If you haven’t read this article about Millennial Burnout yet by by Anne Helen Peterson, I highly recommend you block 30 minutes in the diary, make your hot drink of choice (i’m obsessed with caffeine-free and adrenal friendly Rasa Koffee), put on some comfy socks and put up your (imaginary or real) Do Not Disturb sign. Like so many others who read the piece last week, I felt like it accurately described the pressure I feel to get everything done and always show up, that often leaves me feeling utterly depleted, like a sad, deflated balloon. Peterson argues that I feel this way because I am a millennial who grew up taught that I need to ‘win the system’ that requires us to work endless hours and be constantly competing with those around us. The result of being a millennial and graduating in the midst of the financial crisis, she argues, is that we are all suffering from burn-out. We spend so much of our time in our own private battle with perfectionism that even the tiniest tasks create a heavy emotional overhead on us and so our response is simply to never do them - she mentions registering to vote, writing back to friends and returning unwanted items to the store as jobs that remain in our never-ending, infinite to-do lists.
I read the article feeling like someone finally understood me, and I felt some of the guilt I’d been carrying about my own abandoned personal to-do list melt away. I WASN’T lazy because doing my laundry can feel as laborious as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro after a long week at work and I’m NOT a bad person because there are friends I haven’t spoken to in over 6 months, despite our continuous ping-pinging of “we really should catch up” messages back and forth over the Atlantic ocean. Now, you may be wondering the same thing I am at this moment - how is it that I have time to sit down and write this but I “don’t have time” to speak to my friends or wash my own clothes? Thinking about this more, I believe it’s because writing this blog post is one of the things that lights me up, gets me out of bed in the morning and gives me hope that the world isn’t as bad as they say it is on the news. Writing (as well spending time with good friends, working for a cause I believe in and cuddling my dog), brings me joy, and administrative tasks like organizing a Skype call and washing my sheets don’t fit that bill. I know these tasks need to be done and that I’ll feel better afterwards, but in the moment that I’m faced with one of them I feel so overwhelmed by the long list of other soul-sucking tasks I have to do that I simply cannot face it. And so it grows ever larger, scarier and more guilt-inducing.
Sometimes, a task on the list catches up with me and I am a rabbit caught in the headlights, exposed for the mess that I really am. A few weeks ago I was in bed with my boyfriend when he made a comment (somewhat sensitively) about my facial hair (the hair growing above my lip was the hairy body part in question, but I have plenty of others). He told me (again, trying to be sensitive) that although he understood it was ‘a pain’ to get it sorted out, that he did find it “odd” to kiss me when I had the beginnings of a mustache. The first wave of emotion that hit me was pure, unadulterated SHAME - that old frenemy you think you’ve seen the last of but will always show up to kick you where it hurts. The tears fell within seconds as I found myself explaining my dilemma - my skin has been so troublesome recently with my (stress-induced) acne that I have been putting off going to see my beautician, worried that threading will aggravate my skin and leave me feeling so shitty about myself that I’ll find it difficult to face going out in public and fulfilling my girlfriend, friend, and employee duties. I had tried to book an appointment for that day, I went on to explain, but she was on vacation and I didn’t trust the person covering for her. Then….the anger hit me. ”What would you like me to do in future?” I asked, pointedly, “would you prefer not to spent time with me unless I have been preened to perfection?” He was quiet for a while and then simply said “I’m sorry that you have to do these things and I don’t, I know it’s unfair”.
And he’s right, it is unfair and I’m still angry and still tired. When I think of all the time (not to mention cash) I spend booking beauty appointments, re-scheduling beauty appointments, traveling to beauty appointments, sitting through beauty appointments, it pains me. That’s not even mentioning the actual searing physical pain that most men will never experience of getting a bikini wax.. In the time I spend each month getting facials, being threaded, getting electrolysis (so I can one day be a little less hairy), having manicures and shaving, I no doubt could have spoken with ALL of my friends AND done the laundry AND even changed the bed sheets! That’s not all - as a woman I also believe I feel a great deal more pressure for my body to look a certain way (aka thin) than my boyfriend ever will, so add to that list the yoga classes and HIIT workouts that keep me looking like the girl he met in my bumble profile. I also want to highlight the fact that I feel all of this, and yet I am a fair-skinned, fair-haired, naturally fairly athletic, white woman without disabilities. I’m sure there are MANY women out there who have to sacrifice far more than I do in order to look ‘acceptable’ by society’s standards and some women who, no matter how much effort they put in, will never feel like they measure up to the narrow version of womanhood we see portrayed in the media we consume every day.
That’s just the burden of looking like we are told a woman should, now let’s talk about the emotional labor that a woman takes on in trying to behave like a woman should. The burden of keeping a tidy home, meal planning, remembering birthdays, always having something nice to wear for an occasion (how is it a man can wear the same suit 100 times but a woman feels guilty wearing the same dress twice in wedding season?) It amazes me the efforts my female friends and I go to in order to keep up with each other’s lives and send the ‘good luck’ text before the job interview/date/doctors appointment. Meanwhile I ask my boyfriend what’s new with his best friend after their 3 hour bar crawl and he looks bemused, shrugs and simply replies that he ‘forgot to ask him”. Some would argue that it’s the way women are - perhaps we are naturally more nurturing or caring - but you could also argue (and I am) that the world we live in has taught men that it’s normal or even preferable to be disinterested and detached from social tasks whilst women are taught they are bad people if they drop the ball once or take a well earned rest from our social duties.
