It was a bright and beautiful August morning when I felt myself undeniably freeze up. The sun was already high in the sky, warming the streets. I had just finished an early business meeting in town and was ready to get on my bike, rush to the office. Get on with stuff.
But I wasn’t ready. I was staring at my bike lock in an intense, blind panic: suddenly having absolutely no idea how I was ever going to do all those things I was supposed to. Because, in that moment, I didn’t even know how to open the lock. My mind was completely blank. And the idea of having to cycle anywhere through the busy Amsterdam traffic made me want to burst out in tears. Everything made me want to do just that, because I felt too tired to come up with anything else.
I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that I had never felt more raw, and weak, and scared. Like that secret suspicion I had had all along, the little voice whispering “You can’t do all this. You’re not as good as they think” was finally catching up with me.
That was the day that forced me to change. It took the company doctor about 10 minutes to diagnose me as burned out. My first urge was to prove him wrong but I didn’t have the energy. I soon learned that burned out meant I couldn’t just go back to where I was a few weeks before; quickly recharge, pick up my life and choose differently. This was it for now, and I had to deal with it. Even if I really didn’t know how to. How do you deal with a complete feeling of standstill in life, when all you’ve been doing for years is trying to speed things up, be better, do more? When the whole world around you is still moving fast, and you can’t go along anymore?
Luckily, the standstill was only external – like in winter when everything seems cold and dead, but underneath life’s still simmering, repairing and preparing for a new season.
So, what changed?
Just before that break down, I was on top of the world. I could do anything. You could find me either working my full time corporate job where I’d just started at a new department, at my full time study in Applied Psychology, my side project for the University of Amsterdam, house hunting in a very stressed market, actively socializing with friends or colleagues, or working out in a personalized fitness program.
Or, more and more, you could find me lying in bed directly after work. Completely exhausted, guiltily skipping a yoga class – but that wasn’t a picture of myself I wanted to really look at.
Of course I was tired, but I didn’t want it to affect me. Actually, I found myself in essence to be quite lazy, so I did a lot to avoid giving in to that nature. I did not want my laziness to lead to ‘not amounting to anything’, and so I pushed myself.
I used fear of failure as motivation.
I felt shame about feeling tired, lazy or sick.
This may sound quite depressing, but these mechanisms were so ingrained into my system that I barely noticed them. And I felt I needed them to stay motivated, thinking that without these psychological ‘whips’ I would just lay on the couch all day and do nothing.
I think the core of it was I desperately wanted to feel meaningful – and gravely feared the opposite. If only I made enough of an impact, if I would just do enough, it would matter I was here. I would live up to something. The problem was, it was never enough. I wasn’t suffering from the FOMO* us millennials are so often accused of, but of a deep FOM0: Fear of Meaning 0 [nothing].
And there was a nasty catch to this fear: it completely blocked my creativity and ability to follow my heart, thus setting me up for even bigger failure: in life. I so franticly needed to succeed, to ease that feeling of slumbering discontent, that I only felt free doing things I already knew I could succeed in. But everything worth doing, you can fail at.
The thought of truly committing, to take a risk and do something real and exciting, scared the hell out of me. That’s not a recipe for inspiration, I can tell you. I would start things that inspired me, like writing, and stop again – feeling blocked. Then resent myself for being such a coward and push to work harder. But will power does not make for creativity and passion, and I was getting exhausted and fed up with myself.
I think to a certain extent I even used my avid traveling as a way to sustain this pattern: by stepping out of ‘real life’ for a while, I could finally live in the moment and accept myself while not being productive. I could still feel like I was doing something deeply personal and adventurous. I felt happier and more in sync when traveling. But I never found a way to translate this into everyday life.
So I was failing anyway I could look at it, despite all my efforts. Despite the superficial success.
I think I needed the break down to break out of the cycle. With energy, it would just have been too tempting to keep running and numb the fear. Then, burned out at home, I was forced to look it in the eye: I was finally where I was always trying to get away from: on the couch all day (watching Netflix, yes), not amounting to anything. I finally, officially, failed. But I didn’t disappear, and people still loved me. Apparently, being meaningful didn’t require that much work and achievement after all, but was something that was just given to me.
Also, in that break down, I felt that the pain of not listening to my own voice, of constantly giving into fear, had become so much bigger than the pain of failing at something could possibly be. It had probably always been irrational, but now this system of motivation was not even working anymore. That meant I had to come up with a new way of motivating myself. This was new territory. For months I handled my burn out the same way I had handled other projects: with ambition and dedication. I would slowly recover, then try to get more active, and feel my energy implode again. It was very frustrating.
So I had to start believing that there was another way of creating things in the world: a more natural way that doesn’t depend so much on pushing but on a natural flow of inspiration and growth. Like how a fetus grows into a baby, or a seed turns into a plant. They just do, without trying hard of forcing anything, because it’s what they’re meant to do. There is an incredible creative energy in the universe and I felt if I could tap into that, I would be ok. I could do and create things without losing all my energy. And if I could lean back a bit more, I would find a way to do it. I needed trust for that, as it felt very unnatural to try less instead of more: feelings of guilt for not working hard enough would reappear often. But somehow I kept getting back to it. Undeniably because the idea of feeling inspired and working from flow had a grand appeal after all that struggle. And because I knew I could not get back to my old ways.
I wish I could conclude by saying I found the magic key and am now in a constant state of flow and divine inspiration. I didn’t, and I still struggle with some of my old thought patterns at times. But something, in my core, has changed. I now trust that some things happen in their own time. I trust my own voice a lot more, even when I feel insecure or vulnerable. And I’m taking steps to align myself more with what’s in my heart. That is, in fact, how this article came into being: I wrote it from a deep desire to put some of this experience onto paper and share it with others. Truly honest and thus quite scary. But I know now that’s the only way to make something. So that’s OK.
I look back on that sunny August day in gratitude. I wish I could tell my terrified self then that I would be fine even if things were falling apart. How much I’d learn about myself, how much courage I’d find to do things differently in the end. Today I look outside – it’s bright light and sunny yet again. Almost a year has passed (winter is over) and a new season has started.
* FOMO = Fear of Missing Out