I was less than two years into my first job after college when I found myself on a sunny Saturday morning, struggling to find the strength to leave my bed to call my parents. When I eventually picked up the phone, I said, “Mom, Dad, I’ve been crying for four hours straight. What’s wrong with me?”
This moment was a by-product of being a lifelong overachiever. I started reading at age 2. I graduated from high school at 16 and finished college at 19. I found a job amid a recession, and I wanted to keep it. So I volunteered for extra projects, worked on weekends, and pulled regular all-nighters. One day I burned out, at 22 years old. In pursuit of “success,” I fell into depression. But I’d never stopped to ask what my idea of success was.
Millennials are called the burnout generation. High-achieving perfectionists–especially self-critical ones–work hard to avoid failure and put themselves at higher risk of burnout. We graduated college with the pressure to be “successful,” and we’ve been told that means aiming (and climbing) for the top of the pyramid.
When I was diagnosed with depression, my first thought was, “Everyone else seems to be fine with the pressure, so I must be a failure.” I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I did know that my lifestyle was compromising my mental health. So I quit.
Burnout was a blessing in disguise
Depression seems like the worst thing that can happen to a high achiever. You feel empty and heavy, exhausted and overwhelmed, disoriented and confused. Naturally, you try to control and rationalize it. Then you start to ask yourself important questions. How did I get here? Do I want this kind of life? I was deeply unsatisfied, but I’d never asked myself who I wanted to be and the life I wanted to lead.
Burnout forced me to take better care of myself–and stay away from hospitals. Eventually, that led me to building a business abroad. I’d studied abroad in Spain in college and felt the need to go back. Though Spanish salaries are lower than the OECD average, Spain is consistently ranked for its high quality of life and was named the healthiest country by Bloomberg in 2019. I planned to move abroad, learn Spanish, and teach English while figuring out the next steps. Nine years, a Spanish husband, and a business later, I now call Madrid home.
I’ve had many ups and downs since becoming an entrepreneur in 2014, but I’m now celebrating over five years in business for myself. In hindsight, my burnout was a blessing in disguise and led me to where I am today. It might seem strange to think that the roller-coaster world of entrepreneurship helped me recover from burnout and depression, but it did. Here’s how:
Building a business allowed me to own my identity
To find the answers to where you’re going, understand and accept who you are first. What are your strengths? Your passions? What were the experiences that have shaped you? Your answers to these questions help you determine what kind of business to build. I realized that my greatest gift was helping people share their stories to grow their audiences and become champions for inclusion.
I was able to create (and stick) to my boundaries
Most of us don’t realize that “no” is a full sentence, especially as entrepreneurs. If this recovering people pleaser can turn down social engagements and decline projects, you can, too. Here are a few practices that I stuck to:
- I scheduled content in advance: Batching goes a long way for your blog or podcast. The same goes for email. If you respond to a client email on a Sunday, use an app like Boomerang to schedule it to send at 9 a.m. on Monday.
- I locked in downtime in my calendar: Create a morning routine before checking email. Leave a 10-minute buffer in between calls. For writing days, I use a Pomodoro method, alternating 45-minute focused work with 5-minute breaks.
- I managed expectations and delegate: Outsource and build a supportive network of people you can rely on when you need help. Be open with your clients and colleagues. My clients all sign a boundaries and expectations document, so they know when to reach me.
I paid attention to my mental state, and course-corrected accordingly
When I found myself slipping back into burnout, I would assess what was causing my stress levels to increase and make the necessary adjustments. This might involve getting more sleep, cutting out sugar, extending my meditation routine, or taking a mental health day. When things were rough, I reached out to a trusted therapist.
As Michelle Obama writes in Becoming, “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” My story didn’t end when I was diagnosed with depression. Though it was a long road to recovery, I got to rewrite my story’s ending.
There is such a thing as life after burnout. My life couldn’t be further from where I was 10 years ago. Choosing to build an online business allowed me to set my own schedule and manage my mental health, and it’s an option available for those who want to build a sustainable life and career.
Kay Fabella is a storyteller, brand strategist, and international speaker who helps underrepresented entrepreneurs grow their audiences online. Learn more about her upcoming book, Rewrite Your Story: How to Find Who You Are & Thrive After Burnout here.