Opinion: The vicious cycle of burnout

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Credit: Genevieve Morrison

WSPN’s Selena Liu discusses the implications of academic and extracurricular stresses.

Selena Liu

It’s the consequence of months and years of impossibly high expectations set by the people around us. The incessant anxiety and stress that keeps me awake at night, and it exhausts me completely during the day. I remember vividly the fear that gripped me when I first realized that my drive to do everything was diminishing, and even worse, sometimes completely gone.

Society compels us to be good students, excelling in the hardest possible classes; good athletes, improving at every practice and game; but also society masters at sculpting every other aspect of our lives to the nearly unattainable standards of prestigious colleges and universities. Good grades are only one small part of our application, so we are constantly thinking about what more we can do to make ourselves uniquely better than our peers. This means that outside of school, we need to participate in club sports, hours upon hours of community service, SAT and ACT prep classes, tutoring and striving for various awards. The constant pushing to perfection can be debilitating.

However, because the community we live in is filled with so much opportunity, my privilege makes me question if I have the right to complain. Every single extracurricular I do comes with a hefty price tag and commitment from my parents. Everything we learn in school expands our knowledge, little by little. I want to participate in all of it. I am so lucky to have these valuable tools to improve myself. But at the same time, I am utterly exhausted.

I feel like I am over-dramatizing, so I hide the problem in its entirety. But every test grade that isn’t satisfactory feels like a stab in the stomach. Every sports practice physically hurts me because of my lack of sleep. Every new deadline tortures me. It numbs me. And I get so used to the feeling of numbness that eventually, I stop caring. But as I should’ve known, hiding things inevitably only worsens the situation.

It got to the point where the mere thought of doing anything besides staying in bed was enough to send chills down my spine. I lost interest in everything I once enjoyed. When I was with my friends, there was a constant ebbing in the back of my mind, ticking and reminding me of the unfinished lab report or the upcoming test. When I ate dinner with my family, I often found myself zoned out, my mind completely distracted. School would be the only thing on my mind – I could no longer fully enjoy myself with the never alleviating burden of stress on my shoulders. Everything was now a bleak, confusing blur of homework, sleep and sports practice.

I begin to start assignments the day before, if not the day of the deadline. No, I’m not just lazy, contrary to the common conception that many adults have. It’s just that I don’t have the strength anymore, and I can’t find a significant consequence to the compulsory procrastination. Getting something done, no matter how long it took me, was one huge step forward. But that’s when 30 minute assignments started to turn into two hour ones. The most frustrating feeling is knowing that I have work to do, but also not being able to gather the courage to get up and face it. When I’d get a good grade, I’d smile for a bit and feel proud, but that happiness was one of the most shallow feelings of joy I’ve ever experienced. It was thin and wore off quickly, throwing me almost immediately back into the painful reality of a new upcoming test, essay or project. Grades aren’t stable: they fall quickly, but rise painfully slow.

We can find comfort in the fact that we aren’t alone in this horrible feeling. I can see it in the eyes of my classmates. I see them on the Google document with me hours past midnight, completing homework. I see that they are exhausted, yet no one seems to have found an out. We’re so good at hiding behind a mask and assuring ourselves and others that we are perfectly fine, when truthfully, we are far from it.

As each day passes, I question if everything I do will pay off in the end as the burden of achieving perfection becomes harder and harder to bear. I’ve tried everything to break it, and although certain things make me feel more at ease, I’m still trapped in this suffocating, never ending cycle. One day, I hope that it can let me go.