Superhuman Syndrome: Are You Exhausted From Work?
6 min read | Note: Notice any discomfort that may come up. I encourage you to sit with it. Growth does not happen in comfortable mediocrity.
Too many people are running on empty. What about you?
We’ve read about overworked leaders and all-stars who faint and get hauled to the hospital. We’ve seen our friends emotionally or mentally break down from chronic stress. We’re well aware of the signs and consequences of burnout. And yet we continue to lie to ourselves, “no, not me. I can handle this.”
This is the superhuman syndrome.
I’m going to be real with you here. Chances are, you’re not a superhuman with superpowers. You’re a human just like the rest of us, with limited time and energy. You get exhausted, stressed, and tense when you exceed your limits. You are also very much susceptible to burnout. Not just a-few-days-off-work kind of burnout but debilitating, non-functioning burnout.
I make this point because student mental health is a growing concern, employee burnout is sabotaging the workforce, and people are literally dying from overworking. The Japanese have a word meaning “overwork death,” Karōshi (過労死), because it’s so common. So let’s snap out of the superhuman illusion and into reality.
If you’ve been working too many hours and not taking care of yourself, sit still and feel the discomfort in your body. Feel the exhaustion, the tension, the tightness. Feel the anxiety in your chest, the knots in your stomach, and the heaviness of your shoulders.
Take a moment right here, right now. Sit still. And breathe.
Inhale… And exhale… Let your body loosen.
Do you feel the discomfort?
The less privileged may not have a choice. Some individuals of marginalized populations actually have to work 3 jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.
But what about the rest of us? Why do we work so much? Here are two possible reasons.
We don’t know what to do with ourselves and feel restless if we don’t work.
We genuinely enjoy the work so much that we’re not interested in doing much else.
Self-Worth + The Constant State of Busy
There’s productive work as a healthy passion, and then there’s work as an avoidance strategy. Some of us hide behind work to avoid feelings of shame, guilt, or unworthiness.
I’ve been there, and fairly recently as a matter of fact.
All throughout the schooling years, my sense of self-worth was tightly tied to my academic pride. Growing up in an immigrant Asian-Canadian family played a huge part in this. So when I became only intellectually “average” in my first year science program, I tried to compensate by taking on 6 different extracurricular activities. If I couldn’t be one of the smarter ones in class, I was going to be one of the more involved ones. In fact, I became the busiest student in the class of 75 and I took much pride in it.
And then I burned out, real hard, and it nearly took my life. But did I learn then? No I did not.
When I left school, my sense of self-worth that was tied to being a “student leader” also shattered. Ah f*ck. So when I started a mental health non-profit, I worked myself to the ground. The irony, I know. I remember when a friend suggested I take Sunday night off and I literally started shaking in anxiety at the thought.
According to Nathaniel Branden, author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, workaholism is common among people who are far more sure of their competence in work, than their right to be happy. We try to work ourselves into a sense of worthiness. Or we work to numb ourselves from the feelings of unworthiness. We want to accomplish things. We want to please people. We want to show our professional success to say, “Look at me. I’m worth something.” And we don’t know how to stop. It’s too painful to stop.
The Happy Workaholic
With that said, some overworking individuals don’t face this challenge. They genuinely just enjoy their work so much. This is great! It makes complete sense since much of our experiences of flow, “optimal experience” take place in our work. But again, we are only human with limited energy. We need to rejuvenate and rest. If we overwork for a prolonged period of time, even if we enjoy it, burnout is bound to happen. If you want to sustain your ability to work, take it slow and steady.
Being aware of the consequences of burnout, we need to work less and make time for rest, play, and rejuvenation.
Rest, Play, and Rejuvenate
When I say rest, I mean active rest. Not passive, numbing out rest like binging a Netflix show or scrolling through social media all day. Active rest will rejuvenate our energies so that when we do work, it’s effective and efficient.
Play is also important in activating creativity, and our emotional and spiritual energies. I often make drip castles in the wet sand at the beach. It gives me some of the greatest joy, calm, and a sense of interconnectedness. Older adults have come over to me and say “I used to do that as a kid.” And I always ask, “well, why did you stop?”
I acknowledge that our dreams are limitless. And at the same time, regular humans have energetic limits that can be restored through play and rest.
So instead of overworking on the verge of burnout, let’s do something different. You can achieve your goals without overworking yourself. There is another way.
"Work Smarter, Not Harder."
Okay, but WTF does that mean?
If we use Steve Pavlina’s definition of productivity as value over time, we can aim to increase the value that we create, or decrease the time it takes to create that value. Increasing effectiveness - what is actually important here? - and efficiency - how can we do this in less time?
To increase effectiveness, ask the questions:
- Which tasks/activities matter most for me to achieve my goals? Which tasks/activities make the biggest difference?
- Which tasks/activities don’t contribute as much to the ideal outcome and take too much time?
For example, a student could assess which 3-5 assignments/exams make up the majority of their final grade and put in more energy/time into those activities. If the student has a limited amount of time, they may not even get around to completing the small assignments that are worth less than 5% and that’s okay! Do what matters most first. Then come back to the rest.
To increase efficiency, ask the questions:
- Which activities will help me optimize my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energies before I start to work?
- How would I tackle this task if I only had a third of the time I have to do it?
- What gets in the way of my ability to get in the zone? Which boundaries or structures do I need to create in order to address these obstacles/distractions?
For example, if a business person has too many meetings throughout the week, they may only schedule meetings/calls on Mondays and Fridays. Or to avoid emails + other interpersonal distractions, they may implement untouchable days once a week.
- Take 20 minutes and journal on the questions above to assess how to increase effectiveness and efficiency in your work on a daily/weekly basis.
- Read 5 Steps for Cultivating Focus for tips and tools that you can implement today.
- Attend an in-person productivity workshop to learn how to apply specific strategies into your day-to-day to address the top three issues that impair productivity.
Know what you’re working towards. Work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably. Choose productivity over busyness.