Martyr in recovery

How I stopped making myself miserable in the name of social change

Most afternoons in the last year, I emerged from my home office at 4.30 p.m. completely and utterly exhausted. Spent. Empty. 

On the really tough days, the five-minute walk to my daughter’s daycare was unthinkable. I couldn’t possibly put one foot in front of the other and repeat that action 500 times each way. Inconceivable. Several times, I wanted to ask my husband to go by himself but I realized how ridiculous that sounded for someone who runs 10+ miles each week. I should most certainly be capable of picking up my toddler from preschool. 

So I trotted next to my husband with slumped shoulders trying to explain how I was feeling. But it’s hard to put the sense of sheer emptiness and absence of willpower into words for someone who’s never experienced it. I, myself, was perplexed. Why would I feel this way when all I did each day was pursue my passion, my calling, my raison d’être? Why did I despise myself at the end of each work day? It’s such a luxury to chase after your dreams without abandon. Wasn’t I supposed to be walking on clouds of purpose and fulfillment? Why was I feeling so exhausted and defeated when I did exactly the kind of work I loved? I felt guilty for not feeling more elated. Was I doing this purpose-driven life wrong?

The world isn’t gonna save itself folks!

Going to the grocery store on a weekday was an Olympic sprint to be completed in record time in between two Zoom calls, skipping lunch if necessary. Taking an hour on Wednesday to pick up my order at the local library felt like playing hooky. Starting my workday later than 9 a.m. risked derailing my focus and productivity for the entire day. How was I supposed to catch up when I had already started behind? I went through phases of waking up at two a.m. with a jaw that ached from clenching it in my sleep, and I would lay awake until four or five a.m. going through my to-do list, blog ideas, and concerns over my business and my ability to generate revenue. I still go through these phases, but they are a little less frequent.

The work of social change is never done. 

Call it destiny or divine intervention or pure luck, but in April 2021 I was awarded a scholarship to attend a Personal Mastery seminar by Learning as Leadership. After ten days of eight-hour long Zoom sessions with over 50 participants from the Bay Area to Serbia to New Zealand, I started to recognize my patterns for what they were: I realized that it wasn’t the work itself but the amount of work that made me miserable. What’s worse, I somehow had begun to view my value as a person through the amount of work I completed each day.

Prior to the seminar, we requested feedback from colleagues, family, mentors, friends and supervisors to get a 360-degree picture of how we see ourselves and how others see us. When I first received the 18 page-pdf of anonymous results, I skipped over the strengths and went straight for the areas for improvement. Here are three that sounded uncomfortably true (there were more, trust me):

“Anika’s work is grounded in a wish to over-excel in everything she does.”

“Anika overworks herself. She does too much and risks burnout.”

“I’ve seen Anika struggle with making work too much of her self-identity leading her to lose confidence in herself (particularly in her early months in Toronto). Overidentifying with work outcomes can be dangerous in a leader who then cannot accept others for their contribution unless they, too, are defined by the same passions.”

That last one hit me hard. Whoever wrote it looked straight into my work-obsessed soul and recognized my biggest issue before I did. I felt punched. A flaming ball of shame sat in the pit of my stomach for several days and nights. As it started sinking in and losing some of its heat, I came to terms with the truth of the statement and began to accept that I had – in fact – wrapped my identity and self-worth entirely around my work. Even worse, I was reflecting that image onto those around me, making them feel ‘less than’.

I can’t even

In her book “Can’t even. How Millennials became the burnout generation” Anne Helen Petersen explains how we millennials (I’m an old model) equate work with our value in society. “So many millennials end up defining themselves exclusively by their ability to work hard.” (Petersen, 2020, p. 34). Through the nine chapters of the book, Petersen outlines how the erosion of economic stability and the devaluation of labor has destabilized our generation. While good jobs – offering health benefits, pensions and an opportunity to work your way up – were still available to our parents’ generation, the financial crisis of 2008, crippling student debt for many American millennials, skyrocketing housing markets along with exorbitant childcare cost and prohibitive healthcare premiums make it hard for our generation – born between 1981 and 1996 – to trust that things will work out if we just keep working hard (I spoke to Dr. Angela Jackson of New Profit about the importance of good jobs in March 2021). 

“We’re the first generation since the Great Depression where many of us will find ourselves worse off than our parents.”

