Flipping the switch on worry and burnout

“Illuminated light switch” by Mikewarbz at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illuminated_light_switch.jpg#/media/File:Illuminated_light_switch.jpg

When I think about being a little kid, my childhood memories are mostly filtered through a haze of stomachaches. I was an anxious kid who mostly channeled her anxiety into stomachaches rather than, oh, I don’t know, crying? Talking about it to a trusted adult? Acknowledging my feelings in general? I had a lot of very good, and very unbloggable, reasons to be anxious as a kid, but I think I have—and still have—an innate tendency toward worry. It seems to be central part of my mental landscape. Much of the work of my adult life has involved trying to deal with this anxiety, which seems to be more prevalent at some times rather than others.

Right now there’s this whole cluster of work-related worries that are occupying my energy. Much of these worries are also unbloggable. A cryptic and general way of describing these concerns would be that I’ve been worrying a lot about making do with scarce resources. I was going on and on about the latest permutation of my concerns while making dinner with my wife the other night, and she said something along the lines of, “They don’t pay you enough to worry about work in your free time.”

This assertion shifted something inside of me. I’ve always been a person who, in the words of Mem Fox, aches with caring about things that matter to me. I can probably attribute much of my academic and professional successes to this tendency. I care a whole fucking lot about things, and it pretty much consumes me. Or, I should say, I allow it to consume me. It also helps, or should I say “helps,” that I work in higher education, which fosters a toxic culture that urges people to give and give and give and give while eliminating more and more resources and support.

I’m going to start saying no to things. This means saying no to professional requests that make me feel stretched and for which there is inadequate support. But it also means saying no to myself, telling my mind to STFU (but perhaps more gently) when I’m ruminating (yet again) about some stupid work thing that I can’t do anything about. I’M NOT GETTING PAID FOR THIS. I’m not getting paid money, and I’m not getting paid in time or any kind of practical support and resources, and I’m certainly not getting paid in fulfillment and satisfaction to spend so much of my time and energy worrying all the time. I told my boss the other day that a current particular matter is literally keeping me awake at night. He told me, not unkindly, that this was pretty dumb. I know it is.

It’s become very clear to me that professional boundaries mean not just protecting your time from the forces that are only too happy to encroach upon it rent-free, but also protecting your mind. Basically, I need occlumency lessons from Professor Snape. Right now, what’s working for me is visualizing my hand turning off light switches whenever I start to ruminate about something. It sounds weird, but it kind of works. Sometimes, if the ruminations are particularly persistent, I line up an infinite row of light switches in my head and I mentally turn each off, one by one, until the thoughts stop, or at least quiet down considerably.

Is it really any wonder that burnout—the experience of it, and the idea of it—weighs on me so heavily? I mean, yes, the culture of library instruction is weird, and higher education is kind of jacked up, and there are all sorts of mitigating factors that make burnout particularly insidious and pervasive among my peers. But it certainly doesn’t help that I could beat a cow in the unlikely event that there were ever to be a rumination competition.

I am flipping the switch now in my head, and also by writing this, too. Maybe if I do it enough I won’t feel so terrible. Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else want to flip switches with me? It would help to feel not so lonely as I make my way down this endless hallway fill of worryswitches. Come flip some switches with me.


10 thoughts on “Flipping the switch on worry and burnout

  1. Thanks for this. I am also prone to worrying ceaselessly about work stuff. One thing I appreciate very much about my current boss is that she has reminded me that “It’s just a job.” Those are her exact words, and I run them through my head (in her sophisticated British accent) when I start obsessing. Maybe I’ll try flipping light switches, too. 🙂


    1. Yes, indeed, it’s just a job. I mean, it’s a job that matters, that makes a difference, but ultimately just a job. Come flip switches with me!


    1. I remember being taken to the doctor when I was a kid about my stomach aches. The doctor asked me if I was worrying about things, but she asked me in front of my mom, so….that was not helpful. I didn’t feel free to be honest.


      1. It took my until about eighth grade to be honest, my mom always knew I was a worrier.. I have anxiety/depression pills now, but they only do so much. Still working on my coping mechanisms. Hope you are doing well!


  2. Love this strategy! My daughter suffered from stomachaches often & after she was cleared medically- we made the connection. I found a trusted counselor for here & she is doing so much better. I know she gets this “worry” gene from me & I have worked most of my adult life addressing it. I can empathize with you. I appreciate that I can now share this switch flipping with my daughter, thank you!!


  3. I am happy to have started meditation and a gratitude journal at my psychiatrist’s recommendation to help me turn off those switches. I do both right before bed, although not every night. It has quickly reshaped my mind into a more positive space.

    And now I’m giggling a little because the light switch metaphor naturally reminds me of the song in the Book of Mormon!


  4. Oh, I love this imagery to help stop ruminating! I’ll try it next time I catch myself fruitlessly fretting over some brief interaction or conversation that I can’t get out of my brain.


  5. I love the imagery of the light shift as well. When my brain starts ruminating, I’ve tried visualizing it as another person and politely asking it to reschedule the conversation until working hours. Not sure how well that has worked. This read definitely found me at the right time, where I’m working through my own process of “flipping the switch” after hours. Thank you for that! If you do find a way to take occlumency lessons from Professor Snape, please share!


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