The college burnout: what a tired old trope that is. An excuse for slackers who want to feel as if there’s some psychological reason for their stagnation. Or worse, a shameful inability to compete in a challenging educational environment.
I don’t believe that burnout is either of these things. Actually, I would recommend taking time off to anyone who feels as if they can’t stop trying too hard. It might be just the medicine they need.
When I first moved to college, I started running. I had before, but never regularly. This time, though, it quickly became religious. Rain or snow, heat or wind, I would run at the exact same time four days out of the week. My timing was incredibly precise, so much so that I would witness the same events happen on every run. It was as if I were trapped in a time loop: the kids waiting for the school bus, the car pulling out of the driveway, the garbage truck chugging down High Street. The parents at the bus stop would recognize me and wave.
Consistency has always been my forte. Ever since I was a little kid, I have been the queen of making a plan and sticking to it. The problem with this, of course, is that there is no room for weakness. There is no space for spontaneity. There is no time for pain.
It wasn’t just running that I was religious about. School, too, had the draw of a ritual—a whole set of rituals, in fact. In my entire life, I have never failed to turn in an assignment. I have never turned an assignment in late. Until over a year into my college career, I never failed to finish a reading. I held myself to an unbearable standard. But I bore it. I was not going to be just another victim of college burnout. I was invincible.
Taking an extra class, piling on extracurriculars, or even just striving for an unachievable academic standard—these things don’t cause pain, right? That’s just being motivated, being a go getter, doing something with your life. Being overly consistent is steady, it’s stable, it’s constructive.
I know this is false because I can now look back and see the destruction. Overworking oneself to an extreme point produces the total annihilation of self respect. Academics and exercise are the same in this way. In 2020, I saw it happen. I watched my life crumble around me. My inability to reserve time for myself or for friends resulted in a spiraling depression and overall low quality of life.
And then there was my leg. As advanced human beings, we have the ability to ignore or forget pain. I think that much of human achievement hinges on this talent—the ability to strive past the point of agony. But we are not so unmoored from our bodies. The body remembers pain. The body accrues it. Tension builds in muscle, missed sleep lives in the brain, and impact travels farther and farther up the limb.
I lost something that can’t be replaced.
It didn’t seem like much. In late June of 2020, I developed shin splints in my right leg. But I was stronger than that, smarter than that. I worked through the pain. I worked through the pain for months, even as my ability to run, stand, and finally even to walk deteriorated. At last, I looked up from the pit of a dark and gruesome October morning and realized I had to stop. The solution was so obvious and so simple yet so hard for me to grasp: I had to start avoiding pain.
What is burnout? In this case, it is physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. But another definition would be the failure of an electrical device or component through overheating. In a way, this kind of failure is healthy. It is a safe response to overheating: The fuse melts, the circuit breaks, and the power shuts off, preempting the house fire and saving the house.
My body saved me. Well, most of me.
It has been a long, uphill struggle. But as the days went on, and I stuck to my new, pain-avoiding practice, something else began to shift. I saw the futility of my nose-to-the-grindstone attitude toward work, school, and life itself. Something beautiful happened. I began to see other ways in which I was prolonging and inflicting pain. I started to give myself breaks, lenience, the permission to be lazy or sick or tired. I rediscovered what it was like to have fun hobbies. I connected more with my family. I connected more with my friends.
Sadly, my leg didn’t bounce back. Though over a year has passed since the initial injury, I still cannot walk very far or stand for very long without the prickling discomfort returning. If I push past it, I will re-experience the pain I forced myself to bear throughout last August, September, and October. And I will certainly never run again. After several doctors and several months of physical therapy, I can only conclude that maybe someday it will abate, or maybe it will not. No one seems to know.
When I explain my injury to others, they tend to suggest biking, or swimming, or Pilates. They have my best interests in mind, but they don’t seem to understand. This isn’t about finding a different way to push myself. I want to hold on to this epiphany. I want to hold on to this new life, this renaissance of self. I want to live in this world where I listen and respond to my own pain, fatigue, boredom, stress, hunger, and loneliness. I want to live in the world that my injury has revealed to me. I don’t want to reconnect the circuit. Someday, when I do, I want to be strong enough, smart enough, and kind enough to send the right amount of current through it.
Why be good when you can be happy?
I used to think that people who said that were weak. They were just jealous of those of us who had the drive to achieve and the talent to do it. I stand corrected.
Now, my running shoes have become my walking shoes. Now, I know what a blessing it is, what a gift from God it is, to be able to walk outside and see the light come down from the sky. On bad days, it is a blessing just to sit and feel the rare summer wind lift over the butterfly bushes.
You are a beautiful pain-averse machine. You want food, you want sleep, you want rest, you want entertainment. You are wonderfully needy and that neediness gives you all the tools you need to take care of yourself.
So burn out. Blow a fuse. Experience the quiet of the open circuit. Spit in the face of that seductive and sickeningly sweet pride, that sense of power you have over your own needs that leads you to ruin. It’s not worth it. It never was.
Ella Biehn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.