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How therapy, space, and taking the summer off helped me reprioritize and improve my happinessFeatured

In April of 2022, I quit my job as Director of Product Management for an agriculture technology startup.

Up until then, my team had been relatively supportive. They would help whenever I asked for it, and we openly talked about ways to help each other avoid burnout. We were making incremental progress on the product–setting measurable outcomes and releasing manageable features.

I didn’t think I was working too much, but I was exhausted at the end of each day and didn’t understand why I was unhappy. I was having a hard time rallying the energy to kick off a job search, and even if I could, I had a feeling that working in product leadership was likely contributing to my exhaustion. Some, too, was likely due to working remotely in the same physical space as my husband every day for two years. I needed to take a step back and untangle the issues.

Therapy helped me understand that I needed better boundaries

I had been in therapy with a relationship counselor for about six months at that point. Along with the occasional couples session, she was helping me to better understand the things that replenish my energy and the things that deplete it. Having a day packed full of meetings left me exhausted. Staying out too late with friends made me quiet and crabby. What replenished me? Hiking, reading, and working on creative projects made me feel more grateful and alive. I was learning what it meant to be, and take care of, an introvert.

Therapy also helped me dig into my people-pleasing behavior and lack of boundaries, both at work and in my personal relationships. I didn’t know myself anymore. I realized that I was subtly playing a role at work, and another at home. I was trying to be what everyone else wanted me to be. If someone asked me what I wanted, my first instinct was to run through all of the possible answers that would be the most satisfactory or least disappointing to the other person. Sometimes as kids, we learn that our needs don't matter, and I had trained some of my own needs, like needing lots of quiet alone time, out of my personality.

So, not only did I not have boundaries, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I often didn’t even know what I wanted. And if I did, I wasn’t able to say “no” to things that would be too draining or too far outside of my interests. I was constantly negotiating in my head to protect other people’s feelings. I needed to get to know myself and practice saying “no” if I was ever going to have work-life balance and replenishing relationships.

This was all kind of scary to learn. Most of my work experience had been in product management, and now I was learning, at 42, that it wasn’t a great fit due to all of the meetings, interruptions and context-switching. It exhausted my brain. I was afraid I was going to have to back up my career and train in some kind of creative IC role. I was afraid of having to explain myself, and of course, of making less money. I was afraid of all of these unknowns, but knew I needed to take care of myself.

Bringing awareness to my capacity limits

By practicing taking space and making time for the activities that replenished me, I learned that I needed more alone time so that I could hear myself think and advocate for myself without prioritizing other people's feelings. I learned to have more awareness of what it feels like when I am out of capacity and need rest. For me, it feels like brain fog, and I end up in a frazzled state where I am even more likely to try to quickly appease others. This is a tactic I likely learned in order to earn some “me” time without feeling guilty.

Likewise, I learned to “feel into my yeses,” as my counselor puts it. For me, that means taking a beat to make sure it feels right when I say “yes” to something. A good test: make sure it feels like a “hell yes!” and not a negotiation in your head. Of course, it’s necessary to make some tradeoffs in life, as long as we’re aware of them. Not many of us are saying “hell yes!” to working every morning, but it should at least be a conscious decision. I’ve found that having an improved awareness of my situations makes me feel more empowered to change them.

With my husband’s support, I was able to do two things to help me understand how much space I needed. I trialed living in my own private sublet for a month (which I loved), and then later a private desk in a coworking space.

Living alone in my own apartment let me relearn what it felt like to own my own time. No one was ever waiting for me to come home, so I never felt guilty about how long I spent wandering at the park, shopping, or staying at a friend’s. This was a big deal and really allowed me to decompress and get excited again about work and socializing, in the right amounts. If I spend all day talking to people at work, I need some serious alone time before hanging out with anyone else. Living alone gave me the control I needed to play with my capacity to socialize.

After I moved back home, I rented a private desk at a coworking space a 20-minute walk from home in Brooklyn. For a tiny enclosed office, which I needed to take calls in, it cost $750 a month. I was still working at the ag tech startup, trying to make it work by getting myself the right amount and kinds of rest I needed. I told my boss about the expense, that it was basically a mental health need and that I was going to be paying for it either way but that I’d appreciate being reimbursed. It worked, and they paid for it for the remainder of my time there.

For a home life rebalance, I practiced telling my husband when I would be doing something alone, and he got used to us having mornings be quieter (I did end up deciding to live alone later on, which had major ramifications on my marriage, but I’m keeping this post focused on work.)

Deciding to move on

I was hopeful that I could learn the skills to have a balanced life in a product leadership role, but my job was too far gone. I’d been a part of a botched acquisition process and had already checked out.

I don’t want to list everything I was doing here because everyone’s limits are different and no one should be comparing to me, but I was probably doing the work of a director of product, one or two product managers and a QA tester (including repro steps for the bugs filed by customer success). The quantity of work was technically doable in 40 or 50 hours, but I understand now that my 20-25 hours of meetings per week were leaving me too drained to both keep up and think as strategically as a good director of product should.

