Words by: Felice Lok Art by: Jackie Zhou
I never thought of myself as someone who could burn out. Whilst grinding through my final year of high school (the most intense year of studying), not once did I feel exhausted. Thinking about it now, it must have been the pre-twenties energy that I once inhabited. On the contrary, the past six months have really tested my limits, and it took a long summer of recovery to make me realise I won’t be able to go far until I learn to slow down.
For the latter half of my fourth year at uni, I had decided it would be a great idea to jump across three consecutive internships while working three days a week in a new job (spoiler alert: it was far from a great idea). I admit that at first, it felt exhilarating, as if I was rapidly ticking so many things off my bucket list and pushing myself well beyond my comfort zone.
If anything, I thought that all of these experiences would make me more confident.
It made sense—I was exposing myself to so many new faces, learning to make small talk, trying to constantly present myself well in order to make a good impression—so surely, I had made the right choice in pursuing all of these endeavours. But that was until I felt a familiar gnawing feeling in my stomach just days after I finished my final internship — my anxiety had peaked again.
I was confused. Everything was over but instead of feeling relieved, why was I back to rehearsing everything three times over in my head before I spoke? The counsellor I saw gave me two (unfamiliar) words to explain what I was experiencing: emotional burnout. She explained that while I was (supposedly eagerly) interning across three different workplaces, I had used up a significant amount of energy from constantly feeling anxious, so much so that my body had now exhausted itself…
So I did the one thing I persistently told myself I would never do over a summer holiday — I actually took a break.
Since graduating high school, I’ve felt obligated to spend my three-month long summer break productively. By ‘productively’, I mean through working as a Christmas casual, completing internships, volunteering, writing projects or travelling.
I realised that all of this, which defined ‘productivity’ for me, were all things that could be added to my CV and drawn upon at my next job interview. In other words, my definition of ‘productivity’ revolved around my career. And this was how I spent every one of my summer holidays over the past few years, until this year. Believe me when I say all I did over this break was rest. For the first time in so long, I felt minimal guilt doing none of the things above. Though I have to admit I did feel a hint of guilt scrolling on LinkedIn and seeing someone announce they were beginning yet another law clerkship (while I was binge-watching a Netflix show in an atrocious posture on the couch), I didn’t let it eat me up.
This period of burnout has taught me that a go-go-go mentality will only get you so far. It is not sustainable. Being able to manage every- thing at a slower pace in the long term is so much more empowering than stretching yourself far beyond your capabilities. Five years on, the words of my high school teachers still ring true: life is a marathon, not a sprint.
As a new academic year has just begun, I know it’s going to feel like full steam ahead again, but I am now learning how to manage these feelings in a healthy way. One of my favourite productivity YouTubers says that burnout is just a result of missing or ignoring all the simple signs your body tells you to stop. Not taking necessary breaks when your brain feels foggy, not sleeping when your body is strained, not reaching out when you need it. When you don’t listen to your body for long enough, your body will just burn out.
Learn to detect these little signs and try your best to address them immediately. Don’t let it build up into something so overwhelming that it feels unmanageable. Now having returned to uni after so many months, there’s been the inevitable question of what I got up to all summer. To be honest, I loathe coming across as boring when catching up with friends and telling them that nothing eventful happened. But for the first time, I told them exactly that — I simply just rested. And dare I say, burning out may have been one of the most pivotal moments which shaped how I now go about life every day.