Tahlia Pritchard: How Battling Burnout Helped Me Walk Away From the Toxic Girlboss Era
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In 2019, BuzzFeed reporter Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the concept of millennial burnout and the article quickly went viral, which led to Peterson penning a book on the concept titled Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. In the article (and the book) Peterson explores a generation who seem to have everything they need at their fingertips — but a generation born into a perfect storm of societal factors, who are slipping mentally, unable to unwind, decompress, and who feel constantly stressed out.
In 2020, my psychologist diagnosed me with burnout. I had read about it, of course. But I hadn’t bothered to adapt the term to my everyday vocabulary in a serious way, other than in passing conversations with coworkers or friends. “How are you?” “Oh, feeling pretty burned out.” “Yeah, can relate”. “Everyone is burned out,” I helpfully told my psychologist. After all, globally, we were all suffering collectively after COVID-19 swept through the world. Plus, I was insanely privileged. I had kept my job through the crisis, I could pay the rent, I could go outside and go for a silly walk every day to help my silly mental health.
What I failed to comprehend however was the world stopping in 2020, sent me spiralling down in a different way. For years I had spent my 20s building up my media career: starting from the bottom as an unpaid intern and completely buying into hustle culture. In my mid-20s I landed a job at a big global publisher where I predominantly covered the Australian TV and music industry, and it was foot on the accelerator from that moment. My imposter syndrome had me well aware I wasn’t the best writer or content creator going around, but I could work the hardest or longest I possibly could in my area of expertise. I had fun covering the Australian entertainment landscape, and how many people could say they have a job that involves recapping TV, interviewing celebs, and attending entertainment events and premieres? I was one of the lucky ones.
After a damaging breakup in 2017, I threw everything I had left at my career. I started to manage my mental health through routine and checklists and rigorously kept myself to an extreme schedule: 5am gym alarm, go to work, throw myself into the relentless and continuous reality TV season cycle which often meant pulling 12-hour days, all while making sure my social or networking life didn’t suffer in the meantime. In 2018 I landed a dream job, heading up a website that was well-known for its reality TV recaps. I was determined to take on that role and push the brand into bigger and better things, but deep down, I still battled the imposter syndrome. I didn’t believe I was the best person for the job. I was 27 and didn’t feel qualified enough to be leading the team, so I rationalised that as long as I worked hard, no one could say I didn’t deserve to be there.
Everything in my life became a box to tick. By 2019 if I hadn’t managed to tick a box on my list that week, I was starting to feel a mild panic, a tightening of my chest. Having free time made me anxious and if I tried to relax, I felt like I wasn’t achieving enough. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t sleep. On the outside, professionally, I was thriving: the website I was running had its biggest year of traffic, I had an amazing team who I adored, I was nominated and came runner-up for a big industry award, and I won a 30 under 30 award.
The warning signs kicked off in early-2020 before COVID hit. Married at First Sight, the biggest show of the year for the site I ran, kicked off and it was an incredibly toxic season. As I doggedly watched and wrote about the show, watching most episodes two to three times each as per my usual routine, four times a week, I felt my mood being overtaken, almost as though it was entirely out of my control.
In basic social situations, I didn’t know if my reaction to anything would be to laugh, cry, or to disassociate. I felt like I was going insane, and I didn’t have the capacity to figure out what it all meant other than blaming MAFS and the reality TV cycle. I’d go to bed and I couldn’t sleep, even if I wasn’t thinking about anything. I’d feel tears leak out of my eyes, even though I had nothing to cry about. My psychologist later said it was my body’s way of trying to produce endorphins through fatigue. The brain fog settled in and I’d sit in front of blank pages, Slack messages and emails popping off in the background and I’d just stare at my computer. “Just type,” my brain would whisper. “Just start one goddamn f**king sentence.” Outwardly I think I managed to maintain a sense of control, while it felt like my brain was pounding into my skull, as though a rubber band was constantly snapping against it.
When my psychologist diagnosed me with burnout, we spent a lot of time going through methods to help me loosen my grip. I was holding on so tightly I was in pure denial at how extreme I had become. She told me I should be on stress leave, and I politely laughed at the idea of someone like me going on stress leave. I thought of my talented media friends in different jobs, covering reproductive rights, wars, climate change, and the pandemic — real issues. Ultimately I just felt embarrassed — I was an entertainment journalist. I wasn’t saving lives. I wasn’t on the frontline. I needed to get a grip on actual reality.
The point, of course, wasn’t my career choice. It was the fact I had worked myself into the ground after buying into the Girlboss millennial hustle of having and doing it all and tied my entire self-worth to my field.
Eventually, with the help of weekly therapy, I got myself back on track. I had my internal battles pulling back — I felt like I wasn’t doing my job as well, but I could rationalise I wasn’t given the resources to succeed and it wasn’t up to me to pull 12-hour days to keep things ticking. I learned to snooze my alarm if I woke up tired and didn’t want to force myself onto a spin bike. I learned to say no to social situations if I didn’t feel up to them. I learned it’s OK to take a mental health day. I learned that Girlboss culture can be inherently toxic and wrapping up your identity in your job in order to be respected was just a way of masking other issues.
In 2022, when my workplace went through a few drastic changes, I dug in my heels to help pick up the pieces. One night, I went to bed and tried to close my eyes, feeling completely mentally drained but too wired to sleep. I felt tears start leaking out of my eyes, even though I wasn’t ruminating on a single situation. I bolted upright as I realised what was happening. I sat down with my boss the next day and handed in my resignation.
Ending my career as I knew it was heartbreaking and confusing but I never once doubted I was doing the right thing. I had come so far in a couple of years and could take pride in that. I learned to back myself as my own boss. I could make money to pay the bills using my skillset, without having to throw my whole life or identity into it. I could build my own personal projects, like my dating newsletter Shit Straight Men Say, for the love of being creative again not for financial gains for a corporate company. I could write about my beloved reality TV shows and log off, not watching the episode for the third time that night in the panic I missed something. I could choose my hours, make time to volunteer, try a new contract, leave if it wasn’t fulfilling me, and make the right choices for me. Ironically, I am Girlbossing properly for the first time now that I work for myself, but my mentality has shifted dramatically — I now work to live, not live to work.
I’d be lying if I said I had the next steps of my career fully figured out, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t face that internal panic from time to time about if I’m good enough to back my own career. All I know now is it’s OK to not have it all figured out and you can figure it out at your own pace. Girlboss, hustle culture, millennial burnout, whatever term is coined next to benefit corporations and a capitalist society — all you can do is run your own damn race to the best of your ability.