Fighting Burnout, Rest Debt, and Work as a False Path to Self-Worth

Self-portrait by Eli Sleepless

Self-portrait by Eli Sleepless

Hi my name is Dom, and I’m a workaholic.

As long as I can remember, even before I was five years old, my valuation of my individual existence has been based on work. Being a workaholic has done nothing for my self-worth but crush it over and over again. This year has been full of disappointments, and it feels like every stumble in my career sets back my healing progress. Anything that goes wrong in my work life negatively impacts my mental health, which makes it harder to overcome anxiety to work, and the cycle continues until I collapse and can’t work at all.

The thing is that I actually love work, but I can’t enjoy it when I’m working past my limit. Even the most enjoyable aspects of life, like eating amazing food, don’t contribute to healing all the time. But one activity will always support your healing process: rest.

However, capitalism doesn’t give most of us a break to rest. The more marginalized, the less often we can access rest. Our society is driven by the myth that working harder, longer hours means an eventual payoff like stability, vacation time, or just a job we don’t completely loathe. Yet the reality of capitalism is that the system is built to deny these resources to many in order to provide comfort to few.


Giving Myself Permission to Rest

Not getting enough rest builds up over time, and if you haven’t taken a real vacation in years, chances are you think of that exhausted feeling as just how things are. Yet when we’re chronically low on energy, we run out of energy for ourselves. That’s rest debt: when you can’t gather enough motivation to take care of yourself anymore.

For me, even in a crisis, I’m driven to support others, and that emotional labor can become another form of work. It feels easier to give help than get it, and I figure some support will bounce back to me. And it does, but that can’t make up for the lack of support I give myself. Nothing can. I’ve internalized so many messages about having little to no value, and that silencing boils down to one falsehood: that I don’t matter as much as someone else. Now I’m finally realizing that’s just not true.

It’s not always possible for me to cultivate the state of mind I need to actually rest. It’s important for me to not only stop working, but also take care of my needs without feeling ashamed of having needs in the first place. That’s the part I’m working on the most, and it’s the most rewarding.

I’m no expert here, as someone who feels perpetually burned out. I’m only now at 30 years old learning how to rest. Despite external pressures – like bills that never let up – I’m giving myself permission to take a break. Or at least practice taking a break because I’m not very good at it (yet). Sometimes the break can only be an hour, an evening, a Sunday.

No matter how short, these restful moments are more precious than any others. It’s during rest that I can celebrate myself, grow my compassion for myself and others, and internalize my accomplishments (rather than fixate on the next thing I have to push myself toward).


Paying Down My Rest Debt

So how can you break the burnout cycle? Prioritize rest whenever you’re able. It might not fix every aspect of exhaustion, but it’s an excellent start. And it doesn’t take more free time than you already have.

Even though I tend to stay busy with whatever feels productive, I’m learning to challenge that impulse to work myself to death, instead redirecting my attention to something that takes the pressure off. Sometimes catching up on work can be self-care, but even then, it’s definitely not a form of rest. So I’m committed to listening to my intuition more often and creating space for myself to recharge, even if that only means stepping away from my computer for two minutes to sit somewhere else and simply breathe.

I’ve learned that I can make way better use out of my downtime when I’m proactive about it. If I only rest when I no longer have a choice because I’m extra burned out, I have no energy to enjoy myself. I just spend all day on Facebook or vegging in front of the TV, which can be relaxing but not all the time. Without resting on a regular basis, there’s no way I can muster energy for my favorite forms of self-care like baking, stretching, and writing poetry. Even worse, I find myself cycling back to work habits because I have no willpower to stop myself. I can set boundaries with myself but struggle to honor them.

On low-energy, high-burnout days, I’m still feeding the cycle of working too much, not really resting, and definitely not feeling restored. To pay down rest debt, I have to notice when I’m doing this and give myself permission to pull back.


Rest is a Responsibility to Myself

Everyone has to work to get resources. And everyone has to manage our responsibilities. Yet even when it feels like we are working all the time, we literally can’t work all the time. Just as overwork leads to sleep debt, because we don’t unplug and wind down, it leads to rest debt because we aren’t shifting focus away from work and onto ourselves. So start shifting focus to yourself. Rest isn’t selfish; it’s a necessary aspect of your wellbeing.

Looking back, I have no idea how I worked a decade without really stopping to rest. Even if it’s possible to work so tirelessly, and many of us prove that it is, this dedication to responsibility and constantly doing something “productive” comes at a high cost. I often lose touch with myself. I suffer chronic back pain, which started when I was only 16. And what do I have to show for it? An empty bank account. Low self-esteem. And debilitating anxiety.

Without resting, I couldn’t be in touch with what’s truly best for me. This disconnection shows up in every aspect of my life, and I intend to change that. Thankfully my therapist coaxes me to check in with my internal motivation and not make decisions based on external pressures. Even then, it took at least a year for me to believe I don’t deserve this kind of burnout, to start paying down my rest debt, and to stop putting others’ needs ahead of my own.

We all matter, regardless of what oppressive systems say. And we should especially matter in our own lives. I deserve my own time, my own energy, and space to rest within myself. For myself. And you deserve that too. Rest is a responsibility we owe ourselves, along with self-compassion and forgiveness.

So for now, since I’m not a rest expert, I’ll be productive on autopilot until I feel like I can make another choice. And as soon as I see the option to rest available, I’m going to start taking it. Every single chance, every single minute I can get, every single day.

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Image description:

A light-skinned brown person with short hair is on a bed, laying down on their stomach. They're topless with a pillow underneath their chest. Their eyes are closed. The index finger of one hand, with a straight thick line drawn down it, covers their left eye.

About Eli Sleepless:

Eli Sleepless is a self-taught latinx film photographer. Their genderqueerness and nyc upbringing is important to their work. Find more of their work on tumblrinstagramfacebook, and our main page.

About Dom Chatterjee:

The editor-in-chief of Rest for Resistance and founder of QTPoC Mental Health, Dom believes in the power of community to combat oppression. Dom is a non-binary desi-dutch-american person living with multiple disabilities.