Boredom or Burnout?
As a kid, I often hated boredom. As an adult? Not necessarily. Comedian John Mulaney summarizes this beautifully. “Kids don’t like that, kids always want to do stuff. Kids get angry, they go, ‘Aw, we didn’t do anything all day!’ But you ever ask an adult what they did over the weekend and they say they didn’t do anything? Their. Faces. Light. Up.” Too real, John. Hashtag relatable.
Nowadays, my boredom actually takes two forms. One form is what I call healthy boredom, and it’s the sensation of waking up and feeling completely rested. Physically, yes, but also psychologically and spiritually. Maybe I have a largely empty day to fill – or not fill. I might read, bake, meditate, or simply lie in a sun puddle with a snuggly cat and do absolutely nothing. That lack of agenda doesn’t stress me out further or make me feel unproductive. Healthy boredom is elusive to me, like a rare and endangered bird, or a Shamrock Shake.
The other boredom is what I refer to as my burnout boredom, and we have long been adversaries. This is my “I’m going to sit my ass on the couch and watch 12 hours of Celebrity Ghost Stories because I can’t face doing the 4 dishes in the sink” kind of boredom. Boredom marathons that happen every night after work and at least one full day on a weekend are an indication that I have devolved into burnout.
It took me a long time (read: 18-ish years) to understand that I was burnt out. I thought that the way I was going about building my business was the way everyone did it. That’s the idea I’d been sold. I bought into it fully, and I’d struggled building my integrative medical practice. I did all the things, wore all the hats. I didn’t understand that my boredom, this all-consuming evening & weekend apathy, was the result of being the acupuncturist and the insurance biller. The functional medicine practitioner and the administrative assistant. The hypnotist and the marketing team. The continuing education student and the CEO. The breadwinner, the chef, and the maid. At one point, about three years in, I burst into tears, wondering if I’d ever feel passion for life again. I loved my work, but I still felt absolutely hollow and utterly bored. I’d had passions – playing music, going to concerts, dancing, traveling – but I was too consumed by boredom to engage with a single one. My body had started to give out on me. I had horrible exercise recovery and would easily injure myself from mild activity, or need a nap after a workout. My digestion wasn’t great, yet I spent absurd amounts of money at restaurants and cocktails bars because I was too emotionally exhausted to cook healthy food for myself, not to mention the fact that I enjoyed the sensation of a good cocktail (or three) sanding down the rough edges of my stress at the end of the week. My weight was stagnant because stress + takeout + vino + no exercise is a wildly unhealthy formula. All this resulted in me being horribly depressed. I was sick, physically and emotionally, and my boredom was both an indication andproduct of that. In reality, my boredom was the only reason I was still surviving. To push myself any harder would have likely broken me.
In July of 2019 a company I contracted with suddenly altered their referral policy without notice, cutting the number of clients I was seeing per week in half and gutting my business. I’d spent years throwing every nanogram of energy I had into growing my practice and I finally snapped. I was afraid I’d have to shutter it. I reached out to a friend & colleague who’d run spectacularly successful acupuncture practices in Europe and asked for advice. Her other specialty was burnout coaching, and she kindly and patiently explained that I was severely burnt out. She shed clarity on my circumstances, and with her help I began to heal. I started working with a functional medicine colleague to address my physical maladies. It was through this process that I realized my burnout boredom was my body’s way of saying that I was pushing myself too hard, crossing my own boundaries, not holding my boundaries with others, and generally abandoning my own needs, wants, and desires. I still experience burnout boredom from time to time, but it’s no longer an adversary. It’s a friend, gently nudging me, telling me that it’s okay to spend a day watching shows about other people’s ghost stories, as long as at some point I come back, using the tools I’ve acquired through burnout recovery to return to my own story.
This article was originally published on Thrive Global on 18 February 2021: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/boredom-or-burnout/
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Eliza Collins is a burnout recovery expert and all around esoteric.