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I Got Promoted While Feeling Like a Failure from Burnout

I recently received a promotion. I also recently, and for a longer period of time, experienced immense burnout, emotional exhaustion, and the “crash” from chronic stress.

In 2020, I worked three jobs, which felt more like five due to my editorial skillset ranging so much: 5am shifts at Tim Hortons; remote, online academic assistance; and freelancing for book design, book editing, and transcription (that’s where the three turns into five: design, editing, transcription). As a bonus, I also started working on launching an eCommerce website for a family member. That’s more like six, now that we count them and include website development.

Despite the acknowledgement of my skills with the promotion, and how happy I am to be given the position and responsibilities, I want to be honest: I’m struggling a lot with my mental health because of how much I overworked myself in 2020.

I spent December and January in utter misery.

Let’s be cliche and use a fire analogy for how my burnout progressed.

In January, I started working at Tim Hortons. I desired a different skillset in customer service and a fast-paced environment, as well as some more transferable skills for the future if I ever needed to work in food service. It was an invaluable experience for me, even if the first few months tested my patience and had more days walking home crying than I care to share. I figured I could balance my freelance work. My self-employment was a long-standing contract with one company, and then taking on jobs as I saw fit. How hard could that be?

But March 13, 2020, the province issued a state of emergency. Working in a restaurant was going to get a lot harder. But I did it. Somehow, through all the weekly changes, the new information of the virus affecting how we protected ourselves, the messages from corporate directing us, and the customers growing increasingly agitated… We got to the summer. Things weren’t so bad.

Or so I thought. Burnout can include memory problems, theorized to be from changes in cortisol levels which affect the brain’s ability to form memories.

In all honesty, I have little memory of what happened between May and September. I closed unsolicited freelance project requests in May. We got a cat in August. That’s pretty much the only memory I have. I got a bike at some point? It might have been earlier? I don’t know. I truly, honestly worked on autopilot like a robot. (And I got really good at that.)

But then my health took a turn in October and I was in excruciating pain daily. A few doctor visits, bloodwork, two hospital visits… And there was no real answer for what caused it. Just a handful of tips for managing it, as if I could take ibuprofen multiple times per day for an indefinite amount of time, and that would make everything better. I was scared that the medical visits were missing something. Scared that I would wake up dead. I didn’t want to be in pain anymore, but I didn’t do much more about it.

I was too bitter.

Autumn: Isolating myself. Lashing out at the people I live with—people I care about!—for no reason. Slipping into depressive thoughts and the dark spaces that have haunted me for over a decade.

When late November rolled around, I had a chance to change priorities: I went back to full-time editing and writing feedback, leaving Tim Hortons and its steady paycheque for the added responsibility of working from home and being my own manager. I had a good feeling about the change, but I admit my last day at Tims filled me with confliction. Should I really be leaving? I’m good at this job, it’s steady albeit demanding, and the positives really outweigh the negatives. Am I making a mistake by quitting?

By the middle of December, after I had left Tim Hortons and returned to working from home, my burnout had already raged like an inferno and ripped through me. At some point in the months prior, my stress grew into something uncontrollable and unstoppable. By the new year, my stress broke and fell into embers: just enough to sustain some energy to finish the year, do some contracted work, and complete freelance projects.

It’s only now in February 2021, when I feel as cold and stale as ashes, that I realize I should’ve eased back on something. In May 2020, I limited my freelancing to previous clients and direct referrals, either from me requesting someone to reach out or a referral from trusted fellow editors. It wasn’t a break or a reprieve; it was just making sure I didn’t completely explode under too much work. This limitation on my service still stands now. I’m just not ready and able, and as a freelancer who values quality, I want to ensure any writers who knock on my door receive the best they can.

I’m not complaining about the fact that I needed to turn away freelance work. Instead, I’m kicking myself for not knowing my limits sooner.

