What Burnout Really Looks Like and What I Learned From It

Unmasking burnout – a founder's unfiltered journey to self-discovery and balance.

von Dora Dora, November 22, 2023
Unmasking burnout

I’m not here to benevolently promote burnout, and I don’t see it as a badge of honor. I’m here to share my experience with it, because there’s not much conversation about it, let alone personal and honest one. And if you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that’s what I’m all about — real talk.

I don’t know how many people suffer from burnout right now, but I’m pretty sure almost none of them can actually admit it (because of their managers, employers, clients, investors, you name it).

The reason why I can allow myself to talk about it is that I’m in a privileged position of building my own business that serves female founders like me.

Mental health is still a huge taboo topic. You can’t really discuss it openly. It’s not perceived and considered the same as physical health. It’s rather something to be ashamed of.

Our society doesn’t tolerate “not functioning” individuals much. So you try and hide, suppress any emotions and experiences that may affect your performance, image or social acceptability. You want to fit in, be accepted and liked just as any other human being.

How could you possibly share you’re burned out in a social context like that? And how can you prevent others from reaching this point or help them if you don’t actually share your experience and lessons from it candidly?

Several weeks ago, I was going for a run on a Monday morning when I just started crying. I had spent the whole weekend not touching my computer. I enjoyed one full day with friends and one full day of spa. Doesn’t sound like there’s anything to cry about on that Monday morning, right?

Except that this was the first time I had a weekend like that since I became my own boss two years ago.

So, on that Monday morning after a weekend full of fun and relaxation that was supposed to recharge me, I was feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted — in the exact same way I felt on the Friday before. I felt empty, numb and indifferent. I was lacking the motivation, enthusiasm and fulfillment that are the main drivers for my impact-focused startup. I didn’t feel the urge to do anything at all, which is not how I wake up since I’ve found the mission I want to serve in my life.

Well, a weekend off doesn’t do the job if it’s taken way too late. Many people who’ve witnessed my workaholism have warned me about the risk of burnout, but I never listened to anyone. I thought I can go on forever, I didn’t feel like there are any boundaries. My passion for what I’m building, my ambition and my perfectionism were my constant fuel. I also thought I need to go on just like that, because that’s how you build a startup. You work 100 hours a week (e.g. according to people like Adeo Ressi, the founder of Founder Institute that I graduated from this year).

Hell no.

Where there is desire there is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die

Building a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t keep your foot on the gas forever. Even with a race car (which might just be the idea you have of yourself or your role in your startup), maintenance should be done weekly. What about the human being that you actually are?

You know, a lack of self-care is a lack of self-respect and self-love. That’s my burnout lesson number one.

Like, how can you forget about your human needs if you’re the person who’s supposed to pull it all off?

What kind of leader can you be if you do not respect and take care of yourself to start with?

How are you going to treat other people on the team if you’re treating yourself that badly?

What kind of culture are you going to create?

And why do you bother starting your own business if you’re becoming it’s slave? You should be creating a self-determined lifestyle. You should be happy and fulfilled, because you’re working on your dream.

And you can be. If you just start caring enough about yourself in the first place.

Here are the ‘side effects’ of taking care of yourself that you can expect: 
– making better decisions; 
– feeling less overwhelmed and more like you’ll manage whatever the day throws at you; 
– being non-reactive and having conscious control over situations;
– inspiring and empowering others instead of stressing them; 
– acknowledging, appreciating and enjoying the path you’re walking; 
– and ultimately becoming a better person, which is what this path is all about: the kind of person you’re becoming on it.

See, the popular Silicon Valley mindset of working around the clock that I had subscribed to just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s neither sustainable, nor aligned with the values I’m actually trying to build my company upon.

So, once I realized all these facts, I started changing the way I think about and react to stress. What really helped was the fact that I simply couldn’t act and react like I did before, because I was burned out and did not have the same bandwidth anymore.

I was forced to prioritize the tasks I’ll do each day, and find a way to delegate the rest. Because all of a sudden, I could only do a few tasks a day. I could only take a few decisions a day, too. So whenever I was presented with a too-much-of-a-decision to make, no matter how small, I had to have the courage to either say I can’t make this decision right now, or just ignore this person/message/email/call. All things that are pretty hard to do for a founder responsible for getting a startup off the ground.

But I had no other choice than to ruthlessly prioritize myself and my well-being until I get back to my normal work capacity.

Speaking of my normal work capacity, I can’t utilize it in the same way I did before, if I learned anything from this whole experience. So I also changed how my day-to-day looks like. I am going for a 1 hour morning hike every day, I started therapy, I started being aware of moments I need a break, and actually taking it — without feeling weak or guilty. All these things (movement, reflection, rest) are an absolute must for a startup founder.

I’m really glad I did all that, because the way I feel about myself and my life now is very different. I feel more mature, balanced, and wiser. And that’s the beauty of tough times. You learn so much from them and you become stronger.

I am happy to talk with you about burnout, workaholism and perfectionism if you need someone to talk to. Reach out. That’s what human beings are for — to support each other.

About the Author

Dora is the founder of FemGems. She's passionate about personal development, social impact and female leadership. Follow her here