Anne Helen Peterson, 2020, p. XXII

Petersen also points out that we in the U.S. (and we’re not alone I’m sure) have fetishized overwork and freelance labor: The ability to overwork yourself as a sign of elitism (guilty!) and the misconception that being self-employed lets you work in your pajamas whenever you feel like it, for clients you pick and only on projects you enjoy. When the reality is that the majority of solopreneurs work more than 40 hours per week but, on average, only make 58% as much as full-time employees ($36,500 vs. $62,500) and lack access to paid time off for vacation, rest or sick days (Prudential, 2019). That was my main reason for launching Solopreneurs for Impact as a global network of peers who support each other in building thriving one-person businesses in the impact space. 

The account of Jane, a freelance writer who she interviewed for the book, deeply resonated with my experience of being self-employed: “[T]here is such a sense in freelancing that you are never doing enough – that you should be doing more, making more, hustling more – and that every failure you have (real or perceived) is entirely your fault. In an office job you’re still getting paid for those five minutes it takes to make a cup of tea; when you’re freelancing, every minute you’re not working, you’re losing money.” (Petersen, 2020, p. 144).

So at least I wasn’t alone in my misguided effort of proving my value by working myself to the bone. I let my work, however purpose-driven and worthwhile  it may be, take over all other areas of my life and – what’s worse – define how I see myself as a friend, daughter, spouse, mother and community member. 

How much you work is not a yardstick for how valuable you are as a human.

My recovery protocol

Here are a few things that have worked for me in taking a step back and regaining a more realistic, balanced view of work and life. 

Before we dive in, a little disclaimer: 

  • Just because they worked for me, doesn’t mean they work for you.
  • I’m not there yet. I don’t know whether that’s even a thing. I have good days and I have days when these old patterns sneak in again. Give yourself grace.

1. I let go of the “ideal” me

As I mentioned in The Purpose Gap, for years I chased after this ideal version of who I wanted to become: The most dedicated, passionate, and recognized impact maker who effortlessly fit a family day, a meditation retreat, a family day and productive 8 hours at the office all into one single day. Every day. Thanks to the Personal Mastery seminar with Learning as Leadership, I was able to unmask this magical Anika and let go of this unrealistic image of a wonder woman that constantly made me feel like I was failing, disappointing myself and never living up to my own expectations. 

2. Joy as a priority

For whatever strange reason, when I’m stressed the first things to go are the things that bring me joy. Now cooking, writing, reading and working out are scheduled before anything else. When I sit down to plan out my week, things that make me happy and feel like a whole, healthy person go in the calendar first. 

I love cooking. Few things make me as happy as filling up my fridge with wholesome, clean meals for my family and myself. When I wasn’t doing well, cooking was one of the first things that disappeared from my agenda. Now it’s back. Two afternoons a week are set aside for meal planning, food shopping and cooking/meal prep. (See what’s happening in my kitchen.)

Writing. I don’t consider myself a terribly creative person but writing is something I enjoy deeply, yet I rarely make time for. Each Thursday morning, I spend two hours writing in community with Life in 10 Minutes.

Working out. Even though I haven’t seen the inside of a gym in well over a year, I still find ways to work out. I took up running in June 2020 and I work out by myself two or three times a week (online classes with Alex Boross-Harmer are my go-to!). There’s just something about challenging my body and mind first thing in the morning that carries me through the rest of the day. Some of my friends prefer working out in their lunch break (which is when I prefer to eat but hey, each their own) and others do it at night (more power to you and your secret energy reserves, weirdos!). Fact is, finding some type of workout you enjoy (running, yoga, hiking, pole dancing, basketball) and doing it regularly is key to a healthy body and mind. 

Reading. One of my greatest joys throughout the pandemic has been building my library of new and used books. In the absence of actual travel, I have sought refuge in the worlds of Kristin Hannah and Kate Morton (judge me all you want). I also picked up work books to deepen my expertise and expand my horizon in all things social change and social impact, community building, startup communities, systems thinking etc. I read instead of watching tv, I read after I finish work for the day, sometimes even before I start. And I read on weekends.

