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Holding on to your identity

27 October 2021

Experimental physicist Danielle Speller explains how burnout is linked to identity and shares advice for maintaining balance.

This article is the third in a series of essays written by Black physicists and copublished with Physics World as part of #BlackInPhysics Week 2021, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. This year’s theme is burnout.

Physicists—like artists, artisans, and revolutionaries—often pour themselves into their work. In fields like particle physics, nuclear physics, and astrophysics, experiments are often huge endeavors that can span decades. A success, then, is not just a single moment of excitement when something works or a measurement is completed. In some circumstances, that moment is the affirmation of many years of training, planning, and work, as well as years of personal and professional sacrifices made in pursuit of truth and discovery.

Danielle Speller.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Speller

This means that what you do can become your whole identity. Without balance, any interruption of what you do—a loss of position or funding, a poor result, a different lab scooping your finding, a technical setback—can become a direct assault on your person, your livelihood, your reason for being, and your place in the world.

That sounds a bit dramatic, but the stakes are high. I find that the times when I am closest to burnout are when I am placing all my expectations for the future on the success of my work. Now, to be clear, I am unmistakably invested. I enjoy my work. I want to break the boundaries of knowledge and understand the way that the universe is built. I want to be an interesting colleague and to train my students well. I arrive early, stay late, work hard, and dream big.

What I do not enjoy is the frenetic pattern of activity that begins when those things become the primary source of my sense of worth. When this happens, I begin to feel as though I should be able to do everything demanded for multiple projects, simultaneously, and with no need for correction or repetition of any part. (That is extremely unrealistic.) I unintentionally procrastinate as I seek to make perfect preparations for the upcoming work, so that I can give each specific item all the undivided attention it deserves. I begin to jump from task to task as if I’m fighting flying embers, putting out small but urgent fires to “clear up space,” until something ignites (the proverbial barn, or, in this case, a project deadline) and the conflagration becomes too big to ignore. At long last, that undivided attention is fully given, albeit involuntarily.

In the end, the structure is salvaged and the idea survives, but the scarred, fire-worn product is a long way from the masterpiece of my original vision. Coated with ash, I look around and realize that the small fires were never completely quenched; they started growing again while I was consumed with saving the barn. With plans in mind for repairs and the start of the next big thing, I turn again to the small fires in the grass, determined to get things under control but barely taking a drink of water or a breath of fresh air in the interim. Meanwhile, the embers smolder. So it begins again, and the result of this cycle is, predictably, burnout.

Below are a few of my strategies to break this cycle:

  • Reset your identity. Over time I have learned that one of the most effective strategies to resist the depths of burnout is to guard my heart. In practice, it requires that I spend some time each day remembering what is most important in my life and why I do the things that I do. That knowledge changes the way that I prioritize and protect my time, energy, and relationships. In the long run, it encourages habits—time management, planning, and good decision-making—that enhance my ability to work and perform. As my graduate adviser describes it, it helps me choose the projects that will allow me to make the most impact.
  • Give yourself some grace. You can help to mitigate burnout by remembering your own humanity. Maybe you worry that excuses, breaks, and indulgences can dull your self-expectations and lead you to take the easy way out. That could be true. One should avoid the trap of falling into such a pattern. But if you are tired, it is probably time to rest. If you have failed, acknowledge the situation but don’t be stuck in self-condemnation; it’s counterproductive. Perfection is rare; don’t sabotage your own ability to recover. When the chips are down, breathe, learn, and change.
  • Keep standing. There’s a song from my youth by gospel artist Donnie McClurkin that captures it well: “After you’ve done all you can, you just stand.” Sometimes working through burnout requires taking it one day at a time. Knowing your identity can also give you the courage to stand even in those times when it finally means walking away.
  • Remember your support structures and networks. Standing requires support. Although it’s true that interpersonal interactions can sometimes be a contributing factor to burnout, trustworthy family, friends, and colleagues—within and outside your field, department, or institution—can help calibrate your self-expectations, as can counselors and other mental health professionals. Furthermore, getting involved in the lives of others, through volunteering, gathering, or mentorship, can help put things back into context, provide alternative perspectives on life, and remind you that you too can be part of a support network for others.
  • Don’t forget the basics. I remember being counseled by my mother according to the classic HALT acronym: Never get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. There have been many times when the world was brighter after a spicy burrito, a sitcom, and a good night’s sleep. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, rest, and laughter can go a long way toward staving off and mitigating the physical and mental effects of burnout while you regroup.

In the physical sciences, the rewards are great, the challenges are many, and the road is long. For me, resilience in the face of burnout has required that I place my identity in deeper things. When I step back and remember that there is more to life, the smoke begins to clear, and help arrives like a refreshing rain.

Danielle H. Speller is an assistant professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University. This essay is written in a personal capacity and is independent of any affiliation with Johns Hopkins.

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