The insight that helped me finally get off the roller coaster of stress and burnout
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
I hate roller coasters.
As a teenager, under some peer pressure, I agreed to go on a roller coaster ride with some friends. And it was terrible. After that ride, I vowed to myself, never again. And I’ve mostly stayed true to that promise... While I have not set foot on a physical roller coaster for over 20 years, I have frequented a different kind of roller coaster. Let me explain.
When I reflected on my career journey, I noticed a distinct pattern. Whenever things started to feel comfortable in my job, I got restless. This restlessness inevitably led me to take on new challenges or overfill my plate because I NEEDED to feel the pressure of stress. The initial wave of stress usually brings about a rush of adrenalin for me. Everything would kick into high gear and I would get a lot done. In that sense, feeling stressed was not a terrible thing for me. Not at first. In fact, it was thrilling and rewarding to check a lot of things off the list, especially when things felt impossible initially. That satisfying sense of accomplishment spurred me to put even more effort into what I was doing.
However, after a while, the exhaustion would hit. The effect of forgoing sleep, exercise, proper eating and any sort of meaningful break would catch up to me after a while. Instead of feeling accomplished, I would feel defeated at the end of each day as the demands continued to outstrip my dwindling capacity. Eventually, I would hit a low point, where I lost all motivation and found myself unable to take care of the simplest tasks. A crisis of confidence would strike and I would start a damaging internal dialogue. I would berate myself for getting way over my head and proving once again that I’m just not good enough.
Thankfully, I’m surrounded by people who have my back. A friend would notice that I’d been withdrawn and check in. My husband would find me sobbing in our bedroom with the lights off and understood I’ve hit the bottom of the roller coaster again. Slowly, they would help me quiet that berating inner critic voice so I can step off the roller coaster and touch the ground again. Slowly, I would find myself back to baseline, where things feel more manageable, more comfortable. Yet before long, I’d find myself back on that roller coaster again because I just could not stand feeling comfortable.
Earlier on in my career, it would take a couple of years for me to go through the entire cycle, with the high point lasting way longer than the low point. But eventually I found myself going up and down that terrible roller coaster on a monthly basis. It was exhausting. I wanted to be done with it.
With the help of my coach, I came to realize that there are two seemingly opposing forces that had been working together to keep me stuck on this never-ending roller coaster. One of them is my drive, which is constantly telling me that I need to do more and achieve more. “You’re not living up to your potential!”, it often reminds me. The other force, my spirit, is constantly reminding me that life is short, so I should stop to smell the roses, spend more time with my loved ones, and prioritize my well-being. “What would you regret, not putting more hours into work or not spending more time with your kid?”, my spirit often asks.
In conversations with my clients, I hear that many of them have similar opposing forces. Some call it their head and their heart. Some call it their gas and their break. Others call it their logical vs their emotional selves. Similar to me, my clients find it frustrating because they find themselves either oscillating between the two extremes or stuck in paralysis (they can’t decide what to do, so they do nothing).
I used to be resentful of my drive and my spirit. I hated what they drove me to do. Until I realized that I was in control. Sure, these forces are strong and their voices can get loud, but ultimately, I get to call the shots. Instead of letting either of them drive my actions, I take what each of them have to say as signals that I should consider before I decide what to do next. My drive helps me stay focused on my goals and my purpose. It makes sure what I do aligns well with my interests, the skills I want to develop, and the impact that I want to make. My spirit helps me to say no at the appropriate times so I can say yes to the right thing, and it allows me to slow down so my effort is sustainable.
Together, they help me achieve a sense of balance that was elusive for a long time. Do you notice similar opposing parts in yourself? What would be different for you if you decide to work with them instead of against them?