Being a woman in the corporate world, another dimension is added into the already overflowing mix. In a man’s world (where the majority of leadership roles are dominated by men) , how many times a day does a woman have to think twice before they speak or act? I took a course recently on Diversity and Inclusion and took part in an group exercise that was eye opening for me. They gave us instructions, and put a slide on the projector to show us what we had to do. In my group we had about 4 women and 3 men and within seconds two of the women had jumped into action and were working together to set us up for the exercise. As I watched what they were doing, I felt compelled to act: they were doing the exercise ‘wrong’ - or at least, they were doing it in a slightly different way to how it was displayed on the screen. Watching that compulsion within me, I thought about it, and realized that the risk of me speaking ‘my truth’ (that I’d really rather do it exactly how the facilitators told us to) was that I would offend them and alienate myself, or be seen as bossy or controlling. So I sat there and the moment passed, until the man next to me interrupted them, assertively rather than aggressively, and suggested that they modify what they had slightly so it matched what was on the screen. I breathed a sigh of relief and was grateful that all was well again in my world. Things got interesting though, when the course facilitators asked us all to examine not the output of the exercise but HOW we completed the tasks - were there any examples of bias or privilege in our behaviors? I held my breath as the cogs turned in my head…I’d WANTED to speak, but I hadn’t. The white, senior, man had spoken, without any hesitation (it seemed) or without (I assume) any worries or anxieties about who he would upset in the process. As the room shared, there were similar themes from many groups - women had automatically jumped in as ‘helpful organizers’ and held back from giving their viewpoints, whereas many of the men had spoken up and directed the activities freely without any qualms…and then sat back and relaxed. As women described the mental calculations they did before they engaged with the group in a certain way, there were nods of agreement from the women around the room. I could see the realization on our faces of the daily burden we bear of having to second guess our instincts through fear of retribution, and the surprise on the men’s faces that this burden even exists. More so, If you are a women who is also a Person of Color, this emotional tax is much more substantial than if you are a white women like me, studies finding that 60% of People of Color are ‘bracing themselves for insults’ on a daily basis in the workplace. If that isn’t exhausting, I don’t know what is.
Finally working mothers, who add to their list the expectation that they will (often) take a break from their careers without impacting their trajectory, grow and birth a healthy child and take the lead on directing that child’s moral compass and their success in life. To my friends who are working mothers, I can only look at you in admiration and ask, with genuine wonder “how do you do it?” Perhaps this is exactly the wrong thing to do, because it is a question working mothers get asked A LOT. I recently read Brotopia: Breaking up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang and heard the struggles of women entrepreneurs who, whilst being heavily pregnant, were pitching for VC funding for their fledgling businesses - often to 100% white and 100% male VC boards. I read about the start-up CEOs who are being asked openly (by men) how they plan to raise their child AND run their business. When are fathers questioned like this? Why is this still happening in 2019? Discriminating against a pregnant woman became illegal 40 years ago and 80% of first-time mothers today are working through their pregnancy - this discrimination creates a huge additional weight to carry for working women who want to have a family. It needs to stop. I loved this photo series that shows pregnant women in the workplace as it reminded me how infrequently we see pregnant, working women represented in the media and reminded me that they should be celebrated rather than alienated..
There’s a lot to be angry about and I’m sure there are plenty more ways women and minorities are oppressed that I haven’t even brought into my awareness yet. It’s no wonder so many of us are so tired. Burn-out is on the rise and even though I’m aware of the risk of burnout, I have to battle with myself every day to resist the narrative to work harder and be everything to everyone. As much as burn-out is a millennial problem, I believe it’s a bigger problem for Millennial women and minorities
What can I do to try to reclaim my life and save myself from death from burn-out? I considered rebelling and surrendering in the battle with my body hair, but I don’t think my self-worth is strong enough. I wish I could rise above the social conditioning I’ve been exposed to that tells me I should be hairless everywhere but my head and eyelashes (which should be luscious), that I should be thin without worrying about what I eat, that my skin should always look perfectly clear, that I should be kind and caring whilst also being a badass leader, and that I should be do it all without ever expressing my anger at having to live in a society where women and People of Color have been oppressed throughout history. If you are a person able to break free of the shackles placed upon you to look or act a certain way then I wholeheartedly applaud you. For now though, I will be continuing to go to my beautician appointments because I still need the validation of the system that deep down, I wish I could escape from.
However there are two things I am going to do. My favorite line from the Burn-out article was quoted from Devon Price’s article ‘Laziness does not exist’. They write: “If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context.” So this year I’m making an intention to think twice before I judge another woman, POC, or person from a minority group on their behavior. That’s my first intention. My second intention came from the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, who dedicated last week’s episode to the ‘Permission Slip’ - the notion that we can give ourselves and each other the freedom from the social constructs we’ve been controlled by (my favorite: permission not to reply to email straight away) . So if you don’t hear back from me please know that it’s not because I don’t care about you, but because I’m trying to keep my light shining bright. While you are waiting for my reply, I encourage you to write your own permission slip - I’m pretty sure you deserve it.