Crying over a glass of warm champagne: embracing burnout and making the most of it

Last week, I got back from my first meaningful break from my design business since going full-time (18 months ago). I was expecting to feel energized, reinvigorated, and excited about diving into design work again.

I sat down in my new office in our new house with a hot cup of coffee and some gluten-free cookies and…sighed. A deep, wordless, defeated sigh. Because I wasn’t feeling at all how I wanted to feel.

I felt…sad. Tired. Overwhelmed before I had even clicked into my inbox. And incredibly ashamed.

Sure, my “break” wasn’t all that restful (filled to the brim with packing, holidays, moving, unpacking…). It was, however, a total and complete break from my design work. I thought that’d be enough to bring me back from the deep pit of burnout that I found myself in, but it wasn’t.

I began to write a post about it, but it came off as a rambly complaint. Then Instagram glitched and deleted the whole thing and I decided that perhaps that was for the best. Who was I to complain when I had been blessed with“a successful” design business and the opportunity to work for myself, from home, every day? I mean, the audacity.

Creative Burn-out, Designer Burn-out, Learning to rest and not quit, Dealing with business overwhelm
The post that was never posted.

So I decided to stay quiet and power through.

Until Saturday, when I peeked in my email inbox against my better judgment and saw some client feedback that was less enthused than I had hoped. Not bad, but very, “ehh.”

…and I instantly burst into tears.

burn·out /ˈbərnˌout/ noun:  the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing

I hated myself for reacting so strongly to such benign feedback. I was tempted to suck the tears back in, as I often do, and move on without a word to anyone…but then I stopped and decided to just let myself feel it. Full force.

I let the tears fall as I poured myself what was left of our housewarming champagne and turned on my favorite playlist of melancholy songs that somehow make me feel sad and happy all at the same time.

I quietly put together our new bar stools and contemplated quitting everything. I gave my puppy extra belly scratches (more for my benefit than for his). I finally let myself feel it, without shame. That I was TIRED. And overwhelmed. And questioning everything about my business and talent and life choices. And then I took a deep breath and enjoyed the rest of the weekend with my family.

Now, it’s Monday again. And the feeling hasn’t entirely gone away.

I still feel overwhelmed. I still feel unsure of myself and my design skills (even though I know, logically, that I have everything I need). But I’m striving to see this as an opportunity to course-correct and not a sign that I should just give-up (though, that does sound a whole lot easier right now).

The fact that I don’t have the same unrelenting career-enthusiasm and hustle-mindset that other entrepreneurs have doesn’t make me a bad business owner, or a failure. I used to think that it did, but I’m slowly realizing that I’m not alone. I’ve hustled *hard* — for my business, for my clients, to live up to internal and external expectations — and now just hearing the word “hustle” makes my skin crawl. I don’t want to be that person who gives everything to her business and has nothing left for anything (or anyone) else. And that’s not a bad thing.

Instead of shaming myself for allowing things to get to this point, I’m taking it as an opportunity to take a deep breath and recalibrate.

I’ve been digging into the Enneagram a lot this year, and as a type 9 with a 1 wing (AKA, a perpetual peacemaker with a hint of perfectionism), I’m realizing that “successful” business ownership looks a little different for me.

I have a great work ethic once I get started on something, but struggle with inertia something fierce. I often allow perfectionism to paralyze me. I forget myself and often self-sacrifice to avoid upsetting people. I frequently neglect my business so that I can give everything to my clients. I am a pro at walking myself straight to Burnout Town.

Something’s obviously not working for me right now. And that’s okay.

It’s okay to not have it all figured out. It’s okay to start down the wrong path and then take a step back. It’s okay to heed someone’s advice and then realize that it doesn’t work for you as well as it did for them.

Burnout often hits when you’ve tried to write yourself into someone else’s story.

If “hustling” doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t make sense to force it. If others see me as a specific type of designer but I hate that kind of work, I don’t have to keep doing it. If some business owners are having $10k months but I will have to kill myself to get there, it’s not worth it. I know people who are able to sacrifice it all to build a business that makes waves, and I love that. But it’s not me. I have a different role to play.

I am steady, inclusive, and giving. I am an inexhaustible font of serenity, acceptance, and kindness. I crave balance and seek to build peaceful partnerships. I want harmony more than I want hustle. And there’s nothing wrong with that. “Success” for my business likely won’t look like that of my peers, and there is beauty in that.

This year, don’t allow yourself to worry about what everyone else is doing, or how your story compares to theirs.

Joy is found in presence, Self-awareness, and authenticity.

…Not in looking good on paper or proving your ex-boss wrong or making everyone else happy or making $100k like “all of the other online entrepreneurs.”

This year, I’ll see it as a success when I make less money, but find myself fully engaged in deep belly laughs with my boyfriend on a Friday afternoon (because he’s really quite hilarious when I’m actually paying attention).

I’ll rejoice when I’m able to welcome my new niece into this world because I’m not lost in a mountain of client work that I shouldn’t have said “yes” to.

I’ll make more time for good health and good food and deep love…and learn to not feel guilty about it.

Burnout has taught me to listen to my own joy (and hurt) as I build my business.

It has taught me a lot about what doesn’t work for me, even if it doesn’t make sense to other people. It’s taught me that certain projects/people drain me, even when they’re good people with good intentions. It’s taught me when I need to take breaks, and what rest looks like for me. It’s taught me that I find energy (and expend energy) differently than some people, and that there’s no point in trying to ignore those cues.

When we choose to listen, burnout can be our best teacher.

Let’s learn to embrace opportunities to pause, sip on warm champagne with teary eyes, listen to our burnout with grace, and then dust ourselves off and change directions without judgment.

Because sometimes, the only way out is through.

Creative Burn-out, Designer Burn-out, Learning to rest and not quit, Dealing with business overwhelm

4 thoughts on “Crying over a glass of warm champagne: embracing burnout and making the most of it”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Caitlin. I know a ton of business owners have been feeling tired as we make our way into the beginning of 2019. I think you nailed it when you said that you have to listen to your own joy and keep that in mind as you’re growing your business. I know for me, that was definitely the case when I was working in television full time. I loved what I was doing and even loved the hustle but after 15 years, the hustle gets old. ;p I struggled to find a way to keep my foot in the door doing the creative work but shedding the idea that I needed to be working 24/7 to keep up.

    • OH, Dominque! Thank you for sharing. I can absolutely relate to your journey and I’m proud of you (and admire you) for how far you’ve come! I hear you on the struggle of feeling like you have to work non-stop to keep your foot in the door and keep moving forward. That is something I’m working on this year, too. “Listen to your own joy” — I love that. So grateful for you and your support! Thank you for being you 🙂

  2. Caitlin… oh my gosh, I feel you! I am also a 9 with 1 wing… talk about paralysis by analysis–i’m the master! I over think and try to over please and run out of joy and energy way too often. Comparison may be the thief of joy, but it sometimes rules my world as I ask myself why I don’t perform like my wonder-woman friends, who do everything perfectly (or so I imagine). Thank you for the reminder that running my business must bring me joy and I have to do it in a way that brings me joy. I stumbled upon this blog, but I will seek it with purpose now. Thank you for sharing <3.

    • Oh, Dana!

      What a gem you are! And a fellow 9w1?! I don’t find a lot of those in the small business world 🙂 I resonate with everything you’ve said so deeply. Sometimes it’s just an encouragement to know that we’re not alone on this journey, right? Your comment has been a huge comfort to me (today has been peppered with unexpected conflict — I’m sure you can empathize with how draining that has been for me). Can’t wait to get to know you deeper! <3

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