Achieving your goals without losing your mind – wild fantasy or attainable reality?
March of this year was a big turning point for me. After only three months in a new role, I started to feel completely burnt out. And it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own.
I was unfortunately having an awful start to the year – from the get-go, the year was filled with traumatic situations, uncomfortable transitions, sunken relationships, confusion, depression, lack of purpose – all those thoughts and feelings you hope to never experience, were happening to me… all at once.
And at the same time, I had just started a more challenging and demanding position at work, which I was determined to blow out of the water. I told myself that regardless of the circumstances going on in my life, I was going to put my personal baggage aside and work as hard as I needed to, and it nearly drove me insane. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t really “successful” if I was burying a huge part of myself only to keep up with expectations that at the time, felt right.
Like it or not, mental health – or mental stability, balance, normality, whatever you want to call it – is usually the first casualty when life gets complicated. It’s unthinkable to sacrifice our goals, our finances, or our professional reputation, so instead we set aside our mental wellbeing, confident that the damage won’t be too bad or too lasting. Ironic, when achieving balance and happiness are supposed to be the driving factors to success, right?
These were the concerns taking up space in my mind for the greater part of 2022.
I didn’t have answers, but I knew that I couldn’t continue down the path I was heading – or I’d definitely lose my mind. So, I took a step back and decided it was time to do something totally different. At the end of the day, what did I have to lose?
5 lessons learned the hard way:
Feeling beyond stressed, exhausted, burnt out, hopeless – I booked a solo trip to Costa Rica for a wellness retreat.
For one whole week, I escaped to a place with no WiFi, no work, no messy relationships, no connections at all. No one asking me “are you better today?” or “how are you feeling?” for the hundredth time. For the first time in months, I was able to turn my brain off.
The retreat followed a tight schedule – breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served at specific times, yoga every day at 4 pm, morning prayers at 7 am, etc. There was one purpose – be present, nothing more. Clarity through simplicity.
After living in my own thoughts for a week, I didn’t necessarily feel happier – but I did feel more intentional. I’ll save you the trouble (and expense) of booking your own escape from reality by sharing what I learned:
1. Untangle your identity from your work
Remember way back when, before you started working? Before work became the center of your life, the thing around which you organized all your time and efforts. You were a fully-fledged person with a unique personality and interests and connections, even though you had no professional accolades to show for yourself. And somewhere deep down, that person still exists. But how do you find them? That brings us to…
2. Destress & Disconnect
Disconnecting from work, from friends, from routines – this is what helped me reconnect with myself and figure out why I was feeling and acting the way I was. Sometimes you don’t realize you need to take a step back for a couple of days or weeks and really ask yourself why.
Sometimes all you need is that little push and voice in your head to really encourage you to take that sick day, go to that workout class, turn your phone off for one hour, or better yet communicate to your boss that you need a personal day – whatever disconnecting may look like to you. When you’re flooded with chaos and deadlines and expectations, it’s easy to forget why you’re doing what you do. For me, that meant…
3. Really know your WHY
It can feel soul crushing to go through life without a goal. Sure, I had little goals; find a new apartment, go for daily walks, have a record month at work, earn more money, etc. But I was fuzzy about why I wanted these things. What was the end game? How did I want my life to look if everything went to plan? And was I really on track to ever get to that result?
For me, I’ve come to two conclusions – I make money so I can travel and explore, and I work because I’m good at my job. It took a while, but I realized I shouldn’t quit just because I pushed myself too hard.
Your why will likely be completely different. You might work so you never have to worry about small luxuries, or to buy a home, or to retire early, or because you have a family to support. Whatever the why is for you, it doesn’t so much matter – just that you know your answer and strive to live a life that makes it a reality.
4. Boundaries set you free
The tricky thing about boundaries is actually communicating them to your manager and team, especially if you’ve been overextending yourself like I was. These types of conversations are never easy and there is no right way to approach them. I knew that it had to be done, but it wasn’t easy to figure out the best way to do so in a professional manner while remaining intentional and true to myself.
There were many complexities to the situation, so I started simple. I drafted a detailed but straight-forward email to my boss that included a game plan for the upcoming months. I made sure to be clear about what I could and could not commit to, and then I stuck to that plan religiously. Of course, the email was just one component of the boundaries I was looking to set for myself. Following that email were tough in-person conversations that I had to have, not once, not twice, but numerous times. What I was really doing was making sure everyone was clear on expectations, thereby relieving much of the stress I’d been suffering through behind closed doors.
Boundaries can be scary, uncomfortable, challenging, unfamiliar – but the important part is knowing that it can be done, even with a little help.
5. Surround yourself with the right people (professionals and non-professionals alike)
Obvious, right? The people with whom you interact set the tone for much of your internal monologue and beliefs, so choosing them wisely is imperative. But that’s easier said than done; so many of our closest friends, family members, and colleagues are not easily changeable or replaceable, which makes for some difficult decisions. I will say that usually there’s a reason if you are not seeing eye to eye with someone. Reflecting on those reasons has really helped me to clarify which relationships need space, which are salvageable, and which ones no longer need to take space in my life.
Beyond personal relationships, you do have a fair amount of control over who you spend time with. I can say from my own experience that finding a workplace full of people who make you feel content, challenged, and valued, can make a world of difference. I can directly credit my manager for helping to keep me afloat this past year by allowing the flexibility and independence to make a schedule that works for both of us. But more importantly, I credit him for creating a welcoming space where I didn’t feel the need to quit and give up. Rather, a space where I felt accepted for what I was going through and respected for where I am headed.
Your choice of workplace is exactly that – a choice. It’s up to you to find somewhere that fulfills your professional and interpersonal needs.
So, should you jump on a flight to Costa Rica to solve all your problems? Probably not – though I’ve heard worse ideas. It can’t hurt, at the very least. But it also won’t fix everything for you, just like it didn’t fix everything for me. What it did do was help to clear my mind of all the clutter and clarify the points in my life that were causing so much stress and chaos. And while I am still constantly learning and have more to improve on, I hope the lessons above have helped in some way as you wrestle with your own sense of balance, mental wellbeing, and purpose.
I’ll end with this – know that you are not alone. Even during your darkest days, there are many people rooting for you. Take the time to be intentional and do what is best for you!
I’m always happy to talk, whether it’s about mental health, solo traveling, recruiting, or life in general! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.