What my sabbatical taught me

My bittersweet conclusion to two months.

I’ll begin with a “TLDR” version of why I went on a sabbatical. Simply put, I had volunteered myself to become the “this is fine” meme. I would have major breakdowns over minor inconveniences, and tell myself to suck it up and work harder. My existential crisis triggered by my poor mental health, mixed with the doom and gloom idea I had of the world created the perfect brew that triggered my burnout.

I did not need a doctor to tell me that I was clinically burnt out because apart from having all the clear mental and physical symptoms, my insides screamed all day and every day telling me to stop what I was doing immediately and pay attention to my health. I think we all have a sixth sense about what’s good and bad for us, if we don’t generally pay attention to it, our bodies manifest the problem physically to warn us. Just like when we’re sitting in front of a screen all day, our eyes start to feel a bit of pressure and maybe some pain, giving us a signal to take a break. In retrospect, I should have at least listened to my body.

My decision to go on a sabbatical was not a hard one to make after I had promised myself that I would take my mental health seriously. I think it was a matter of time I realised that I needed to prioritise myself before my work, family and friends to grow out of the burning box I had put myself in.

I didn’t not go into the sabbatical thinking that I’ll go backpacking through western Europe (yes, a shameless ‘Friends’ plugin), or I’ll work on and complete my abandoned design projects, or I’ll finally organise my entire house. My aim was to just stop. My goal was to create some space between the things I usually obsess over — work, social media, news, politics, cooking three healthy meals a day and being productive every minute of the day. I also wanted to work on setting some personal mental boundaries with my family because I had started to put a lot of pressure on myself over being the perfect daughter, daughter-in-law… while balancing my own identity as a designer and an unapologetically independent person.

During my sabbatical, I did not come to any grand conclusions about life, and I didn’t suddenly have all the answers, but there are a couple of things I learnt about myself and how I can make small changes to things I’m doing everyday that can help foster my mental health. Here are a couple of those things:

If you’re constantly telling yourself to do better, or if you’re not doing enough, I know how exhausting it can be to live with that guilt everyday.

As cliche it may sound, but talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend who’s going through a tough time. If you’re unable to achieve the 10 goals you set for yourself in a day, it’s alright! Take a deep breath and tell yourself it’s alright. (The goals were probably impossible to achieve in the first place.)

Tell yourself it’s okay that you have many pending design projects, or the article you were supposed to write is sitting in the drafts folder for over a month. Maybe, those design projects don’t make sense to you anymore, and maybe you don’t have fresh ideas to add to the article. Change the narrative in your head — rather than blaming yourself, find out what the real problem is and try to rationalise the impediment. Look at your situation from a non-judgemental perspective.

It’s okay to not be productive every minute of the day!

Just like when your body tells you that you’re hungry and sleepy, it’ll tell you when you need to get out of the chair you’ve been sitting on for a couple of hours, it’ll tell you to get off your phone, and it’ll tell you when you’re not eating right. Our body’s health directly affects our mental health.

In retrospect, my body told me that I needed to prioritise it in many ways. My shoulders and my back hurt from sitting in front of my devices all day, I had constant headaches, my skin felt and looked terrible, I was constantly exhausted and irritable because of what I was eating and my gut didn’t feel right because of the stress I was putting my mind and body through.

I asked myself — if I’m constantly stressed, exhausted and easily triggered, how will I ever be able to positively contribute to anything social and professional? After connecting the dots between my body and my mind, I understood the need to prioritise my needs over anything else.

Consciously do at least one thing for yourself daily that helps your body and mind heal. Pay attention to what you eat, when you sleep, pay attention to your body and your mind will follow.

Give yourself some credit for eating healthy, praise yourself for being nice to yourself, celebrate cleaning and organising your house, praise yourself for having positive thoughts…

No one knows the efforts you put into doing things everyday if you’re suffering with anxiety, lack of motivation, depression or burnout. Recognise those efforts you put in for yourself and others around you and praise those efforts. Not because no one else will praise you, but because you need to change how you talk to yourself!

Pay attention to your inner child and occasionally give them the validation they crave.

When we’re in the state of disarray, we forget to check beyond our primitive feelings of anger, frustration and confusion, because these feelings are so intense during a state of burnout that it consumes us. It’s important to step back at that moment and look at the situation with non-judgemental eyes. There’s always a cause behind our frustration, anger, sadness, helplessness… we just need to create some space to foster those feelings and ask them why they’re here.

The “why” in that particular moment is necessary to figure out because that tells us what we actually need to make the change happen. Once we’ve figured it out, we’re in a better place to ask for help. Rather than showing that we’re frustrated, we’re in a better place to voice our concerns and ask for change.

Learn how to communicate with yourself first.

If you’re not the issue, then dealing with external issues won’t be a problem.

Take a break from the news:

Let’s face it, these are not the best times. We have seen and heard extremely terrible news coming in from all over the world. For two years straight now, everything terrible has seemed to happen all at the same time.

Sometimes we tend to subconsciously absorb all the external stressors and make them our own. So, it’s important to tune them out once in a while so that we can prioritise dealing with our own stress.

We can’t keep adding more stress into our already full cup o’ stress.

  1. I let the days take shape on their own — I wasn’t worried about creating a plan and sticking to it. I did whatever I felt like in the moment — This gave way for me to relax.
  2. Not carrying my phone around all the time — We forget what’s it like to not have our phones on us all the time, and once it’s taken away from us, it creates such an intense void. Not having my phone on me gave way for me to concentrate on the things I was doing, which made me do them slowly and diligently. Small things like sitting out on the balcony sipping on my cup of tea was done mindfully which made me appreciate the process more.
  3. Mindful eating — eating at least one meal a day without watching TV or using my phone.
  4. Taking my time to do chores — not doing chores in a hurry made me feel connected to the things around my house. I wasn’t doing chores for the sake of doing them, but because I wanted to do them.
  5. Being patient — I realised that life actually wants us to live slow. So, I’ve made peace with when things don’t happen quick enough. And,
  6. Taking it easy on multitasking so that I can give whatever I’m doing the proper attention it deserves.

So there, no grand conclusions about life like I promised, but a few things that genuinely helped me grow out of my burnt out box.

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Experience Designer // Designing the future of education // Advocator for ethical design