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Keeping My Suicidal Thoughts in Check When I’m Burnt Out Is Hard Work

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Burnout is pervasive in our society, which is built on capitalism and measuring our worth in terms of our productivity. We are constantly receiving messages that if we aren’t hustling, producing, or working to the bone, we’re doing something wrong. Many folks feel like they’re always on the verge of burnout, like one more thing added to their plate will tip them over the edge.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve felt intensely burnt out — whether it be with work, school, or simply life in general. Over the years, I’ve noticed burnout can be especially dangerous for me as someone who has a baseline of passive suicidal ideation at all times. I find during times of burnout, I’m far more likely to experience louder, or more active suicidal ideation.

Burnout is reminiscent of a lot of the things I experience when I’m more suicidal — feelings of exhaustion or hopelessness, a more negative or cynical mindset that nothing will improve, the doom of being “trapped,” being overwhelmed, and not having any motivation to do things are overlapping indications of burnout and suicidality. So, it makes perfect sense if those feelings arise from burnout, they will also play a part in triggering the passive suicidal thoughts.

I constantly have suicidal ideation — I have for years. Because it’s passive most of the time, it’s not really dangerous, and I have a pretty good hold on it. It’s been more than five years since my last attempt, and while I’ve come close many more times, I’ve managed to keep myself safe. Keeping the ideation in check takes work. Every. Single. Day. The ideation doesn’t take vacation, it doesn’t rest, it doesn’t wander off too far. Perhaps not as consciously or with as much effort anymore, I’m constantly doing what I can to keep it passive, and that requires discipline, energy, and hard work. It requires knowing my limits and setting boundaries and practicing self-care, even when I don’t want to.

I don’t think burnout directly makes me more suicidal, as in I don’t think suicidal ideation is a direct symptom of burnout. Instead, I see it more as burnout causing a lack of energy or motivation to be able to keep the ideation in check. It’s not like the ideation started because of the burnout — it was always there, but I had lots of tools and tricks to keep it contained. My therapist likes to refer to a “window of tolerance,” being that space in which we can handle things being thrown at us. When something bad happens or we become “activated,” our window of tolerance can become smaller or we get pushed outside of our window. When we feel connected and safe and calm, our window of tolerance is larger, meaning we can handle a bit more, and it’s much easier to quiet the suicidal ideation.

Burnout squeezes my window of tolerance and makes it smaller. My ability to respond in healthy ways to any stressors diminishes, because it takes less to trigger me when I’m outside my window of tolerance. When I start to experience the symptoms of burnout and there doesn’t seem to be energy to do anything anymore, I can feel the suicidal tendencies creeping up, as if they have a little monitor telling them when I’m outside my window of tolerance.

So, while burnout as a stand-alone experience may not make me suicidal, and it may not be dangerous in a life-threatening way, I have to be extra conscious of my circumstances when I start to feel burnt out because things can escalate very quickly when I’m pushed out of my window of tolerance. I have to know and listen to what my mind and body are telling me when things start to get overwhelming and a bit too much. I need more rest and relaxation than the average person. I need more breaks, more calmness, more slowing down than many of my friends and family. It takes more to maintain staying in that window of tolerance.

That can be a hard thing to accept. It’s hard to feel like pushing yourself to new limits and hustling hard for what you want can be really dangerous, because I like learning and growing and evolving. But with that, it’s easy to push yourself too hard and get burnt out, and I have to be careful of that. It’s hard to accept seemingly small and manageable things can make me feel so burnt out. When I look at how many times I’ve been burnt out and needed to step back, whether it was needing my friends or family to catch me because I was falling so hard and so fast, or taking mental health leaves from work, or shutting down for a while because I couldn’t cope, I still feel embarrassed sometimes. I feel a little bit ashamed my window of tolerance is small, despite how much work I put into growing it.

At the same time, I’m learning to accept my worth and value as a person is not based on how much I push myself, or how much I hustle in my career. My worth is not defined by a paycheck or a job title. My value is not tied to how much “better” others are doing on paper. I am inherently valuable, and I am inherently worthy. I deserve rest. I deserve to feel good and stable. I deserve to live a life where I’m not exhausted and feel the need to escape.  I’m also working on not blaming myself when I get burnt out, or when I burn out faster than expected. It’s not that I’m lazy or incapable, it’s that there are other factors in my life, like chronic suicidal ideation, that make me more susceptible to burnout. Each time I slow down and step back, I am choosing to protect my sanity and my life, rather than trying to live up to unattainable expectations, and that’s pretty powerful.

Getty image by PeopleImages

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