I like tracking back to the beginning of a topic. I want to know where things started. That’s what I found in Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement. I had previously reviewed some of Christina Maslach’s work – Burnout: The Cost of Caring – but her work started after or near the same time as Herbert Freudenberger. The writing is very different. Freudenberger’s perspective is down in the trenches and real.
As a working therapist – and someone who had personally experienced burnout by trying too hard to save the world without recognizing limitations – Freudenberger’s work is real and, in some places, raw.
Something is Missing
Have you ever struggled with something that was at the far edge of your consciousness? Maybe it’s song lyrics that you just can’t quite place. Maybe it’s a someone you saw, but you can’t remember their name – or where you know them from. Most people have experienced the sensation of knowing that something is there, but they just cannot get to it.
That’s one of the ways that Freudenberger describes his experience. His patients kept looking for that something missing in their world. They felt like their lives would be complete with their next accomplishment. The next rung on the ladder is all they had to reach to make themselves whole. However, the problem is, as Oscar Wilde put it, “In this world there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”
If you do get what you want, then what next? On the other side, not getting what you want leaves you with a longing. That longing, properly modulated, provides the pull forward into the future. However, improperly managed, it can cause stress that you’re not enough – or that you’re never going to make it.
For high achievers, who were Freudenberger’s clients, there’s always that something missing. Those who learned to manage it well found a way to leave his office whole. Those who couldn’t figure out how to modulate that pull continued to struggle.
There are two ways to look at our strivings. First, we’re looking to fill a hole in our soul. It’s that something missing that Freudenberger’s clients struggled with. This is working from the perspective of a deficit that must be redeemed. Second, you can approach the struggle as a way to build upon a firm foundation. You can view the strivings as a “+1” to everyone’s life.
For those who are struggling in the pit of burnout, it’s the first – deficient –perspective that they hold. It’s that things are not enough. It’s that, individually, they are not enough. This is the trap of burnout. You begin to feel like you’re not enough. Instead of your strivings being life-giving, being a way that you can share your light with the world, it becomes more and more proof that you’re not enough.
Like the burnt-out shells of buildings, burned out people feel like they’re empty, hollow, and missing something. They feel as if they’re not whole.
In every case of burnout, there’s some element of blindness. There’s a blindness to the person’s truth about themselves, including their completeness as a rational and emotional being, or about the world around them. The blindness results in a misalignment with themselves or the world. This misalignment makes it difficult for someone to function effectively.
Blindness to oneself and your own identity is tragic. It’s like never getting to know the only person you’ll never get away from – yourself. You never find out who the person really is, because you can’t see some aspect of them. This kind of blindness leads us to doing things in ways that deny part of ourselves.
Blindness to the world prevents us from seeing how the world really is. In doing so, we can’t adapt and function in ways that are harmonious. It’s like walking through the dark and constantly stubbing our toes on furniture, because we just don’t know it’s there. It’s much easier to walk across the room safely when you can see where to step – and where not to. You can expect to make it across the room quickly and without injury only when you can see the room completely.
With blindness, we land in a world where our expectations – of ourselves and our world – are out of whack. This leads us to believe that we’re incapable of our goals – or that our goals are too easy and should be within our grasp too soon.
Both perspectives lead us to burnout. One because we can’t see the path that leads us to success, and the other because we become frustrated and disillusioned that we’re not seeing the results we expect. Reality keeps leaking in around our blindness to make us aware that we’re not achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
Instead of finding ways to adjust our expectations into the appropriate range, we find ourselves disturbed by the experience and looking for escapes. We find ourselves looking to coping skills to ease the pain that our reality doesn’t match our perceptions.
Luxury to Necessity
The path to addiction isn’t one step. One drink of alcohol does not afflict you with alcoholism. The path to disfunction, and addiction, is converting a coping skill from a luxury or occasional indulgence into a necessity. An addiction counselor colleague said that it’s not that the alcoholic wants a drink, it’s that they feel this overwhelming, visceral need to have a drink.
What may have started as a luxury to help them cope in a difficult time has become for them the only way they know how to survive. It’s no different to them than eating, drinking water, or breathing. To use Freudenberger’s words, their luxury had become a necessity.
