Remember what it was like to feel? To experience the full spectrum of human emotion in sensible proportion to the rhythms of daily life? To respond to good news with a rush of joy instead of just a sad, half-assed unclenching?
If you’re nodding knowingly as you read, from the emotional equivalent of a soundproofed closet, rest assured that you’re not alone. This numbness—and apathy, alienation, and unbridled irritation with everything and everyone—is emotional exhaustion. It’s one of the pillars of burnout as defined in the Maslach Burnout Inventory, and a byproduct of prolonged stress. And right now, it’s everywhere: in USA Today articles, in YouTube cartoons, and in the preponderance of “I feel nothing” memes bombarding your (okay, my) feeds.
You probably know how we got here. Consider the last 11 months, then zoom in on the final three. An election, a pandemic winter, thwarted holiday celebrations, and an attempted coup. A regime change (yay!) and a viral mutation (boo!). You’d be forgiven for feeling nothing, save for the involuntary quickening of your pulse.
We’ve been here before. As Forge’s resident therapist, Kathleen Smith, wrote back in November, the way out of an emotional hangover—and the feelings of futility that come with it—is “to put the focus back on the one thing you can control: yourself.”
Smith goes on to provide a framework for getting yourself back on track. While she shares this framework in the form of four guiding questions—really, self-reflective prompts—I like to approach them as commandments:
Thou shalt decide how to take care of thyself today.
Thou shalt decide how to take responsibility today.
Thou shalt decide what a good day would look like today.
Thou shalt decide what good work would look like today.
You may opt to take or leave the biblical affectations here. The point is in the imperative tense: You will decide how to steer each day. You will do so to your best ability, toward your ideal version of what that day could be. And most important of all, you will do this today instead of waiting. “Tomorrow” is the timeline of inertia. Why not make your day a little better right now?
As Smith wisely writes:
External events […] will continue to affect our lives. Of course they will. But we shouldn’t let our emotional reactivity from those events, good or bad, keep us from living a life directed from the inside out — a life steered by our best thinking about who we want to be, how we want to take care of ourselves, and how we want to take care of others.
When we approach each day with a sense of ownership, we allow ourselves to be in tune with our lives—and with our feelings. We can rekindle our most vital connections, from the inside out.