Reflections on Balance and Burnout through Adventure Sports
I'd love to share with you a few things I've learned during my time as a skydiver, climber, and skier. They're little nuggets of my own truth which I've found to be helpful in finding balance, increasing contentment and learning to slow down in these sports, as well as in life more generally. I hope you find something that resonates with you too.
Full disclosure: I'm not a mental health professional, rather someone who has learned a few of life’s lessons the hard way. My hope is that by sharing them, you might feel validated in your experiences, or perhaps empowered to make changes in your life.
I've been working with a leadership coach since July 2018. I originally started working with her because I had a few job offers that I had no clue how to negotiate in a way that didn't make me feel slimy, despite having talked to my peers and having read every negotiation self-help book and listicle under the sun.
You're probably asking what this has to do with the outdoors, or being a woman of color in adventure sports. As it turns out, my life at work has played a bigger role in my outdoor passions than I knew was possible, as it relates to recognizing burnout and creating balance.
My coach turned out to be so much more than someone who's helped me navigate negotiations and develop myself as a leader at work. In working together, I started to discover that in my life, everything is everything. We started to untangle my previous experience of professional burn out, and eventually, we created a vision for the life I wanted to lead—a life that was balanced between work, play, and rest.
Let me rewind a bit. Not so long ago I was dealing with a lot of emotional upheaval that included grieving the passing of my father and dealing with all of the practical arrangements that accompany the death of an immediate family member. At the same time I was stressed and underpaid at my corporate gig. The combination of stressors led to a spectacular burn-out when a particularly demanding client became a bit too much to manage. I fantasized every day about “cutting away”—quitting my job and skydiving full time.
I didn't feel valued enough to keep providing the level of work that was demanded of me, and I had no idea how to ask for help. It wasn't even part of my vocabulary yet. I didn’t know how to navigate the situation but I was sure that I couldn't keep going and potentially destroy what I'd built up over the years. So I quit.
I was fortunate to have the savings to do what I had always dreamed of doing. So for almost a year, I played in the outdoors. Here’s another disclaimer: I recognize how lucky I was to be in that position and am eternally grateful to the luck and hard work that got me there.
I skied and skydived more than all my previous experience combined. I got my coach rating in skydiving, chased storms and sunshine with friends across the west, skied and jumped in new places I'd never been, worked hard in the wind tunnel, and not a single day worried about putting on makeup, a pretty dress, and heels as armor against draining work demands.
It was a dream come true, for a good while. I started to sacrifice sleep, traveled more than I could handle, and pushed myself to the point of frustration and tears. I saw progress. I took a few steps back, then progressed some more.
Towards the end of my radical sabbatical, I started to burn out hard. It was textbook—I lacked the energy to get out of bed, and when I did, I felt drained and grumpy on the way to the drop-zone or mountain. I started making many more mistakes and learning new skills inexplicably became more challenging. My thoughts spiraled into loops of self-criticism to the point where I would end up in tears if I couldn't perfect a new skill. I started comparing my performance to everyone else's. I no longer smiled when I made silly mistakes and spending time outdoors no longer sparked joy.
It seemed an all too familiar feeling, and when I finally recognized the symptoms of burnout that had been creeping up on me for so long, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks—again.
How could this be, considering that I was the lucky one. I had unlimited time and space to do the activities I loved? In the interest of being completely honest with you, I’m going to be pretty vulnerable here. I was trying to keep up with the amazing people around me, especially my partner at the time. I felt like I needed to be absolutely amazing at everything, not just for myself, but for other women and people of color too. That’s a lot of pressure!
It seemed like everywhere I looked, there were folks exceedingly accomplished in their sports, who seemed to make 500+ free-fly and wingsuit jumps a year, have a 90-day ski season, and hold down a job that covers the bills, all while having a fulfilling romantic relationship. Looking around and scrolling through the extremely positive highlight reels of the lives of people I admire deeply made me feel 1) happy for them but also 2) sad for myself.
To make matters worse, I’d stopped going to therapy at the start of my sabbatical because everything felt good at the time. I’d become sorely out of practice with the emotional tools I’d worked so hard to develop. I slowly realized that I was forgetting something important: that so much of life satisfaction has to come from within yourself, not from how you think you stack up against everyone else. I was also forgetting that I had no idea what their lives were actually like, aside from the things I could see.
I've found that everything is a balance, all the way from small-scale decisions like whether to jump tomorrow or how to achieve a work life balance. While working with my leadership coach and reflecting on my two major experiences with burnout, we discovered that my "amazing balance" as we've started calling it, is actually a balance between work, life, and rest. I had to look inward in order to get to this realization.
If you recognize yourself in what I've shared with you, I hope you give some thought to doing similar kinds of reflection, whether that’s with yourself, a friend, or someone else you trust. If it’s accessible to you, working with a life/leadership coach is a great way to create the vision of the life you want to lead, and to help make the necessary changes in your life to realize your goals.
As with anything, your mileage may vary. You may find that the components of balance are different for you, or that you really are perfectly happy climbing seven days a week. If you’re still reading, maybe you or someone you know could benefit from creating a work-life-rest balance.
In the meantime, here are some of the most meaningful lessons I've learned along the way that have helped me cultivate the balance I had been looking for. A lot of these are centered around slowing down and resting, which are the things I struggled with for a very long time.
1. Check-in with yourself regularly and be brutally honest about where you are.
It's so easy to get caught up in having fun or pushing towards the ‘next big thing’ that it may be hard to accurately gauge how we're really feeling. It's good to habitually check in with yourself, as free from outside influences as possible.
