Charli Cohen On Burnout, Prioritizing Self-Care, and The Myth of Doing It All
In her own words, the techwear designer and social activist gets honest about the challenges of balance, and how her most revolutionary idea just might be taking care of herself.
Newsflash: Attempting to get something done when you’re exhausted is unlikely to lead to your best work. Seems obvious, right? So why do so many of us attempt to function like this EVERY. DAMN. DAY. while holding ourselves to a standard of flawless results?
As women, we are conditioned to believe that if we’re not self-sacrificing, then we’re self-indulgent.
In the workplace, we are conditioned to believe that the number of hours we work directly correlates to our worth.
Socially, we are conditioned to believe that if we’re not at every party, in a ‘gram-perfect relationship, or traveling the world, then we’re irrelevant or forgettable.
Doesn’t that seem like a lot to carry? How do you progress—let alone play your part in helping the world progress—if you’re shouldering all that weight, all the time?
In the summer of 2014, the weight I was carrying became so heavy that I could no longer get out of bed. I was 18 months into starting my business, with hard-fought momentum to maintain, a high-responsibility consulting job, my own rent to pay, and my first employees counting on me to pay theirs. Contrary to the well-meaning advice I received at the time, taking weeks off to recover wasn’t an option. And what would be the point when I’d be immediately thrown back into the exact set of circumstances that led to my burnout in the first place? But it wasn’t something I could just push through either; I’d already been pushing through for such a long time that I passed the “running on empty” stage a year ago. I don’t know what I was running on at that point, but whatever it was, it had definitely run out.
I had such big plans for the positive impact I wanted to make in the fashion industry. Yet here I was, unable to think clearly, unable to create effectively and certainly unable to represent the new healthier industry I was working so hard to build. I was the absolute cliché of excessive deadlines, forced social commitments, intense financial pressure, all carefully concealed behind a glossy fashion persona. Sure, I wasn’t imposing this culture on my employees, but I was falling victim to everything I criticized in the fashion industry myself.
If I wanted to execute my big vision, I had only one clear way forward: I needed to get my brain and body firing again, and I needed to figure out how to run my entire business within the 2-3 hours that I could physically and mentally manage each day. For context, this was coming off the back of my typically 100+ hour work weeks and a previously held assumption that this fit and healthy 20-something year old was indestructible. It not only meant a complete lifestyle overhaul, but an intensive re-examination of my mindset and approach to success.
I was extremely uncomfortable with the concept of self-care. I struggled to offer myself the same empathy that I would anyone else in my position. How could I possibly deserve rest? How could I succeed if I wasn’t optimising every minute of every day? Even my healthiest pursuits had become work or networking opportunities, rather than time to recharge and reset. How many of us don’t look up from our phone while taking a walk, or fire off emails between sets in the gym? We carefully schedule in what sounds like self-care, when really it’s just taking our same stress to a different location.
There was no gradual learning curve. I learned how to prioritise hard and fast. What was the absolute base level of commitment necessary to keep my business afloat? What social interaction was required to maintain my most important relationships? To build back my health, what type of physical activity did I need to prioritise to relieve stress in my body rather than add to it? What could I delegate, put off, or completely remove from my to-do list? Well, it turns out that a LOT of stuff that I had previously convinced myself was a “need to,” was actually just a “would be nice to.” It also turns out that “good enough” is good enough and perfection is a myth. I was working at a fraction of my former capacity, but I was getting by, and I was having some major revelations that might help you, too.
1. Living for what other people think of you isn’t helping you, them or anyone else.
2. Trying to base your life on other people’s highlight reels isn’t productive or based in reality. Ban FOMO from your vocabulary.
3. Self-care doesn’t have to mean meditation, long baths or yoga (although it can include all these things). For me, it’s scheduled introvert days, walking the city, and writing music. Figure out what really switches you off (and switches your parasympathetic nervous system on).
4. In order to be remotely useful to anyone else, let alone serve your community in a meaningful way, you need to care for yourself first. Otherwise you’ll never be able to tap into your full capacity for awesome.
It took me two years to recover from my burnout. Every time I start to slip back into bad habits or an unhealthy mindset, I remind myself how hard I fought to get here. Because—and this is the real kicker—I KNOW that had I adopted a better attitude towards self-care earlier on, I would have progressed further in every aspect of my own life by now, and I would have been able to contribute more to the lives of others. This haunts me, but I have to live with it and I have to keep moving forward. And if I can help one person rethink their approach to self-care by sharing my experience, then that’s a win.