Burning out while pursuing my Pakistani, immigrant parents’ American dream for me
By Sahrish Qureshi – Director, Strategy & Insights at VMLY&R, co-Chair, B.EAST (Asia Diaspora) ERG at VMLY&R
From the earliest moments I can remember, the pursuit of the American dream and achieving the ultimate pinnacle of success has always been a part of my narrative. Success was not an option; it was an expectation. Having good grades, being a poised and respectful daughter, and making my parents proud by becoming a physician was always ingrained into me. My dad came to the U.S. from Pakistan in the 1970s to pursue a career that could support a family. He became an accountant. But for his children, he had dreams of us pursuing careers in medicine and engineering because that was success to him. So, you can imagine his disappointment when his pride and joy, his daughter, tells him, “I want to pursue a career in advertising.” He was devastated and worried I wouldn’t succeed.
From that moment forward, I spent my academic and professional career trying with all my might to prove to my parents that I didn’t make a mistake when I decided to chase a career in creative strategy. I never let myself rest because I just couldn’t let them down. I’ve spent every day calculating moves in my career, setting outrageous goals for myself measured by titles, pay and respect within an industry that wasn’t necessarily made for me to succeed as a Pakistani American. I spent many late nights trying to get ahead in my career so I could show up in places and positions that someone my age and ethnicity hadn’t been before. I pushed myself past my limits. Overproduced. And exceeded expectations. I achieved a lot of my goals, but I lost a lot along the way.
Along the way, I had stressful, sleepless nights that impacted my health. I missed milestones with my friends and family because I had work, and I became this person who worked 14 hours in a day only to have no mental capacity to take on anything else. I burned out — hard. The only thing that continued to drive me forward, despite the immense weight I was feeling due to my burnout, was my drive to make my family proud of me.
Many of us from the Asian community can relate to that striving, responsibility, guilt and eventual burnout. It’s in our DNA and ancestry. The weight of your parents coming to the U.S. and sacrificing so much for you to have a better life. The feeling that you’re a “misfit” for wanting to color outside the lines and pursue careers that are considered “atypical.” Perfectionism, productivity and high expectations come at Asian Americans from all angles. But for us to truly thrive, we need to rest.
As Asian Americans, we need to start making our “bare minimum” our norm. We need to relieve ourselves of the responsibility to always be perfect. Let’s start normalizing our struggles, our imperfections, our pain, our grief, our happiness, our rest, our off days and our little wins versus always focusing on the big wins. We are carrying generations of expectations and hope on our shoulders. Instead of working ourselves even harder, we need to work harder to take care of ourselves without belittling ourselves and invalidating our very human needs, like rest.
I still struggle to implement rest into my everyday. I’m not sure I will ever master it 100%. But for me to stop this vicious cycle of burnout, I must do something.
I’m not an expert in mental health, but there are some things I’ve tried to implement into my life to avoid burnout like:
- Validating my efforts — I try my best to tell myself regularly that my efforts are good enough and that I don’t need to keep striving for more or perfection.
- Taking restful breaks throughout the day — Rest is more than just getting a good night’s sleep. I try my best to take restful moments throughout the day, like going for a walk, making a nice lunch, playing with my dog or listening to some music that puts me in a calm mindset.
- Tell people you’re struggling — It’s OK to not be OK, and it won’t make you any less of a professional to ask for help, extensions, or support. You come first.
- Preventative therapy — You don’t have to wait till you’ve hit rock bottom to talk to someone. Talk to someone even when you feel wonderful. Preventative therapy can help you avoid burnout or curb it before it gets worse.
Today, my immigrant parents, who have worked tirelessly throughout their entire lives, remind me to rest and take care of myself. They remind me that they are proud of me. They are helping me break the cycle. I know it can be hard to be kind to yourself, slow down and take moments for yourself — because many of us were never taught to. But we’re on this journey together. And together, we will rest and thrive.
Sahrish is a creative, empathy-driven brand storyteller, with a strong desire to unlock the way that we think as humans to help brands connect with people in purpose-driven, culturally relevant, and inclusive ways. She is an accomplished brand strategist with 9 years of brand and marketing strategy experience across health and wellness, retail, consumer packaged goods, and QSR. She is currently a Director of Strategy & Insights at VMLY&R and a co-chair for the B.EAST ERG at VMLY&R for the Asian diaspora.