Make the difficult decision to call it/turn around/come back another day if you need to. It's hard to do, especially when we've invested so much to get to the point where we are in the mountains, on the trail or in the sky. It's hard to do when we’re comparing our daily ups and downs to everyone’s perfectly curated highlight reel on social media. It's hard to do when we've set expectations and goals for ourselves that we want to realize.
But, in the high-risk activities we love, the mistakes that come out of exhaustion and burnout can cost so much more than expensive gear, training, and social status—whether that's in recovery time, hospital bills, or death. Mountaineers like to say that ‘getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory.’
Sometimes, this sort of self-awareness and brutally honest reflection might result in the decision to leave the sport, relationship or career—you name it. There are times that, when possible, we need to leave behind the things that take more from us than we have to give. If we can clear some space in our lives, there are more extraordinary things waiting for us on the other side.
2. Eat, hydrate, and rest.
This is some practical wisdom we've all heard before, but often don't follow. I'm very guilty of doing activities all day and getting so caught up that I don't eat or hydrate, and I've seen my friends do this too. Take care of your body. Bow out of post-send beers with friends and sleep when you need to. It'll make your hiking, climbing, riding, and flying so much better.
3. Seriously, rest.
Vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown writes that "[i]t takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol." If you're reading this, I'm going to guess that you probably do value play quite a bit (or you'd like to), and that this cultural and mental obstacle is something you may be somewhat familiar with.
So let's go a step further: when we say yes to play, it's so easy to keep saying yes to it because it's just that good. Or maybe we're so close to nailing high speed layouts in the wind tunnel. Or we're so close to sending that cliff. We might also be falling prey to the fear of missing out or the self-comparison that comes from social media. There are times that we need to intentionally cultivate rest too, even if it means sitting out that last run because we're tired, our knee is acting up, or we're not completely comfortable with the conditions.
Set boundaries with yourself and others. Say no. It doesn’t make you a mean person—it ensures that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you can give 100% of yourself while being loving and generous, without falling into the trap of resentment.
It's okay to pace yourself and really, truly believe that you're on your own journey, and that everyone else is on theirs.
4. With catastrophic events like major injuries or death, let yourself grieve and reflect if you want to. Take all the time you need.
One of my most poignant climbing memories is from August 2017, when my climbing party met two kind, experienced climbers near the Palisade Glacier in the Sierra. Our groups exchanged stories from the day and talked about climbing plans for the rest of our trips—they were headed to Starlight Peak, which we were going to attempt the day after them.
The next morning, we were unexpectedly involved in calling search and rescue after the two climbers had a tragic accident on the peak. Sadly, one of the climbers passed away.
It was shocking and heartbreaking. After serious reflection, I realized that, despite the amazing moments I'd had with my climbing partners, and despite the undeniable sense of satisfaction I got with every new summit, I wasn’t enjoying the constant push to climb higher and farther enough to expose myself. My risk profile changed—just like that. And that was okay.
It's okay to take a break, and really, any reason you have is valid. It doesn't require a devastating accident. You are allowed to change your mind irrespective of what your friends are doing. The mountains, that water, the sky will all be there when you return—if you want to return. What other people think of your decision is none of your business (although for what it's worth, my experience has been that true friends are by and large supportive about these sorts of things).
I haven't done any alpine climbing since then, and I've let other outdoor activities gradually fill up that space in my life. That's okay. I think I'm almost out the other side and may want to get back to it this summer. If you need to take a break, you will come out the other side too, whatever your ultimate decision is—I promise!
If you're curious about what happened that day, you can take a look at the entry in the American Alpine Club's Accidents in North American Climbing database and this Facebook post from the Inyo County Sheriff's Office. Going back to read these posts today still gives me that stinging feeling in my nose that I get before I cry. It's really tough stuff, and there's definitely a lot we can learn from this experience.
5. Let go of needing to be _______.
Perfect, amazing, everything, the best, the best at everything—the list goes on. If we're careful, we're lucky, and we let ourselves, we can have lots of time in life to hone our craft. Don't let hefty expectations of yourself get in the way of what you love. Everything else will follow in due time. It's worth it.
Writing about these things might make me seem like some sort of non-denominational, enlightened spiritual master. I will assure you that I am far from it, and am most definitely a work in progress. I still very much struggle sometimes to practice what I've laid out here. I owe all of this reflection to therapy, coaching, dear friends, Brené Brown, and frequent late-night perusal of my favorite inspirational Instagram accounts. I'll continue doing my very best.
I support you, kind reader on the internet, and I support you on your journey wherever you are. I hope that you've found some bits of truth here that have resonated with you, and that if you’ve needed a little push to rebalance your life, that this is it.
If you see me on the packing mats, sitting jumps out and eating snacks instead, or sitting out from that last run while everyone else makes some more amazing powder turns, it's because I want to keep having fun in these sports for a very long time. I want that for you too! Sometimes that means taking a step back momentarily, so come say hi and I'll share my gummy bears with you.
If you'd like to explore self-help, coaching, and mental wellness further, take a look at these resources to start.
10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living by Dr Brené Brown, Habits for Wellbeing
Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee podcast, Jamie Lee
How to Choose Effective Self-Help Resources, Psychology Today
What to Do When You Can’t Afford Therapy, PsychCentral
How to Find the Best Therapist for You, Psychology Today