The Epidemic of Burnout Among High-Achieving Women and Its Antidote
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Almost every woman I know is experiencing burnout these days. There’s this constant pressure to do more work, consume more information, be more available to more people, pick up more skills, gain more followers, and fill every second of the day with more activities, data, and experiences. Day in and day out, we seem to be on an existential treadmill, from the moment we wake up feeling anxious about the ever-expanding to-do list, to the time we go to bed ruminating how much we didn’t get done and beating ourselves up over it. Worst of it, we yearn for a state of completion that never arrives. There is no end in sight and the vicious cycle begins all over again the next day. The treadmill keeps increasing in speed, and we run faster and faster just trying to not fall.
We think, well maybe I just need to be more efficient in getting things done, be more motivated, or stop procrastinating so much. So, we sign up for personal development seminars that teach us “productivity hacks,” organize our grocery shopping around Meal Prep Sundays, and schedule sporadic self-care sessions to de-stress. Ironically, all this self-improvement geared towards performance optimization in the end just adds more tasks to our never-ending to-do list, and we end up feeling even more shame and overwhelm by the perpetual sense of failure. We are no closer to understanding the root of why we need to do more in the first place.
Not only do we need to do more, but we also need to do things perfectly. So many women feel that they need to be their best all the time, always be pleasant, smiling, ready to jump in and volunteer for more responsibilities, fixing other people’s mistakes, etc. We’re afraid of failure because it proves something we secretly believe – that we are not deserving of our accomplishments and have to constantly demonstrate our worth. A mistake is seen as a character flaw, rather than for what it really is, an opportunity for learning and growth.
How Did We Become the Burnout Generation?
The first step is to acknowledge burnout for what it is – not a passing ailment but a chronic condition – and to understand its roots, how it’s built up over time, and how it affects different areas of our lives. Once we examine our personal relationship to burnout, we can also recognize how pervasive it is around us. You’re far from alone in suffering from it, which means there are larger systems that foster it. And yes, I’m looking at you, capitalism and patriarchy.
Most of my coaching clients are high-achieving women in their 30’s and 40's who have worked hard throughout their lives and attained the kind of professional and personal successes they had only dreamt of. Yet, they’re far from feeling the way they expected to feel. In fact, being successful carries a certain precariousness. To maintain their place, they feel the need to work even harder. Most of them have internalized the idea that they should be working all the time, which is reinforced by everyone else they know, including their peers, family, and employers.
What is the deeper reason behind this constant pressure to do more? For many women, there is a feeling that we are not enough as we are, and therefore we need to do more to prove ourselves worthy. The feeling is widespread and affects even the smartest and most accomplished women. Underneath the surface, there are ancestral, collective, and personal wounds around what it means to be in our power. For millennia, women who were deemed as too visible, outspoken, powerful, brilliant, or willful were persecuted or even burned at the stake. This long history of oppression is deeply imprinted in our DNA, and most of us inherited the belief that it is not safe to fully shine in our light. So, our subconscious mind creates self-defeating stories – stories about self-judgment, self-doubt, lack of confidence, imposter syndrome – to keep us from reaching our goals, dreams, and desires, because it’s safer for us to hide and remain small.
This ancestral wound is further reinforced by our collective and personal experiences. Look around and it’s not hard to see how women are still treated as less than men in most areas in life, from being underpaid for the same work compared to men, to not having full control over our bodies and reproductive decisions, to the under-representation of women leaders in business, academics, and politics, to the sexual harassment that unfortunately is almost a universal experience for all women, to name a few.
Now, most of us do consciously believe that we are as smart, capable, and deserving of success as men. After all, our generation was raised on the ideal of equality. But our lived experiences and the inherited trauma from our ancestors prove otherwise. All this information is stored permanently in our subconscious mind, which drives 95% of our behavior.
When we don’t feel safe to be fully in our power, we adapt all kinds of subconscious behavior to keep us from showing up. These self-sabotaging defenses often manifest as distractions, procrastination, paralysis, an inner critic that questions our every move, or addictive behavior (including over-working, over-eating, over-drinking, over-exercising, over-shopping, or Netflix bingeing). The busyness creates a false sense of empowerment, and in reality numbs us from feeling challenging emotions and the core wound that we are still treated as less by society. Our subconscious beliefs and behavior help us safely remain in the shadow and not risk being ridiculed, rejected, or persecuted for our brilliance.
