Not a perfectionist: A Conversation with Emma Gannon
The grief of burnout, outgrowing ourselves, and how to nurture happiness when everything feels bad
Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
Emma Gannon’s delightful The Hyphen was one of the first Substack newsletters I read. I was instantly smitten. First off, she’s a Brit. Anyone who knows me even a smidgen knows the kinship I feel with my parents’ homeland. More importantly, though, Emma is ridiculously smart, funny, kind, gifted, lovely, generous, and seems to want everyone to thrive. Like really thrive. One of the best ways she’s figured out to help accomplish this is to launch frank conversations about things that might be interfering with our thriving as well as things that boost it. She uses her own life as fodder and gently yet firmly invites us to explore our lives. Friendship, burnout, ambition, style, joy, children v. no children, hustle culture, body wisdom, good food, and more, she tackles it all. Plus, she’s a whiz on Substack and offers heaps of useful tips.
Much of her wisdom, insight, and extensive research make an appearance in her latest book The Success Myth—wherein Emma offers a fresh definition of success, one that’s contingent upon what you actually want your life to feel like rather than meeting expectations put upon you by entrenched systems that benefit from you working yourself into the ground. She tenderly but thoroughly picks apart eight common success myths from money to happiness to productivity. In their stead, she leaves this thought: “I believe the biggest signs of success in your life are liking yourself, rooting for yourself and back yourself.”
In addition to The Success Myth, Emma is the bestselling author of five books: The Multi-Hyphen Method (a manifesto for multi-hyphenates crafting work on their own terms), Sabotage (tips on how to silence your inner critic and get out of your own way), (Dis)connected (how to stay human in an online world), Ctrl Alt Delete (how I grew up online), and Olive (a novel exploring, amongst other things, the pros and cons of having children). Until recently, Emma hosted the ultra popular podcast Ctrl Alt Delete where she spoke with pretty much everyone you could want to speak with.
Recently, Emma experienced burnout and wrote about it here. And, of course, because she’s Emma, she’s been sharing what she’s figured out along her path to recovery. Emma is what my mom would have called, a good egg. It was such a pleasure to chat with her.
Shortly after finishing your book The Success Myth you experienced severe burnout—anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, and more. You were used to powering through everything—and felt ashamed you couldn’t power through this. Shame is such a common response when our mental, emotional, or physical health slips. Do you have thoughts on this? And where are you with your shame now?
That's a great question. And I love that we're just going straight in! I feel very lucky because I just completed this year of life coach training right before my burnout, so I felt like I had the tools to understand in real time what I was going through. But it was still so terrifying and awful. It happened in two parts: there was the performer self, the shiny version of me, and that just crumbled. I could no longer be this singing, dancing Emma that is successful and trying to be perfect to the outside world. That’s where I felt shame: that version of me could no longer exist; I couldn't keep up with the performance.
But there's another side where my inner self, the self that writes and goes for walks and is in touch with my childhood self, that side of me wasn't ashamed at all. It was actually an amazing time. Even though it was terrible, I got to reconnect with who I really am. I went swimming, watched Disney films, and borrowed a friend's dog. It was the opposite of shame. It was giving myself a break and being quite kind to myself.
Did you feel relief that performer Emma could stop?
Yes, I felt so relieved. I'm not trying to make it sound like it was fun, because it wasn't. I couldn’t look at my phone, couldn’t look at the pixels, because my brain was in total meltdown. But there was a relief that I couldn't look at my phone. I had to put it away for a week in a drawer and I would never have done that before.
Since then, people have shared stories about fantasizing about being in a little car crash so they didn't have to go to work. People who are at the edge of burnout where they hope something bad happens to them so they can stop the behavior.
Gah! Why can't we stop?
It’s down to us as an individual to push back on things but we do need a collective solution. If enough of us say this is out of control, then something will happen. What worries me—especially with the research about anxiety and depression increasing by 20% in 2021 during the pandemic—is that we're all slightly brainwashed because of the amount of people who will defend their busyness and say, “Well, I don't have a choice. I'm stuck. I can't get out.” I'm interested in using my tools to show people that they're not as stuck as they think they are. We do have a choice.
In order to heal, you needed to reconnect with yourself. I believe you’re still in the throes of recovery but what are some of ways you’ve gotten to know yourself again—both in terms of the methods you used, a couple of which you’ve mentioned, and what you’re discovering about yourself?
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