It’s hard to carve out time to think about the roadmap when there are many smaller and better-defined tasks yelling for attention. I was stretched too thin and couldn’t give any one thing the attention that it deserved.

I gave our CEO six weeks of notice and helped the team prepare for my departure as best I could. My last day was set for the middle of May, and I would take the whole summer off to decompress, explore my interests and figure out what would be next. I had been at this particular startup for three years and in product management for eleven.

Therapy helped with this step, too. Having more awareness of my family’s values, and my tendencies towards perfectionism and people-pleasing helped make me less afraid of making a change for myself.

Having the summer off let me get to know myself again

I gave myself a budget for my restorative summer. I’ll admit that I was privileged enough both to be able to afford this break and to find another job at the end of it pretty easily. The thought of spending some of our savings on a summer off bothered me, but I knew I needed a rest in order to get out of the brain fog that was keeping me from knowing what I wanted to do next. I told myself that this is what our emergency fund was for. My mental health was not in a great place, and I deserved to have that addressed. I needed room to think and the freedom to explore.

I wanted my summer to be exploratory and also revitalizing, so I allowed myself to have fun and get to know myself again. I learned how to make croissants! (And that I did not want to be a baker.) I worked on a family genealogy project and spent extra time volunteering with my neighborhood’s Open Streets program. I also read Jane Eyre, wrote a short story, gardened and cooked for some friends. I was reminded of how restorative it is for me to help my friends and community, and feel deepened connections on a local level.

It reminded me that I needed to prioritize these things in my life alongside my need for more quiet time alone. I learned that with my hobbies I won’t be bored later on in retirement, and that it’s okay to not love working. I happen to enjoy fulfillment from challenges that are separate from my career, and that’s okay.

It’s okay to take an easier job

When it was time to start looking for a job again in August, I had so many mixed feelings. I was pretty sure that product leadership roles were not right. Senior IC product roles might be a decent fit, but made me a little uncomfortable because even mid-level product managers have a lot of meetings. I had some regret about not using my free time to train in a more creative role, like UX researcher. At the same time, I was feeling refreshed and ready to work.

Scrolling LinkedIn, I saw that a former colleague was hiring a project manager for his dev shop. I knew it would be a step down in salary and title, but thinking about working there did not make me feel sick. I would be helping a friend implement some processes by leaning into the organizational skills that came easy to me, and that felt good.

He put me through a couple of rounds of interviews and made me a decent offer that made up for the salary difference in benefits and time off. I get a 401(k) match instead of stock options. I started at the end of October. We work a four-day workweek, and I’m happier than ever.

My role now consists of project managing two to five software projects at a time. Each takes about six weeks. Our clients range from funded startups to medium-sized manufacturing companies. Being able to provide project operations and organization, which for some reason come easily to me, has been fun and rewarding. I also get plenty of opportunities to provide product management and research assistance both for our earlier-stage clients and our internal projects. I interact with clients and help them book their next projects.

I still benefit from the variety of tasks that I loved about being a product manager at a startup. I’m currently planning a Beta program for an app to help consumers pay down their debts. I’m also learning about the operations and cash flow needs of a software development agency. The key is that I’m not overloaded with work. I’m also getting good practice for setting better boundaries at work in the future because I now know what it feels like to not be miserable.

I truly care about this company’s survival because I enjoy working there. This is something that startups try to emulate with stock options, shared missions, and inclusive cultures, but this feels different. I can’t see myself ever working for a startup again.

Having a summer to lean into the hobbies and connections that make me happy helped me let go of the arbitrary expectations that I was holding myself to. My counselor still reminds me to stop “should-ing all over myself.” I “should” be making more money, climbing the ladder in tech, mentoring more women, rescuing more dogs… the list goes on. You will never make everyone happy, but you will make yourself unhappy trying to.

Experiencing the happiness of having the time and capacity to enjoy life has allowed me to accept this easier role at work as perhaps a better fit for me at this time in my life. I’m no longer exhausted at the end of the day. With that freed-up energy, I have the room to play with other challenges, volunteer work and social activities, specifically around how much time I spend interacting with other people. The joy I get from looking forward to my life, waking up happy and not dreading my workday has empowered me to stop comparing myself to other people and feeling like I’ve failed at arbitrary life goals.

Don’t be afraid to get creative. You’re worth it.

I know this post comes at a tough time in tech, and I’m not advocating for everyone to quit their jobs. If you are unhappy, especially if you don’t know why, counseling will help and is worth the money. It will speed up your exploration, and the improved self-awareness will help in all areas of your life, especially relationships.

Not everyone needs as big of a break as I did, so figure out what you can afford. If you can’t take a whole summer off, maybe you can scale back and work part time for a bit instead. Don’t underestimate your value to your current employer. If you’re willing to walk away, they may be willing to offer you a sabbatical or a part-time role. Maybe you can work remotely from a different location for a month or two. Changing your setting can make a big difference.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your partner, if you have one. You’d want to know if they were unhappy, right?

