Burnout: Or, how I became a fraud in my own life

Brad Helmink on Unsplash

Brad Helmink on Unsplash

I want to make a confession. After all, a blog is a type of confessional. There is small but noticeable cathartic relief in publishing something personal into the howling wastelands of the internet.

My confession is that I am a fraud. That my life is not what it seems. It is certainly not what I present on Facebook, Instagram, even on this site.

From my online presence, you’ll see that I’m married, that I write, that I make bread, that I’m currently studying for a Masters and I work a couple of part time jobs. This all sounds quite pleasant. It looks pleasant online, and if I narrate my life like this to myself it sounds quite appealing.

I am all too aware that this is only part of the picture. In reality I misrepresent what I actually experience, what life is really like.

I feel that everything is out of control. There is a sense of unease that creeps in, like rising damp, the feeling that life is running away with me. I’m working two zero-hours contract jobs to try and cobble together enough hours. I wake up early to make time for writing. Where ever I can I try to fit in the reading I need to do for my course. I feel constantly overrun by errands and emails and all the mid-priority tasks. I don’t have time to make bread; I just do it anyway because I find it so relaxing and I need a way to get out of my head.

We want people to know how busy we are. We wear it like a badge of honour.

Then there’s the constant question of “what next?” What after the Masters, what’s the big job, where is all this going? I scan job alerts in my inbox everyday and write up applications for internships, part time gigs, unpaid writing opportunities.

I’m not saying that I have it really hard. I don’t have it hard at all. But for some reason, like many of my peers, I’m making it hard on myself. I’m acutely aware that there is a discrepancy between what I show up front and how I actually feel.

That’s what I realise, at least, when I post about a sourdough or a loaf of bread on Instagram. It goes up and appears as a glimpse into a life of domestic bliss. In fact, it is one moment among many when I feel that I am run off my feet without a moment to spare. I used to think I would enjoy having this many metaphorical plates spinning at once, but it actually just leaves me feeling paralysed. Like I can’t even enjoy the things I enjoy because there’s just too many things and constantly feel that I should be doing more.

I write about this because I feel that we live in a culture of busy. Or rather, a culture of appearing busy. We want to seem to be in demand, always on the move, doing the next engaging thing. We want people to know how busy we are. We wear it like a badge of honour. I have been like this, until I reach the point know when I think: is this really what life is about? Filling up my time to the point of burnout?

My peers and I have internalised the idea that we should always be working. Not necessarily paid work, or work in a straightforward job, but always working on something. Bettering ourselves, our health, our image, our skills, learning to speak French or make sourdough or developing a side-hustle.

We don’t let on that the desire for well curated hyper-busyness leads us to misrepresent the reality of our daily lives. Despite all the negative criticism levelled at social media, they are not entirely to blame for this. We misrepresent when we talk with people in real life. We present only our best selves and sift out the parts we think are unattractive to others, undesirable.

Try harder, and you too can win the comparison game.

Nevertheless, social media have made it so much easier to control that representation and to broadcast the highlights at all hours. A truth is there at the heart, but these media encourage us to make something more, to embellish, to show only the most appealing, aestehtic slice of life.

Isn’t this perfectly embodied in the editing and filtering of photos before publishing on our feeds? The substance of the photo is there, but we make it brighter and sharper and moodier.

We know that the game is rigged against us, but that doesn’t stop the vast majority of us playing. Though it may make us feel inadequate, though we know we are unrealistically comparing the worst in our own lives with the best in others, we keep playing the game because there’s a part of us that thinks we can win it if we keep going. We believe that eventually we will feel better about ourselves if we persevere. Try harder, and you too can win the comparison game.

Is this a confession, or just an unwarranted whine? Is this now a space to pour out my discontent and moan about the fact I have “too much” to do? Am I assuming, even, that other people will find my life attractive based on my online activity?

If I assume that some other people will find my life appealing it’s only because I know personally how easy it is to fall prey to romanticising the lives of others. The grass is always greener, and now you can have notifications buzz away in your pocket about just exactly how green it is.

I don’t want to be another person who criticises the superficiality of social media but then carries on as if nothing has changed, posting those shiny moments and wearing my busy schedule on my sleeve. The inherent difficulty of social media is learning to use it honestly and responsibly. It’s not possible to share everything, and it’s not right to bear all online either.

We beat ourselves up because of some standard that emanates from the background millennial buzz. It’s exhausting.

The purpose of this confession, so far as it has any, is to speak against the culture that says “you should have it all together”. As a young married man, I have actually had people say to me “wow, you’re married, you’re sorted”, which is hardly the case at all. I’ve got most of the same problems, now with an extra person involved.

It’s easy to think that everyone else has it worked out, has the great job, the perfect relationship, that mythical balance of work/rest/play/success, and I know that I contribute to that worldview. I regularly buy in to the idea that I should be doing all these different interesting things and showing everyone how amazing and fully-functioning I am, competing with the perfect lives I perceive around me.

Many of us are doing just fine, and yet we beat ourselves up because of some standard that emanates from the background millennial buzz. It’s exhausting to constantly chase a standard that doesn’t exist and can’t be reached.

We need to learn to let ourselves off. To remember that no one’s life is perfect and that yours doesn’t need to be, either.