Most of my memory of the year exists in my work archives, which I think is key evidence that my burnout centred around too much work. Now that I look at these records, I see how much I did. The manuscripts I edited, the files I transcribed, the ebook and paperback book I designed for a client with limited computer knowledge, the essays and papers I reviewed, and even the eCommerce site I started to build with introductory knowledge.

This is the first time I’ve looked back and seen just how much I was doing. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, like everything I did was menial or too easy or didn’t matter. But all of those things mattered, especially to my freelance clients, the students whose assignments I reviewed, and the team and patrons at Tim Hortons who appreciated my presence.

I’m still not at 100%. I have spent a lot of time sleeping, playing with the cat, and sitting on the couch playing Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy games. Earlier this month, I was browsing my inbox in search of an address to contact to express time off from one of my responsibilities when I saw the email: “Congratulations! 🙂 … You have been promoted!”

In the last year, I’ve doubted myself. I continue to doubt myself as I recover from this burnout.

My memories of 2018 and 2019 include a Coryl with more confidence and value in their work. In those years, I knew that. I knew my worth to the point that I thought this current promotion was down the line for me.

In my memory, my value is a fact, but I don’t believe it to be true right now in my present thoughts.

Frankly, I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to meet expectations for my promotion. It takes me a lot of effort to shower at least every 48 hours and to eat at least 2 meals in a day, and I haven’t been putting in as many hours as I know I could at work. Gratefully, this time of year has lower volumes for workload than other times, so perhaps it’s kismet that I can take it easier right now.

Sometimes I wonder if I should find a therapist again, or see a doctor to talk about medication or long-term counselling for my bipolar disorder. But even those tasks lead to a wall: I visit the webpages to sign up or contact someone, I start filling in the forms, and then I stop. With my prior experiences treating my mental health, I know that therapy and medication are useless if I’m not motivated to use them and commit to them fully. If I can barely get through to the intake, I know I won’t follow through with attending sessions and taking pills.

So I let it be. I just keep at it, doing what I can.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but at least whatever I’m doing? I’m doing it well enough for other people. My standards and expectations for myself are much, much higher than what others have for me. Where I expect high value, my clients see it even when I don’t.

And that’s what matters. If whatever I’m doing is good enough, then why do I pressure myself to do more? Can’t I be happy with whatever I’m already managing to do? Shouldn’t I have just a bit more room to take care of my mental health if my perspective of “bare minimum” in work is actually perceived as “great work” by the people who receive my labour?

Why can’t I trust that the people around me see my worth? Can I trust myself as much as they trust me? That’s my new challenge.

There isn’t a lot of research into burnout, but Psychology Today highlights that its characteristics are “cynicism, depression, and lethargy” that result in a need for a break, or a realignment of work to match their sense of self. I guess we can say that I overworked and undervalued myself, and now I see the consequences: a promotion for my contract, and extreme neglect of the self. A reward and a punishment.

I don’t know what would help as I recover from my burnout, but I do feel more motivated and capable. I smiled seeing the email and reading the position terms. I’m glad that I had the foresight in December 2020 to prioritize this work by leaving one job, because… Well, it led to a promotion and a pay raise doing work I truly enjoy and feel capable of doing! Maybe I can relax a little bit better and enjoy less anxiety over how well I’m doing my job, because I’m doing it well enough to be recognized like this.

I need to tread carefully, though. I really am fragile and struggling to take care of myself, and throwing my energy into work isn’t the right answer. 2020 showed me that. I don’t need more burnout to tell me that rest is valuable and, at this moment, necessary.

The right answer for me to get better is balance and trust. I need to trust myself to heal from the stress. I need to find balance in my responsibilities. But overall, I need to trust that I am capable.

There’s a reason it’s “work-life balance” and not “worklife balance”: there needs to be a clear divide. See that hyphen? That’s the boundary. It needs to be there. And I need to acknowledge it as much as I acknowledge myself.

I am doing the best I can, and everyone has seen it.

(Except for me. But this was a wake-up call. We’re on the same page now.)

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