Break(through) Burnout: How Stopping the Busyness Forced Me to Be Honest With My Whole Self

By Vanessa Mason. Photography by Eric Michael Ward.

My name is Vanessa and I am an overthinking addict. For as long as I can remember, my mind has played 3-D chess, moving at a million miles a minute. I thought reason guaranteed your success and made you invincible to feeling bad. Identify likely and worst case scenarios, develop contingency plans and adjust as needed. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Despite the fact that I had external markers of success — two Ivy League degrees, a rising profile as an expert, writer and speaker in my field — I didn’t feel successful. After all, I didn’t fit the definition of success communicated and demonstrated to me. I felt like I needed to prove my worth to the point of putting in 15-16 hours of work six days a week, doing the work of five people. From the outside, I looked successful. On the inside, I was a mess.

My inner voice screamed the worst obscenities and indignities at me: “You’re so stupid. There’s no way you are going to do well. Why do you always screw up?” Running through this mental gauntlet was supposed to inoculate myself from real world haters, like an emotional vaccine. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector, corporations, and tech. Every one of those environments was hostile to black women shining in some way, reinforcing my negative internal soundtrack.

If my story sounds like your story, I’m sure you can predict the next page: I hit burnout hard. So hard I spontaneously cried in a taqueria when buying a burrito, hard. Like waking up in a panic attack, hard. Like unable to leave my bed, hard. You want to know the craziest part about the aftermath? I went back to many of the habits that got me there. I bragged about my “hard card:” my ability to ignore feelings and emotions that slowed you down or made you stupid.

That’s not completely accurate. I nursed myself back to physical health and hustled my way back bigger and better than ever before in the eyes of the world. But I walked away from burnout feeling like a failure. In my mind, my value stemmed from my output and in that state, I couldn’t produce anything.

Mentally and emotionally, I was a volcano waiting to erupt and that volcano erupted this year. Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong in a span of six months. I felt like I had been run over by a tractor trailer that backed over me several times. My usually speedy thinking slowed to a crawl.

Being forced to stop the busyness forced me to be honest with my whole self. I realized that I let people tell me who I was, what I needed and what I was worth. It wasn’t until I was still that I realized how much those negative thoughts didn’t come from me. I had allowed self-deception to masquerade as reason and dismissed emotional needs as luxuries because I was too scared to acknowledge my emotional needs.

In other words, I loved myself but didn’t like myself.

When you don’t have a relationship with your whole self — an authentic, deep, intimate relationship — it’s easy to have external messages pose as your internal voice. Burying my emotional self seemed like a defense against getting hurt but in reality it left me exposed to every hurt possible.

You can’t protect your boundaries when you don’t know what they are and you can’t define boundaries without knowing who you are.

I wouldn’t recommend hitting your emotional nadir. But mine catalyzed a transformational shift in my life that came with lessons I can share with you.

1. Be honest about your emotional state

When people asked how I was, I stopped saying fine or okay. I would say “Things are getting better” or “I’m working on a few things.” Practicing emotional honesty helped me be more aware of information my emotions were telling me and have the courage to act on that information rather than lying to myself.

2. Look for the disconnect between I can/I should vs. I want/I need

Many of us have skills that come naturally to us that we don’t actually enjoy doing. But because of our abilities, we feel compelled to use these skills when asked or when the occasion calls for it. Every soft yes I had given in the past was a hard no to something that I needed or truly wanted. I committed to keeping promises to myself for meeting my wants and needs first before making any other promises. Building this trust in myself gradually made it easier to say no to situations that didn’t serve me. I would never flake on a friend, so why was I flaking on myself?

3. Distinguish your inner voice from other voices.

If your inner voice tells you to shrink yourself or questions your value, THAT’S NOT YOU. I needed extra help distancing myself from my inner critical thoughts so that I could hear what my emotional self was telling me. So I selected the most annoying name I could think of. (My inner critic is named Kylie btw.) When I hear Kylie, I kindly invite her to take a seat because the clock has run out on her time on stage. (Sometimes I visualize it as Kylie as the devil on one shoulder and Vanessa as an angel on the other.)

4. Check in with your emotional self.

Lastly, I knew I needed to set aside time to acquaint myself with my emotional self. I set a number of silent alarms on my phone:

9 am: Where are my thoughts right now?

12 pm: Attract what you expect, Reflect what you desire

3 pm: Become what you respect, Mirror what you desire

6 pm: Where are my thoughts right now?

These essential check-ins created a sense of awareness of what I felt emotionally from moment to moment. If my thoughts had gone astray — too much anxiety, too much Kylie time — I used the check-ins to renew appreciation of wins, big and small, as well as acknowledging things that excited me.

I’ve realized that my emotions aren’t a distraction, but rather missing insights that I have ignored for years only adding to my anxiety. Turning down the volume on my inner critic has tamped down a major source of anxiety. The habit of checking in with myself helps keep little anxieties from spiraling into massive ones. And most importantly, I trust my judgment far more because I know it’s far more complete and works toward building a better version of me.

Vanessa improves lives through technological and healthcare innovations that leverage behavioral science, habit formation and social psychology to scale businesses that improve health. As an entrepreneur herself, Vanessa has personally experienced and recovered from burnout to build a healthy life and successful business. She’s the creator of Healthy Hustle Habits, an online program for 9-5ers with side hustles to build the mindset and practices for a healthy life and higher income. Vanessa lives in San Francisco, has roots in Houston and history in Brooklyn and a few countries. When she’s not working, she practices self care by getting out of her head and moving her body, either dancing or practicing yoga. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.