All of this is exhausting, as we stay on the hamster wheel merely to survive, not to thrive. We run in vicious cycles of stress responses throughout the day, and at the end of each day, have trouble resting and truly restoring. But despite what capitalism would have us believe, our body is not a machine. These defense mechanisms take a toll on our nervous system, mental, emotional, and physical health. Over time, our constant stress responses manifest as chronic somatic symptoms such as autoimmune conditions, anxiety, and depression that we can no longer ignore. For many high-achieving women, we keep pushing out of sheer willpower and action, until crises in our health, work or relationships stop us on our track. We keep this up until we literally fall apart.
The Antidote to Burnout
I don’t pretend to have all the solutions to this highly complex topic. For those of you who are experiencing burnout symptoms, I highly encourage you to get professional support. However, I do have some recommendations I would love to share with those of you who recognize that you are experiencing burnout and are interested in learning more from a coaching perspective.
Since the underlying causes of burnout are the defense mechanisms that keep us safely unseen, unheard, and unquestioning, we should first acknowledge the roles that these defenses have played to keep us safe. We can both appreciate how they came about in our lives to help us cope in a world where women do not feel safe in their power, but at the same time recognize that these coping strategies no longer serve our best interests. The ability to recognize and accept all parts of us without judgment is the first step to integrating a healthy psyche.
Women have been living in a world where we are disconnected from our bodies, our needs, dreams, and desires. On most days, we operate on autopilot rather than consciously steering our experiences. We often accept situations and demands that cross our boundaries. When we sense strong feelings arising, we try to numb them, because it is often easier to do so than to acknowledge what is causing us pain. We’ve worked hard doing everything our culture has told us we need to do to be happy and fulfilled, but we never really arrive at the promised land.
I believe the antidote to burnout is to follow our joy and desires. This may sound simple in theory but most of us have had little practice. We rarely ask ourselves what it is that we truly want, let alone ask for it.
To know what brings us joy and excitement requires that we stop listening to the stories created by our mind and follow our body’s innate wisdom. The fact is our body always knows what is best for us. When we feel anxious, depressed, or in physical distress, our body is sending us a message that something is not right. The message starts as a whisper, but if we ignore it, the whisper will get louder and more uncomfortable. Our work is to develop a relationship with our body so that we're regularly checking in on what it needs. Whenever we become aware of our tendency to over-do, distract, procrastinate, or numb, we can take a moment to recognize what’s happening in our body.
The best way to connect with our body is through mindfulness techniques such as meditation and breathwork. When we practice mindfulness, we calm our nervous system down by signaling to our body that we are safe in the present moment. (Note: In my free ebook, Five Daily Practices to Connect with Your Intuition, I shared several techniques to befriend your body. If you need additional resources, feel free to reach out to me).
Rather than repeating the same old patterns that keep us in a vicious cycle of stress and fight or flight response, we investigate with curiosity and ask open-ended questions:
How is my body responding to this situation? What sensations do I feel?
When I react in a habitual way, what am I tolerating? And why am I tolerating it?
What is my deepest desire in this situation?
What behavior do I engage in to keep me from knowing my true desires?
What would I experience if I didn’t engage in this behavior?
What becomes possible when I allow myself to feel my body’s needs and desires? How would I show up in this situation?
I don’t want to oversimplify this process of unraveling our hardwired defense mechanisms, but these questions are a good place to start. This work is challenging. It will take a lot of time and courage. At times, it will feel like taking two steps forward and one step back. However, one thing I’m sure of is that the current norm of overdrive is unsustainable. Eventually, either your health or your spirit will cry for help. As a former workaholic who is healing from chronic health conditions, I know it is only through addressing the root causes mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, that I can see improvement in my physical symptoms. If you choose to explore this path, the rewards are well worth the hard work – in the form of more intimacy in your relationships, more impact of your work in the world, more comfortable in your own skin, more freedom, joy, fulfillment, and feeling unapologetically alive.