It’s okay to not know what needs to change yet. It’s okay to spend time and some of your emergency fund on your happiness.

Thank you for sharing, Erin! It was really eye opening to read the steps you took to get your self-care and freedom back. It’s interesting that burnout comes in so many shapes and forms, and you don’t have to be “miserable” or sad at work to feel it. In your case you actually liked the role and thrived in it. I am a big fan of changing your work setting, it does add a lot of value!
Very insightful and I experienced several aha moments while reading this post. I appreciate you sharing your experience.
Your post resonates so much. Many thanks for sharing your experience.
Big thanks to the elpha team for having me! Anyone should feel free to reach out if there's anything I could help with.
I could not love this post more, and appreciate your vulnerability and transparency around a struggle so many of us share. I am curious to know - how did you limit that internal chatter / "negotiation" in your head, that so many of us over-thinkers experience when we attempt to set boundaries?
Thank you for asking this! This is something that I find so interesting because learning how to set boundaries has been such a powerful skill for me. The short answer for me is that when I hear that “chatter” it means I need to take a break. Don’t make decisions when in that mode. The trick isn’t to limit the chatter, it’s to use it as a signal that something is up, likely an internal struggle between what you want and what you think you “should” do (according to societal/relationship/work expectations).This takes practice and is where therapy really helped me. You truly have to learn new skills, practice them and create new neural pathways. For me, I recognized that I get that feeling of confusion when I want to say yes to someone or something, but it doesn’t feel right to me. I bet it’s very similar to the “chatter” you’re describing. I learned that as an introvert, if I’m over-stimulated or over my social capacity, I’m much more likely to have that feeling of confusion and like to say yes to things that I don’t really want to do. The feeling was coming up during tough relationship conversations as well as at work. I didn’t have a baseline of what I actually wanted to negotiate from.I was so accustomed to just saying yes to everything that I really needed to practice taking a break, feeling into myself, weighing my options and then asking for what I needed. The areas I needed the most practice in setting boundaries in (and still do!) are at work, relationship agreements, hosting parties and holidays at home, and staying out later than I want to with friends.Here’s what I’ve been practicing:1. Ask for time to make a decision. It’s totally okay to ask for some time… at work “let me have a think about this and get back to you by the end of the day,” or at home “I’m starting to feel a little emotional about this and would like to sleep on it before responding. I love you and know we’ll figure it out.”2. Take a break. I practiced trying different things for different amounts of time that help ground me so that I can feel into what I actually want to do. That gives me a baseline place to start making decisions from. How can you actually negotiate if you don’t even know what you want or need? Getting time alone, going for a walk, reading and breathing all help me. I had to experiment with how long I needed to recover before thinking through my options—for me, 30 minutes is almost there, an hour is great. If I’m at work, taking a quick break then working on something else for a while is helpful, too.3. Once you’re settled, feel into your different options. Take some time to think creatively about what you actually are okay with, what’s important (to the project or relationship) and what you need to be successful. If you really want to say “yes” something, you’ll get a “hell yes!” from your body. You’ll know it. If you’re not really into it, you’ll at least have a level head and be able to negotiate and ask for what you need. For example “I can take on this project but I’ll need help with this other stuff.” 4. Practice! Boundaries can definitely be awkward at first, but being consistent and letting others know what to expect builds trust.Thanks again for reading my post. It means so much to me that you got something out of it.
I appreciate your thoughtful reply, and really love connecting with others who can relate to the challenges of introversion (especially in the workplace) in an extroverted world. I also tend to move at lightning speed, and have been working to pause before decision-making, and listen to my own internal cues to guide my choice... perhaps that's what they call intuition :) Take care!
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, your journey and what you have learned ! I’m in a later stage in life where my health has forced me to be more than happy with work that might not lead to greater horizons or climbing further in the corporate ladder. I want to feel I’m contributing and successful but not consumed by feelings of stress and self doubt. There is so much to enjoy in life and getting a job that can provide more balance is something that I’m looking for . Unfortunately I got laid off in May so I went on a forced summer leave but trying to reflect and give myself space to rethink how I can move forward. Do you have any practical tips on how to find a role in a company that will provide WLB ? How do you identify companies with this type of environment?
I can definitely relate to how you feel. I unfortunately do not have all the answers on how to find the right role. I got lucky and joined a former colleague's agency. Off the top of my head, I'd say look for stable, profitable companies with good glassdoor reviews. I'd talk to friends at medium-sized companies and ask them about their experiences, and for referrals. I also like to look at how long people stay with a company, and whether they post on linkedin sharing job openings with positive things to stay about their employer. I'm sure others will have more to say about this... I'd also search elpha for posts on work-life balance. good luck!
Thank you for your honesty and beautiful role modeling, Erin. TherapyForRealLife.com has openings for online burnout prevention therapy throughout California in case anyone on this thread is looking for a therapist there. Therapy is the best❣️
I really appreciate you sharing your story. Thank you.