Bills aren't always the most important thing (Image Credit: Thinkstock)
“You need to do this for yourself” was the mind-numbing phrase that had been seesawing in my mind for months. One day I would feel more empowered than ever to leave the job that I felt was slowly crushing my soul, and the next I would feel guilty about not sticking with the career that had provided me so much stability and growth.
Seven years, three different positions, and a lot of self-examination had gone into this job. I poured in $40,000 worth of higher education, two years of licensure supervision, and countless existential freak-outs (and that’s stuff you just can’t put a price on). I felt as if I owed someone — the agency? My clients? Myself? — and needed to stay.
I really love being a mental health counselor — most days. The role of supportive listener, self-growth challenger, and safe-space provider comes naturally. Helping people through the tough times in their lives is both humbling and rewarding. There was a lot to love.
The clincher ended up being the very thing I was there to help improve every day: mental health.
As a counselor, my job was to support people with severe mental illness and trauma on their journeys in improving their emotional health, but my own emotional bank ended up being depleted in the process.
It’s funny how the body and mind can adapt to periods of stress without us being consciously aware of the balance and peace that we’re missing. We grit our teeth, plow forward, and persevere when we need to get through rough passages, sometimes without ever stopping to wonder if the roughness is self-induced.
As any good counselor should do, I went to see a therapist of my own for a while. During a period of particularly strong burnout - accompanied by family woes that would rock even the most solid of foundations - I talked with my counselor about all the job stress, the lack of recognition, and the endless chase after some feeling of accomplishment that never seemed to come.
The sentence she repeated to me whenever I was visibly overwhelmed was: “Remember: you chose this line of work.” And, goddamn her, she was right. I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way. I had chosen to pursue this type of career, chosen to stay at my current job, chosen to work with a challenging population, chosen to tell myself, “This is just the way it is here, but it’s just not fair!”
That simple sentence planted itself deep inside my brain over the following year, blossoming slowly into the realization that I didn't need to make the the same choice anymore. I could, instead, choose to leave. I could choose to take a break. I could choose to pursue something different for a while. I could choose to prioritize my own mental health.
Even before this growing epiphany, I had already started some side hustles.
Freelance writing was one of those "side projects," and I grew to enjoy more and more as time went on. I had also gone part-time at my counseling job, which helped tremendously, for a time. Still, the burnout wore on.
For right now, I am not practicing with the degree and license I worked so hard to obtain. And that's okay. All that time and effort poured into those accomplishments is still valid.
A study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology found evidence that burnout can fester if one’s emotional needs are not being met by their work. And I believe it. Each of us are motivated by different factors, such as wanting interpersonal connection or power, and if you don’t find these needs fulfilled by your work, get ready to be worn down.
I probably could have gone down to one day a week at my job, and still have felt some percentage of that familiar mind and body exhaustion. The morning dread. The withdrawal from co-workers and loved ones. The point is: the job was no longer working for me. And it was time to set myself free.
Thanks to an understanding family, income-based loan repayment, and a love for spreadsheets, a plan came together. I sent in my letter of resignation. I had done all the budgeting prep, all the daily scheduling to help keep me on track with my writing and other gigs, and I felt a healthy mixture of confidence and existential wonder.
Quite possibly the biggest influence in my ability to pull this thing off is, of course, my position of privilege. I’m privileged to have had all the opportunities that led to getting a higher degree and a secure, 9-5 job in the first place. And I’m extremely privileged to be able to walk away from all that and still be able to stay afloat. This is not something everyone is in a position to do, yet I would still encourage anyone who finds themselves plagued by burnout to find whatever is within their control, and consider changing it to fit your needs.
For right now, my student loans are still being paid, and at the same rate. It will take many, many years to see that balance hit zero, and accepting that has been a roller coaster. I’ll be in years’ worth of debt, no matter what the income source. It is the way things are for Gen-Y, and I’m no special snowflake. And I’m working on not letting the nagging presence of debt control my outlook.
For right now, I am not practicing with the degree and license I worked so hard to obtain. And that’s okay. All that time and effort poured into those accomplishments is still valid. Just like relationships, even the healthiest ones, we need a frigging break every once in awhile. To find ourselves, and all that.
And, for right now, I am not putting harsh expectations on my future. When I’m ready, I’ll come back to my original vocation. In the meantime, I’m working hard at other pursuits, both money-making and self-care related. The truth is: I need to do this for myself.