Hi, I am Marina, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. A Digital Account Manager and an impulsive traveler convinced that the reason we’ve given skin and music is to have goosebumps. I’m almost 30 years old, and the moment I grasped that getting better at life didn’t always have to happen the hard way changed everything for me. That moment burned out.
The change was painful but not impossible. In the beginning, I was excited, engaged while it worked, and in denial when it didn’t. Staying in denial interfered with my ability to tackle challenges. I felt stuck and powerless.
Three years ago, I burned out. It was the morning after my birthday party. I remember my bed was full of unpacked books I ordered online. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, Freedom, Corrections, Mark Manson’s Everything is fucked, Why greatness cannot be planned, and The Power of Vulnerability written by Brené Brown that I had already begun to read.
Scattered around the room were the gifts I had received the night before. As I lay in bed, in a rabbit-ear robe from Oysho, I had my eyes fixed on the pile of vinyl records on the floor: Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Buena Vista Social Club, Florence and the Machine, Miles Davis. All those stories were there on my ground. Outstanding, beautifully wrapped, flawless, and untouched.
Realizing I wasn’t curious to open them struck me terribly. All the noise in my head was the only noise in the room for weeks. I hadn’t listened to music in days. Just hearing it was dreadful because music has always been something intimate for me, the only deep-seated thing I liked to share with lots of people. It has been my safe kind of high, as Jimi Hendrix put it in words. I never knew what it was like to give it up.
I recall I didn’t feel well at all. I had the constant impression of inner emptiness that was becoming physically painful. I felt a kind of sadness that I can’t describe. Nothing made sense. I felt guilty all the time, I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to work. Anxiety pounded in every inch of my body. Although I wised up to how much it affected me physically and mentally, I could not stop. I felt like I had to do everything at once, read all those books, tick all the tasks. There were dozens, and I was panicking. Not good enough was a joke compared to good for nothing. I was the good-for-nothing girl.
That day, I remember playing Billy Joel’s song, Vienna, on repeat and crying. Not being able to see things clearly and understand how they frustrated me. My head was a mess, full of mixed feelings and mixed explanations. It was then that I realized it was burnout.
Burnout was real. I used to think of burnout as a way of asking for attention and complaining. I was so busy not sleeping and getting exhausted that I didn’t realize how unreasonably harsh I was towards myself and others. But the day after my birthday changed everything.
I was dealing with insomnia, working round-the-clock, thinking nonstop. I never stopped. But the adrenaline that I sometimes miss kept me hooked.
Advancing fast in the job by moving from a junior-mid Digital Strategy position to an Account Management one was rewarding and gave me confidence and revealed my insecurities.
Being a Project & Account Manager in a digital agency where the dynamism in performance is tangible was thrilling. It kept me overly busy. It empowered me to do what I loved most. I felt useful, engaged, and present. Switching roles and approaches often folded amazingly well with my tendency to overcompensate and my black and white thinking Give it all or go home.
The quick wins motivated me. I experienced power and control. But during stressful moments, I felt the other way around: inadequate, in a position to deal with the demanding stuff driven by the needs of others, and carrying the can.
Those were the moments that pushed me to an extreme. I started overcompensating, and I couldn’t see how my ego was ruining my work-life balance. Suddenly, everything became so personal and unclear.
Adrenaline was tricky. I used to wake up at 5 AM every morning, including weekends. If I didn’t turn on my laptop to work, I would have to read or go swimming or running, then go and get back from work on foot and work again. I had to do something. I am a morning person, 5 AM is still my hour, but I felt guilt and anxiety back then. That’s why I couldn’t afford to lose one minute. I wanted more projects, more tasks, more to-do lists. My way of running from personal stuff took over. Playing hide and seek and seeking validation. Enough was never enough for me. I needed to prove myself without noticing that I already had approval.
I have been going to therapy since I’ve become aware of burnout. After almost three years, I am still a work in progress, a much better one. I had forgotten how powerful discovering patterns is until therapy jogged my memory. I was lucky enough to find a great therapist who taught me to fish. At first, I took the time to acknowledge how things work and how I work. After, I started to keep an eye on myself. I was threatened and relieved at the same time. I identified my triggers and found patterns. Once I understood the value of reality checks, my growth mindset came out.
Without this, I wouldn’t have been able to work on the things that are not mine but with which I was invested (family beliefs, social norms, etc.). In the past, a better version of me involved discipline, perfection, and no mistakes. Now, it means constantly trying, observing, noticing, listening, and accepting what I can change and what I can’t.
While awareness was a goddess, change was a rollercoaster. Some days I knew what I had to do, and others, I was so confused that I wanted to quit. By digging deeper to understand what was going on, I found a fixed mindset in my behavior that came in as a shock. I started to see only this side of mine, ignoring all the good stuff and blaming myself. The hardest part was accepting I had vulnerabilities that people around me were aware of while I wasn’t. Especially at work, the place I was getting all the validation from.
Assuming change was the key. Even when I decided to work on myself and change behaviors, emotional reactions, old beliefs, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was too scared. Giving up the things that brought me fast results and confirmation (overcompensation, not taking breaks, working round-the-clock, trying to please everyone, be available all the time, not prioritizing myself) felt so baleful. I was facing the constant feeling of loss, not knowing who I was anymore.
When I couldn’t see the damage, I was pretty sure that getting rid of some toxic but beneficial habits (not getting enough sleep to do productive stuff instead, talking about work all the time and not disconnecting, working during weekends, and not taking breaks) would erase all the abilities that got me to succeed. I was wrong. The skills were still there, but I couldn’t see them anymore.
Talking about it with friends and some co-workers was a blessing. Vulnerability is talked about a lot these days, yet few of us show it. I always felt I had to hide this part of mine and show power instead. In my mind, the signs of weakness were not allowed, especially at work. Vulnerabilities are still taboo, and even though we seem to be more open-minded at a declarative level, it’s hard to accept, understand, and not judge others. The moment I dared to speak out loud with friends and few co-workers about what I experienced, I started to feel better, mainly because everyone came across events like these. Everything started to look normal.
Allowing myself to express what I was going through was a relief, and it helped me grasp that it was real and something that I needed to work on; it was so common, but people didn’t dare to speak out loud. I realized that sharing my own experience helped others, too, and identifying the problem brings me closer to finding solutions. It’s a risk worth taking.
I used to see perfectionism and overcompensation as positive traits that increased my chances of success. My totalitarian beliefs about work were super strong: work hard, no mistakes allowed, no breaks, no waste of time, no sleep, etc. Now I see things nuanced rather than black and white.
Not being exceptional is ok. At the same time, all of us can be exceptional in our way. Unrealistic standards do nothing but limit and inhibit us. Being aware of the reality I live in, of the fact that I belong to a generation in which we were forced to compare ourselves to our fellows, aided me in the beginning to accept my feelings, including the negative ones. These demons are part of me, and there’s no chance to expect to get rid of everything in a second or ever.
I believe the trick is to have patience and know yourself better enough to discover what suits you best, consider your wishes and choices, and adjust. Think agile and play smart. No pressure. Bisous.
Accept your wholeness,
Contributors of this story: Marina Topcian wrote this gem, Oana Filip provided feedback and edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.
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