I Survived Burnout and Here's what I Learned by Kay Fabella photo by Heather K. Purdy Photography

On a sunny Saturday morning in 2009, I reached for the phone to call my parents.

“Mom, Dad… I’ve been crying for four hours straight. I can’t stop it. I have no idea why I’m sad. What’s wrong with me?”

It was the beginning of a yearlong battle with clinical depression. I realized the pace at which I’d been working for so long was no longer sustainable.

I was 22 years old.

When Happiness is Equated with High Achievement

My entire trajectory up until that point had been defined by high achievement. I was considered a gifted child and started reading at age 2. I was studying algebra by age 10, graduated from high school at 16, and college at 19. I finished college in three years, and I was newly employed in the midst of an economic crisis.

On paper, I had ticked all the boxes of what success was supposed to look like.

I was coasting on a sea of limitless potential and towards a successful, promising future. I was bright-eyed, open, and eager to learn from my new bosses and colleagues.

But I’d never learned the importance of limits and boundaries.

I’d never learned to be anything less than “all in” on whatever was in front of me.

I was hypercritical of anything I produced that was less than perfect. And I didn’t see the value in taking care of myself.

So I happily volunteered for extra projects and weekend hours at the expense of my social life, sleep, and any semblance of balance outside of the office. I patted myself on the back for all-nighters I pulled alongside other co-workers.

I convinced myself it was all worth it.

Work was all I knew and, as far as I was concerned, anything else was just a distraction.

… until one day I burned out and it almost killed me.

The Fallout from Burnout

I wish I could say that the day I made that phone call was a turning point — but it was just the beginning.

Once I burnt out, things got much worse for me before they got better.

I took a temporary leave of absence to try and “rest it off,” believing I could think my way out of it. But for days on end, I couldn’t move. I had no desire to leave my bed. Thoughts of joy and hope felt like distant memories. My thoughts turned dark and, in my altered state, I questioned whether or not my life even mattered.

I was eventually hospitalized, placed on antidepressants, and had no other choice but to quit my job.

I moved back home, started therapy, and tried to create a routine to ease my way through recovery. I leaned heavily on the support of my inner circle: my parents, my sister, and my trusted friends.

And though I wasn’t always successful at communicating what I needed as I got better…

I had people to remind me who I was and who I could be on the other side of my depression.

The Road to Recovery

It took me a year to trust my own mind and feel like I was myself again. So naturally, I started to question what led me to burnout in the first place.

Looking back, I realized I was chasing a vague definition of “success” that I’d never stopped to ask myself what my dream life actually looked like.

And I realized that my definition of success involved joy, well-being, freedom, love, adventure, fulfillment, wonder, and purpose.

For the first time, I was forced to re-evaluate what kind of life I wanted to create.

I tuned out the noise of what I thought others expected of me and tuned into what my heart truly desired. I started to adapt practices to take better care of myself — and away from meds and hospitals.

  • I journaled.
  • I reconnected with my love for music.
  • I read books that inspired me.
  • I tried to be kinder in how I spoke to myself.
  • I learned to be OK with doing nothing and just being.

By prioritizing self-care, I was able to tune into my inner voice to discover the type of life I wanted to create.

I was forced to dig deeper than I ever had before. I had to evaluate my relationship with myself and how that affected how I showed up in my relationships with others.

To my surprise, I found places in my life where I wasn’t present at all.

I’d learned to make myself small to please others, to be outspoken but not too outspoken, to be pretty but not too pretty, to be smart but not too smart.

I discovered places where I’d abandoned myself completely.

Parts where I’d surrendered my joy.

Parts where I’d lowered my sense of self-worth.

The reason I wasn’t living a life on my own terms was because my inner self-love container was so small, I wouldn’t have been able to receive happiness or success at all.

And so began the process of unlearning and unbecoming all of the toxic thoughts, patterns, and behaviors that had led me to burnout in the first place.

How to Avoid or Recover from Burnout

The culture and society that leads to burnout has already been well-covered here and here. And there’s no easy fix for a system that seems to feed on our collective stress.

But I can share my story, in the hope that you can apply the lessons I’ve learned to recover from your own experience with burnout.

I’ve already covered how I build my business with depression here. So how do I avoid burning out on a day-to-day basis?

Here are 3 powerful ways to avoid or recover from burnout:

1 — Bake “me time” into my schedule.

Whether you’re a work-from-home entrepreneur like me or a 9-to-5er or juggling multiple side hustles, it’s easy to overextend ourselves by trying to do too much at once. Instead, try scheduling “me time” or at least a small window in your day where you just sit still without reaching for one of your devices. There are always a million things to do, but everyone can find 10 minutes for themselves. And it makes all the difference.

2 — Learn to say “no” more and be OK with it.

Burnout happens when you find yourself trying to “do it all” and falling short. You can lessen the stress by delegating tasks, shifting your priorities or just being realistic in how much time you have in a day. The word “no” is a full sentence, and if you wanna avoid burnout, you should use it more often.

3 — Stop numbing with noise.

You don’t always have to be moving, consuming information, and optimizing yourself at every waking moment. Sometimes doing nothing is exactly what your body, mind and soul need most. So instead of reaching for your nearest device when you feel boredom hit, disconnect. Relax. Take regular breaks. Decompress. Sleep. Unplug from it all. By doing this regularly, you’ll have more energy to make progress when you need it most.

To build a strong foundation for my mental, emotional, and physical health, I’ve tested and cultivated many practices — which I talk about in my upcoming book!

But try incorporating these three habits into your life, and I promise they’ll make a difference in how you feel overall.

Burnout is Not How Your Story Has to End

Today, I’m an expat running a bilingual business in English and Spanish from my home base of Madrid, Spain.

I now get to help solopreneurs, startups, and Fortune 500 companies find their stories and share them effectively to attract, resonate, and connect with the audiences that matter to them.

My life couldn’t be further from where I was nine years ago. And it’s because I took time to understand what made my soul feel alive, decided to pursue it, and created it for myself.

I went from scared and settling for a lackluster life based on what I thought was expected of me to building a life on my terms.

Now any success I achieve, big or small, is celebrated because it came from a place of self-love, and a deep understanding of who I am.

Will I get stressed? Yes.
Will I struggle? Yes.
Will I fall down? Absolutely and often.

But I’ve cultivated emotional stamina, systems, and support to ensure I never have to burn out that badly again.

And I know the same is possible for you!

Now it’s your turn…

Have you experienced burnout before? What did you to recover from it? And how do you avoid burning out?

Share with me in the comments below!

If you’ve experienced burnout, it’s never too late to rewrite your story. I’ll show you how to let go of old stories that no longer serve you and start creating the life of your dreams. Pre-order a copy of my book here: Rewrite Your Story: How to Find Who You Are & Thrive After Burnout!

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  • Kay Fabella

    The Story Finder

    Kay Fabella launched her business as the Story Finder in 2014, and created a bilingual English/Spanish brand that reached an audience in 27 countries. She was featured in Fast Company, Thrive Global, Huffington Post and in El País. She leveraged her experience as a Filipina-American expat based in Madrid, Spain, to help solopreneurs to Fortune 500 companies grow their visibility through the power of storytelling. In 2019, Kay self-published her first book about how she recovered from burnout at age 22. She now teaches her simple three step visibility system to underrepresented leaders who want to learn to grow their audiences with integrity, amplify their platform, and reach the people who need their talents most. When Kay’s not helping thought leaders spread their message, you can find her singing, reading, traveling between Los Angeles and Madrid, or eating her way through Europe with her Spanish husband. Download her free visibility guide at kayfabella.com.