The Pressure to Perform Is Wearing Us Down
Here’s what you can do when you’re tasked with 50-leven responsibilities and have to act like everything is okay (when you’re not)
This story is a part of The Burnout Effect, ZORA’s look at the pressures to perform and produce in an already chaotic world.
Hustle culture is as American as apple pie, baseball, and oppressing people of color. The illusion of glory found in grinding is codified in our literature, films, and, probably most effectively, in hip-hop. Nas once quipped that “sleep is the cousin of death.” Nipsey Hussle declared, “I been grindin’ all my life.” And rap’s first billionaire, Jay-Z, rhymed, “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not trying.” But our society’s need to be in constant motion to accomplish goals has left many of us burned out, depressed, and hungry for something different.
That was the case for Danielle Young, a writer, influencer, and self-described “internet person” in Brooklyn, New York City. Though Young has built a successful career by working for The Root and Essence and interviewing celebs like Oprah, Idris Elba, and Lena Waithe, she’s also been battling depression for years.
“B.C. — before corona — it would have been very easy to just lay in the bed,” Young tells ZORA. “When I was working at Essence, I was getting to the point where I was having a hard time getting moving. I would be extremely late just because I couldn’t pull it together. I used to qualify it as laziness and would beat myself up about it, especially living in a city like New York.”
As an on-camera personality for a storied brand, Young was doing something she absolutely loved. Still, she felt guilty about not being able to be “on” and working at all times because of her depression.
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Between being told we have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé and the barrage of memes that claim we should be starting a business, healing traumas, and completing 50-leven projects, there is a pressure to perform at the highest level possible. That pressure is seemingly tied to almost every part of our existence: our work, personal lives, and side hustles. And our performance isn’t just about what we manage to execute. It’s also how we act with our family and friends, bosses and colleagues, and the audiences some of us have built with our personal brands. It’s the brave faces we put on to look okay, especially when everything is not okay.
The pressure is a lot, and it’s wearing many of us down.
As Young, 35, notes, “It’s very hard to be lazy in a city like this. You see the nurses in the scrubs, you see teachers grading papers on the train, you’re on the train with all types of people who are just working themselves to the bone. So experiencing that and being like, ‘Girl, you’re just going in to write some stories and make some cool videos that you have a good time doing. And you can’t do that? What’s wrong with you?’ I would beat myself up about it really bad, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t do something that I seemingly loved.”
Though she says she doesn’t “have the capacity to live more than one life” and is not putting on a show for others — even when she’s working on her new interview series, Real Quick, or posting comedy sketches on Instagram — Young admits she felt a sense of urgency to produce content after losing her job in March. She didn’t want to look like she was slowing down.
“There was a moment, a week or two into this [self-quarantine], that I did assert pressure on myself. I felt like, ‘You don’t want people to see that you’re not with this big entity anymore so you ain’t got shit going on,’” she says. “Because I was betting on myself, I felt there was no time to waste because I didn’t have a job.”
“We have to make sure that we are being well, and not just doing well.”
According to Farah Harris, a Chicago-based licensed clinical professional counselor, the pressures we feel may be tied to how we see ourselves.
“When we feel like we have to perform all the time or be ‘on,’ sometimes we get so lost in doing that, we lose the essence of just being,” she says. “Instead, you may think that your worth is dependent on what you’re able to produce or how you’re able to appear to everybody else.”
While there are some benefits to performing — in the workplace, in romantic relationships, and in everyday life — if you’re starting to feel burned out from having to be on at all times, Harris says, “You need to ask yourself: Why do you need to do all this?”
Harris also argues performance burnout may stem from America’s frenetic work ethic that tells us we shouldn’t have any excuses for not doing things, she explains. “I think we feel bad when our bodies want to rest and we say no — we really think we should be doing something. But it’s not healthy.”
Instead, Harris says, “we have to make sure that we are being well and not just doing well.”
Reflecting on this chapter in her life, Young is now focusing on what is most important to her in her professional life — creating content she loves, building her own brand on her own terms, and giving herself grace. She says things are beginning to fall into place.
“A sis was definitely burned out before the corona,” Young says. “But now I feel like I’m igniting again.”
Regina Ossey, a 38-year-old married mother of two in Irvine, California, has her own story of performance burnout. After losing her second pregnancy, Ossey felt like she needed a change. “Although there are so many things that can be involved with [having a miscarriage], and sometimes they have nothing to do with health, I attributed it to how much I was working at the time,” says Ossey, who was then a general manager and regional trainer for Victoria’s Secret. “I was the breadwinner, so I couldn’t really afford to have this come-to-Jesus type of time off from work.”