3. Respect your boundaries

In May 2021, Danielle Anderson of Step and Stone graciously shared her experience with burnout and recovery with participants of our group program Solopreneurs for Impact. Over the course of 45 minutes, Danielle let us in on what worked for her:

  • Track your hours so you know what activities create revenue, which ones are time sinks and where to focus your efforts. I’m on week four of time tracking and I love it!
  • Tracking your time allows you to see which tasks you do repeatedly and are better batched. Group tasks that are alike and you’re more likely to get them done efficiently without too much logging in, re-familiarizing yourself with processes, digging up the information you need etc. If you’re a small business, check your finances and file your receipts once a week. Once that’s done, pat yourself on the back and move on with other work until this time next week. The same holds for content creation, emails, social media, etc. 
  • A detailed understanding of your tasks and time budget also allows you to hire support for the things that can be easily done by someone else. What can someone else take over from you, even if only on an hourly basis, so that you can spend more time on the tasks that only YOU can do? An assistant might free up your time by managing your calendar, creating social media content, posting and publishing new content, doing some of the initial research – all of which frees you up to work with clients or move strategic initiatives forward or create the impact you’re in this world to make.
  • Don’t be a slave to other people’s demands. Danielle only checks her emails on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you email her, you get an auto-response informing you that she’ll get back to you within two business days. She told us “Now that I restrict my inbox clearing to two times a week, I spend less than three hours a month on it. That doesn’t include emails for my mailing list.” Another social entrepreneur recently told me that he got a lot of requests for “grabbing a coffee” or “just a chat” about his most recent successful fundraising round. Instead of emailing each of them an individual response or – more time consuming – meeting with each in person, I suggested he hosted a 45-minute Ask Me Anything and, instead of a lengthy email response, shared the link to registration with them and let them sign up, or not.

4. Be honest with yourself about how much you can do and what it’s worth

In 2020, I created and ran a campaign called The Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building with two equally enthusiastic colleagues in my field. While I loved the interviews, insights and content we created, I secretly hated myself for doing all this work for free. We had agreed to launch this pilot knowing there was no funding available. And yet, each day I worked on the campaign (and there were many), I felt confirmed in my assumption that my work wasn’t worth anything to anyone. In response, as absurd as that sounds, I tried even harder in case I was super close to breaking through that wall of recognition.

If you’re overworking without the desired results, stop doubling down!  

I now put stricter limits around any “free” work I’m willing to do. The problem for me is that when it comes to supporting the greater good, I’m the first one to raise my hand and roll up my sleeves. Inspired by one of the Solopreneurs for Impact I get to work with, I have started practicing saying No first, sleep on it, and re-evaluate the next day. I take into consideration what the time commitment is and prioritize opportunities that may lead to future business. A few months ago, I hosted an unpaid mini-workshop for an organization. Instead of remuneration, I received a gift certificate for my favorite bookshop (my love language!) and I was able to promote an upcoming event that was aligned with the audience and content. I sold six additional tickets.

The first step

This little recovery protocol isn’t complete nor is it bulletproof. I slip. All the time. Sometimes these new habits make me feel like I got this overworking under control, other days I fall back into my old patterns and need to argue my way out. 

But at least I now see my desire to prove my value through work for what it is: false martyrdom. Working in the name of social change gave me a welcome excuse to justify my unhealthy relationship with productivity and self-worth. Once I came to grips with this self-sabotage, I was able to start finding my way out. 

I don’t think we can prevent or stop burnout simply by becoming more productive in less time or by having a standing appointment with the nail salon or massage parlor. 

The best type of selfcare is a lifestyle that doesn’t require selfcare.

We are better of

  • Understanding that much of the workplace and myth of (social) entrepreneurship is grounded in a belief system that fuels the very behaviors and beliefs about ourselves and our value that lead to burnout.
  • Making the things that give us joy a priority. I’m not saying fly off to the Bahamas and kick it at the beach for six months a year (unless that’s your life’s purpose). I’m saying live in the now and make it fun – whatever that means.
  • Letting go of the “ideal version” of ourselves.  
  • Taking a good hard look at everything we do and put boundaries in place that enable others to support us. Stick to these boundaries.
  • Saying “no” to tasks and opportunities that undermine our value. There will always be people willing to do the job cheaper and under worse conditions. Unless you value yourself, no-one else will.
  • Acknowledging that we are not going to save the world single-handedly and certainly not overnight. So we may as well take the foot of the gas paddle to ensure we can show up for years to come.

Ready to tackle your work-obsession and prevent burnout? Join us in my upcoming Masterclass Burnout proof on June 23:


Articles & books

My personal love list

  • I recently curated a list of the best service providers who make both my life and work better, richer and more fulfilling: Anika’s Love List
  • To see how I manage on the day-to-day, sign up for my personal newsletter Tacheles, 6 editions a year.

Ready to take action? Join my Burnout proof masterclass on June 23!

Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash