one that will be impressive and enviable to your followers); and to prioritize time for self care, whatever that means to you. "A lot of people struggle with overcommitting to too many things, so I recommend learning to say no to activities that aren’t really benefiting you," she adds.

Of course, as Sandler points out, ambition is often positive, and there's nothing wrong with having hobbies to fall back on when you're bored. "It leads to more adventure and life experiences," she says. But ultimately, balance is what's key—because every day can't be "busy season," and every week can't be "nuts."

Here's what leads you to burn out, according to your Myers-Briggs type. And one thing that can bring on exhaustion in anyone? Dating apps

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