Lately I’ve been dealing with chronic fatigue. Being a true Southerner, I have an expression for this. I call it being “bone tired.” It is an exhaustion that radiates with every fiber of my being.
Over the past year, I’ve diagnosed myself with various conditions, including chronic fatigue and a sleep disorder. I’ve decided I don’t exercise enough, I don’t eat right or drink enough water. I’ve even wondered if at some point I had COVID-19 and am a “long hauler.”
I’ve been really hard on myself, too. I’ve questioned my ability to perform up to par in all aspects of my life, especially work, and I sometimes just don’t have the energy to do the things I want to do. I’ve come to understand that what is happening to me is likely happening to many others. It is a condition known as “burnout.”
Being a psychologist, I understand this and can see the symptoms in myself — albeit it took me a while to acknowledge this. While I know it is complicated, I blame a big part of my current experience on the pandemic. When we first went in to lockdown, I felt energized. I had big plans to use the situation to better myself, my career, my home, my family, etc. Of course, as time progressed and there didn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel, I became less enthusiastic. Time went by, and I realized I hadn’t succeeded in much more than just keeping things together. My positive outlook started to turn negative, and I began to feel ineffectual, especially at work, where I try to help others. This is the key component of burnout. It occurs when you feel like you are no longer making a difference, and this can be a dangerous thing.
The realization that I was experiencing burnout occurred a couple of weeks ago as I was doing an assessment with an adolescent. After we discussed what she does in her spare time for fun, she asked me the same question. This hit me pretty hard because I didn’t know what to say and what came to mind was somewhat embarrassing. I realized I didn’t do any of the things I used to enjoy. I’ve completed only one novel in two years. I’ve gone on one hike the entire summer, and I didn’t ride my bicycle one time. I went on only one big trip, and I have nothing planned for the near future. The only thing I could think to tell her was that I watch TV. And most of the time, I’m channel surfing because I can’t find anything, and I really just want to sleep.
The first step to getting better in any situation is to acknowledge the situation. I know this will pass if I do the things I need to do, and the first thing I need to do is stop being so hard on myself. I understand that I’m experiencing a pretty common phenomenon in our Western world where we value our contributions and we see work as a vital part of our everyday experience. But to truly be effective, I know I have to take back my leisure time. I may need to do it in baby steps, and I may need to engage in another expression I enjoy: “Fake it till you make it.” And if you happen to be one of my peers experiencing something similar to me, hang in there and know you are not alone.
Aimee Dukes is a licensed psychologist practicing in Nashville and a partner at Nashville Psychological Assessment and Learning Associates. She is also an adjunct assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. She earned a Ph.D. from Tennessee State University and an M.Ed. at Vanderbilt University. Dukes has expertise in the areas of assessment and cognitive behavior therapy. Her favorite subjects to teach at the undergraduate and graduate level are social psychology and marriage and family. Dukes lives in Nashville with her husband, a Nashville songwriter, her two children and their family dog.