Still, it wasn’t until Ossey got pregnant with her son in 2015 that she began to experience a shift. “For the first time, I took six months of maternity leave, and it hit me that I don’t want to go back to a job that I hated.” As the top income-earner for her family, Ossey’s desire didn’t match with her reality. She returned to her demanding position but admits, “My heart wasn’t in it.”
After a brief stint as a stay-at-home mom, Ossey was lured back into corporate America. She took a position with Uber and “got right back into my old habits,” she says, noting she put her game face on and worked “balls to the wall” in order to make a good impression. “I felt the need to prove myself due to imposter syndrome,” she admits. Ossey worked late hours, took on side projects, and volunteered for task forces all while nursing a toddler and caring for her mother part-time while she underwent chemotherapy.
According to Ossey, the whole thing left her “depressed and stressed, but I hid it from myself by staying ‘busy.’”
Ossey longed for something different but says she continued to go hard at the office because her family needed her. “At the time, my husband was switching careers and starting at the bottom of his industry, so I had to be at the top,” she explains. “For so long, I had the pressure of having to be the one that continued to climb the ladder because my family had to eat.”
“[At home], I’ve got to be mommy all day, and at night, it’s like, drop the panties, I’ve got to be a wife.”
After getting laid off, Ossey decided to launch her own consulting firm, which led her to take on a leadership role with Project Scientist, an organization that introduces girls to STEM. Despite this, balancing her home and work lives still felt impossible. Ossey made the difficult decision to switch to part-time in her career. Taking her foot off the gas, however, didn’t result in a more balanced life. Instead of putting on what she calls her “performative face” at work, she poured that energy into her role as a wife and a mother.
“I took a backseat in my outside-of-the-home career and thought that everything would fall into place. But that wasn’t the case,” she says. “[At home], I’ve got to be mommy all day, and at night, it’s like, drop the panties, I’ve got to be a wife.”
The performance burnout Ossey felt in the workplace bled over to her personal life, too. “I’m a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, as well as a friend. And for me, there’s always that dynamic of wanting to perform well in every role,” she says. “But what I have learned over time is that if I’m really good in one area, it’s okay for me to not be [as good] in another.”
Though it’s been a process, Ossey says sharing her challenges with her sister-friends helped her to realize she wasn’t the only one struggling with the idea that she should do it all. She also learned to make peace with the fact that she couldn’t perfectly execute every facet of her life like she previously attempted to do. “What makes me okay with it now is taking the time to decide what I value most for the day or month,” she says. “And if I’m intentional about that decision and if I’m faltering in other areas, I feel less guilty about [not being perfect] because I’ve already mentally prepared myself for what’s at the top of my priority list.”
Another thing that has helped Ossey and Young let go of the pressure to perform is focusing on self-care. The women both prioritize taking time for themselves while they still work toward their goals. To quiet her mind and kick off her day, Young has started participating in Devi Brown’s Divine Time-Out Digital Challenge while Ossey finds solace in taking daily bike rides through her Orange County, California, neighborhood.
As a therapist, wife, and mother of three, Harris isn’t immune to the pressures to perform either. But she avoids feeling too stressed about wearing multiple hats by reminding herself that “just being is enough.”
“If you’re showing up for your husband, praise God. If you’re showing up for your kids, praise God. If you’re able to turn in an assignment on time or meet a deadline, that’s enough. If you don’t do anything else [after you reach your limit], that’s okay, too,” she says. “It’s a bad habit that we’ve picked up from living in this country that we have to constantly be doing things to prove something — but what?”
“I have learned over time that if I’m really good in one area, it’s okay for me to not be [as good] in another.”
For women struggling with performance burnout, Harris suggests they get to the root of why you feel the need to be on at all times. “There’s some story behind the reason why you feel you have to perform. And when you can answer the question ‘Who’s pushing me to do this?’ you’ll realize you have more control than you thought.”
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She also advises “going into your self-care bag” to protect your energy in various ways, like taking time to reflect and altering the way you’re engaging with social media, which can trigger feelings like jealousy, anxiousness, or competitiveness.
“You may have to limit how often you’re on social media, or you may have to adjust your notifications,” she says. “You may not feel as ‘on’ as you did before, but my advice is to protect your well-being by putting in some self-care tools that you may not have used before.”
Harris also says creating daily rituals can help you “feel the feelings” and work through them in a healthy way. Whether that’s journaling or finding someone to talk to or having an accountability partner, Harris says finding something that works for you will go a long way to alleviate burnout and “feed your soul in a positive way.”