The Intellectual and Emotional Toll of Burn-Out

The Intellectual and Emotional Toll of Burn-Out October 21, 2019

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging, truly I have, but this semester has been rough on me not just in terms of time (over) commitment, but also due to the exhaustion of burn-out.

AFS 2019 selfie

Teaching four classes is no joke: it’s considered full-time work, and it is. Mostly I make it work, but this semester in particular, burn-out has been haunting me, making it harder than usual to blog, do scholarship, and more.

I get ideas for blog posts. I think “ooh, here’s a catchy title for a post I want to write about the rhetoric of gun control” and “I just came up with a neat lesson plan for my class on the modern Middle East and North Africa, I bet I can wring a blog post out of that.” But then these posts don’t end up happening. I know that some of it is just a time issue, since I’m struggling to make enough time in the day for self-care in addition to all my teaching duties (and that would include teaching dance 3 nights a week on top of my 4/4 load at my university).

But on some level, it’s more than just a time issue. Thinking about sitting down in front of the keyboard to write has felt like bumping up against a barrier. It feels like too much effort for too little gain, and that’s part of how I know this is a burn-out issue.

The precarity of being on a one-year teaching contract is getting to me, which is part of what I’ve just presented about at this year’s American Folklore Society annual meeting (not sure if I’ll manage a conference recap post, so check out the hashtag #AFSAM19 if so inclined). I love my work and I love getting to teach for a living, but not being able to plan my life beyond one academic year out is difficult.

There are three other main ways that burn-out is manifesting in me: brain fog, inability to recognize (my own) good work, and a desire to pursue other activities. In terms of the first, I’ve felt for months now that reading and writing in a scholarly mode is harder for me than usual. I’m not sure if brain fog is the right term but I’m going with it. Reading dense theoretical work feels about as painful and appealing as performing surgery on myself, and sitting down to produce academic writing feels about the same. I feel like my intelligence has vanished, which of course is scary in someone who’s based a lot of her identity and career on being smart and educated (yes, I am a typical Ravenclaw). I recognize, of course, that this is likely just a symptom of intense fatigue, and I’ll probably get my mojo back once I’ve rested (whatever the hell that means).

Second, I feel like I don’t even know what it means anymore to do good work. Apparently I presented a good paper at this year’s AFS meeting. What does that even mean? It wasn’t the most densely theoretical work I’ve ever written, that’s for sure, and it wasn’t based on a ton of research. People thanked me for it both in person and online, and I was flattered, but acknowledging the appreciation felt empty. Apparently my scholarship matters and my writing helps people, but what does that mean? It all feels meaningless, which I guess could also be a symptom of feeling like I have no place in late-stage neoliberal capitalism, which may be a factor too. But I’m really struggling to feel out what it means to do “good work” in this day and age, where I’m not working directly to address suffering and trauma, but I am trying to do my part by being an educator and an artist and a kind/ethical human. Could be this is also a bit of a trauma response, a lingering manifestation of some of the nastier gaslighting I’ve experienced, but that’s a tad more speculative.

Third, my draw towards other activities is edging out those things that formerly brought me joy like academic research/publishing and blogging. I’ve been investing a lot of time in my local dance community, which has been wondrously rewarding because I’ve got great people in my circles and it’s always amazing to experience people’s artistic growth. I’ve been writing Facebook posts for a small, filtered group of friends about intimacy and relationships, which feels safer and nicer than putting those kinds of thoughts out on the internet for all to see (those posts may someday become the chapters of a book, but right now it’s feeling too vulnerable for that). I’ve been making time to see my friends more regularly. I’ve been watching anime with a new favorite person.

Taken together, these factors explain where my time’s been going and why. I want to regain a sense that my work matters, but if beloved colleagues telling me to my face that it matters isn’t reaching me, that indicates to me that something else is off, something internal has shifted, for better or for worse. I’m grateful for the kind words of others, but I really just can’t see myself in them, and I’m not sure if that’s something to take up with my therapist or what. Maybe it’s a mid-career angst sort of thing; I had a really excellent conversation at a mentoring session with the president of AFS, and she reminded me, as a useful sort of reframe, that scholars not on the tenure-track don’t get the same rites of passage as those on it, so it can be difficult for us to celebrate/value our accomplishments as such (also, am I a mid-career scholar now??!! I suppose, by some metrics, I am – I have published a ton, taught at multiple prestigious universities, developed over a dozen courses, and have mentored junior scholars, mostly informally, so um yeah I guess that’s a thing now).

Anyway, if you want a taste of what I’ve been up to in these other areas of my life, you can check out my appearance on the Touch of Flavor podcast talking about folklore and sex, you can read a poem I just had published queering “The 12 Dancing Princesses,” or you can watch my dance troupe Indy Tribal perform in the gala show at Tribal Revolution this year to live music.

Maybe part of doing good work means always being humble, always aware that one could be doing better and that there is always more one could be doing to make the world a better place. And I think I can work with that, but the additional emotional and intellectual toll of burn-out is transforming that ideal humility into shame, and making every victory turn to dust in my mouth. There has to be a better way of going about things, and I’m hoping that it’s something that will come with time.

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