The burned-out person is susceptible to addiction, because they need the coping strategy to function. Instead of the coping helping them deal with life, they’ve transitioned to the coping being required for life.
Staring into the Darkness
Because burnout is, in Freudenberger’s perspective, somewhat about the blindness, it’s important to find that blindness. Finding the blindness about ourselves and our perspectives on the world is not easy. Our views of the world are deeply held, and our brains work diligently to reinforce their beliefs, so disconfirming data is difficult to see. However, seeing the world as it truly is – seeing past the blind spots for the outside world – is relatively speaking easy.
Looking into the blind spots inside ourselves is substantially harder. It’s harder for people to peer into the darkness of their own soul to see the parts of themselves that they want to deny and ignore. It’s hard to accept that the perfect image they’ve been projecting isn’t the real person.
Finding the blindness inside of oneself is much like staring into the darkness and waiting for the light to emerge. It takes courage to stand and face the darkness for a long period of time. Physiologically, our eyes become more sensitive to light the longer we’re exposed to low levels. Thus, the more that we stare into darkness, the more we can see. However, it’s difficult to be willing to avoid looking at the light for long enough for this to happen.
Psychologically staring into the darkness is similarly difficult and similarly we get more clarity the more we’re willing to stare into the darkness of ourselves the more likely it is that we can cure – or partially cure – the blindness that we have about ourselves as a whole person.
The darkness is easy to turn away from with something that’s new and exciting. Taking up SCUBA diving or skydiving gives a momentary thrill that is capable of making someone feel more alive at a time when they’re burned out and empty inside. These kinds of thrills – and thrills like doing illegal things – provide a momentary high that make it appear that everything is alright. It’s possible to feel once again and the feelings are good. However, the suppression of feelings that is caused by burnout returns soon enough.
When Freudenberger wrote his book, self-harm “wasn’t a thing.” However, today it’s a challenge that counselors deal with as children and adults seek to feel something by inflicting pain on themselves. These poor folks, as I understand it, have suppressed their feelings to such a degree that the only way for them to feel is to cut. Sure, it’s pain, but it’s something. They’ve denied feelings to such an extent that nothing else cuts through the blockade. They’ve literally got to find a way to inflict pain to be able to feel anything again. This too is, of course, a false cure. It’s only temporarily relieving the core problem that they have – which is their lack of feeling.
It’s easier to fall into the trap of a false cure rather than stare into the darkness and develop a sensitivity to how we feel and to let those feelings out – no matter how scary that may be initially. By externalizing the solution to the problem, we’re looking outside for relief from the disharmony that exists inside.
Freudenberger makes the point that our reality is subjective by saying that one man may be perfectly content making $20,000 per year. (You may need to adjust his numbers, since they’re from a few decades ago.) Another man may be unhappy making $100,000. Our expectations drive our acceptance of our reality, but there’s something more.
There is an aspect of being content. That is, there’s a tension between accepting things as they really are and, at the same time, the desire to make them better. Instead of feeling like it’s broken, incomplete, or not enough, you can feel like it can be improved, that there’s a better answer, and that there’s more that can be done.
Successes Amply Balance Out Failures
Evolution favors the organism that pays attention to their failures. (See Hardwiring Happiness for more.) As a result, we’re predisposed to ruminate more on our failures than to celebrate our accomplishments. Over time, this imbalance of attention leads us to believe that our failures outweigh our successes. We gloss over the accolades that we receive and instead see only the negative feedback – constructive or otherwise.
One of the difficulties that leads to burnout is the belief that we are a failure – or that our failures mean we won’t ultimately be successful in our goals. We believe that we aren’t enough, because we see the ledger with more red ink than black. However, we neglect the fundamental understanding that we are human beings with both faults and function. All of us can do great things – and fail at others.
You Are Not What You Do
High achievers tend to see their value in terms of how they’re able to accomplish things. They’ve grown accustomed to constant reinforcement that they are valuable or interesting or special because of the things that they do. What happens when the accomplishments temporarily falter? It’s like breaking the surface tension of a bubble. The bubble falls apart when a small break occurs in the surface tension.
There will be breaks in the feedback and accolades coming in. The random nature of our world ensures this will be a reality. One of the ways that high achievers can avoid burnout is to avoid building a dependence on these accolades – and perhaps by reading Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement.