Activist and REEK model Briana Pegado on coming back from being burnt out and why we all need to sometimes do less to achieve more. 

Without realising it over the last year I’ve been busy –  really busy. This year and a bit (4.5 months to be precise) sent me on a winding sabbatical, a healing journey, an exploration. Though I understand the inherent privilege I have to have even embarked on this journey, it wasn’t easy.It started with the breakdown of my health, the break up of a 4.5 year relationship, experiencing hidden homeless for 9 months, being broke (very, very broke), experiencing underemployment, breaking up with friends, the process of digging my voluntarily-run organisation out of a deficit, and recovering from soul-deep burnout. These circumstances are less important than the context of what I realised – that living and working in a feminist way requires us to embrace feminine energetic principles. Let me explain. Feminine energy in ancient traditions, astrology, spirituality, and some traditional religions possesses the qualities of process, slowness, being-over-doing, birth and rebirth, and allowing, unfolding. We live in a society that is dominated by masculine energy. The patriarchy prizes striving, ambition, hard strength, absolutes, doing-over-being, definition, and singularity. Particularly in a professional context,the ideal path is seen as focused – a constructed need for others to understand their position, status, authority, and power. I have always rebelled against this since I was a child. I had a natural instinct to do everything at once. I would pick things up, start them and leave them. I would experiment. I inherently understood that all of these interests were part of me – one not more important than the other. I could discard them and pick them up. The ability to do this did not lessen my inherent value as a human being. I was not defined by my interests and my interests did not define me. As I grew up I was told this wasn’t acceptable. I had to chose. I could do certain things as hobbies. I could be anything I wanted, but I also had to make a single decision about who I would be. Because of this, as an adult, I have been in conflict. A friend recently introduced me to the concept of a community of selves. The existence of multiple selves that have different desires, needs and character traits – they are multiple people / multiple parts – that can sometimes be in conflict. This dissonance causes inner turmoil. In order to get to the root of this inner conflict we need to understand what is causing it. This is a process of un-layering, unlearning and an exploration that can take a lifetime.The last sixteen months threw me into the depths of this exploration. I realised that I was disconnected from my feminine energy. I had been living in a way that was shaped by society and as a result I was out of balance, functioning too much in the masculine with my life dictated by outcomes, goals, and products. As I spent time working on myself and trying to feel less burned out, I started to do the internal work of healing. Burnout feels like you are living with your hands tied behind your back and a weight sitting on your lap. It is not the same feeling as depression nor anxiety, but, similar to these, you lose interest in things because you do not have enough energy to care. You can’t make the effort. Burnout is telling your body something very fundamental – it is telling you to simply be.In this period of being, I had questions I wanted to explore. I allowed them to fall into the background and to be worked out slowly. I started to heal from square one. Burnout forced me to strip out all the extra things I did not need – toxic relationships and work dynamics. I packed up all my possessions and moved them into storage when I left the flat I lived in with my partner. I left a toxic studio environment where I ran a social enterprise that was draining me because managing it was too big a task. I put the breaks on everything and while I worked out of deficit, things started to become more clear. I took time to read stories. I went to therapy. I worked with a shaman. I booked a trip to Bali. I consistently went to yoga. I spent more time doing my favourite thing – spending time by myself. I created a lot of space by doing this. I realised that I had allowed toxicity to build up until it weighed me down so much I broke.Toxicity comes in many forms. It comes from having no boundaries, from habits that are self-harming, habits we learn through experience and are reinforced by a society that is also toxic. I come from generations of women who have been through great trauma (this is the case for all of us.) The very nature of patriarchial society has a negative impact on us all regardless of our gender. Some of us are more conscious of it than others. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman who married a narcissist and as often happens, gave birth to a girl (my mother) who became a narcissist herself. For me, being raised by a narcissistic mother, comes with a host of complications – the most troubling of which is verbal and emotional abuse. When my parents separated when I was 11 and my father moved back to Angola, I was left unprotected. Adolescence is always difficult, but living with constant criticism, abuse, gas-lighting and manipulation hardwires the brain to accept toxicity. I coped by being an overachiever. I threw myself into art, sport, and every extracurricular activity. I reacted to my mother’s narcissism by developing into a highly sensitive empath. My anxiety in these years was at its height. I used to have panic attacks in the shower every evening before I put on my PJs to start five hours of homework. It was around the time my parents separated that my gut health started to suffer. My parents put this down to lactose intolerance. I did not understand my condition, nor did I have the confidence to advocate for myself. I struggled with poor self-esteem. More research is being conducted into ACEs or adverse childhood experiences, which suggests they are the single underlying cause of most addictions, most diseases including heart disease, many psychological conditions, suicide, and low self-esteem. There is evidence that suggests they are the single largest public health concern in our society.My burnout allowed me to unravel this trauma. I had spent nearly a decade in therapy but my burnout forced me to truly stop and reassess. Here is what I discovered –

  1. I was doing too much.

  2. I was doing too much because overdoing it and overachieving is how I coped with abuse.

  3. Society reinforced my coping mechanism of overachievement because I grew up in a country that valued overdoing it, underpinned by a patriarchial system that devalued feminist, matriarchial and feminine energy.

  4. I had internalised so much of my trauma that it was embedded into my perception of myself. My value was intrinsically tied to my overachievement. I viewed myself through others’ eyes.

This trauma laid the groundwork for an extremely toxic way of living and was literally making me sick. I was resilient and had lived with mental ill-health for so long that I ignored the warning signs. I could cope with depression and anxiety, if anything I was highly functional with both, but when my immune system started to break down and I hit burnout I finally listened.I learned that the only way to heal was to create better boundaries and a safe space for me to unfold and become my authentic self. In this space, I could revisit a younger version of myself. I could allow for complexity – the multifacetedness of my personality, and the beauty of my be-ing. In fact, the part of me that had been stewing in my unconscious, desperately needed rest and time to evolve in relation to who I am, who I was and who I was becoming. I was deeply served by my burnout.

I learned that things needed time to unfold, to be stagnant, to feel stuck. These principles are the exact opposite of society’s expectations.So the next time you wonder where life is taking you and you feel spent – remember the value of taking time out. Remember to notice how you are living. And remember the privilege of being conscious of this choice – to have the awareness to decide what is important. Your burnout can be the best thing that happens to you.

Briana Pegado is an Edinburgh-based social entrepreneur who specialises in process. She is one third of a creative collective called Povo that thinks and does in Edinburgh. She is the founder and director of the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF). She is on the board of Creative Edinburgh and YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement. She is launching a new wellness company called Unfolding Abundance Co. at the start of 2019. Most importantly, she is a human being trying to work things out as much as the rest of us and tries to cultivate gratitude every day. You can follow her here

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