There are sometimes in life when you just feel fried. You feel like there’s nothing more that you can do. You’ve given it all. This is the feeling of being burned out. In Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, Joan Borysenko seeks to help us all prevent that feeling from becoming one of long-term burnout.
As I’ve journeyed through this conversation around burnout, depression has been a constant shadow. (Some of the related works I’ve reviewed are Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Acedia & Me, and Women’s Burnout.) Depression is a class of disorders that are officially recognized in the DSM-5. It is, however, deceptively broad. There are so many diagnostic options, and, unofficially, there seems to be many causes.
The literature on burnout seems to indicate that there is a relationship – and that burnout predicts depression in some cases. This isn’t to say that burnout is always the cause of depression, but rather that it is sometimes the cause of depression.
This relationship – and the fact that depression is predicted to be the second leading cause of medical disability on Earth makes burnout an important concern. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for about the predicted prevalence of depression.)
Attached to Outcomes
Burnout thrives on the energy of high achievers. It’s at home in an environment where it can consume drive and spit out the results. In this way, burnout is no different than yeast that converts sugar into alcohol or makes bread rise. Burnout uses the fuel for its own conversions. One of the aspects of high achievers that makes them so susceptible to burnout is their zest for accomplishments.
Zest for accomplishments isn’t a bad thing. It drives us towards results. However, when we become too attached to outcomes, we forget what makes life worth living. We also miss the subtle cues that life gives us on how to be happy and go with the flow of life instead of against it.
Learning detachment is one of the goals of Buddhism as a philosophy. It is believed that pain comes from too much attachments to things – including outcomes. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on detachment.)
Life in Hell
One of Borysenko’s comments is that some forms of therapy make life in hell a bit more palatable. In other words, they don’t change the fundamental conditions that lead to the bad situation. Certainly, the use of some antidepressants falls into this category. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more on the use of antidepressants.) Though, many times, we can’t change our situation, and all we can do is to find a new – and better – way of dealing with it, there are times when the right answer is to change the circumstances.
The problem is that it’s complicated to untangle a life that’s gotten wrapped around burnout or snagged by the way that we grew up. Just like a tangle of cords, sometimes the first step is to create a bit of slack, so you’ve got room to move. That could be in the form of self-awareness or awareness of the problem. It could come in a different – more balanced – perspective of where you are in a situation. It can sometimes be a change in the situation. There’s no one answer.
Whatever strategy you choose to help get out of the pit of burnout, the key is to ensure that you don’t stay near where you started. Once you get out, it’s important to get away from what led you to problems in the first place.
When the Solution is the Problem
Borysenko relates the story from the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study of an overweight woman whose doctor saw a problem with her weight. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.) She, however, saw her weight as a solution. Having been raped, she gained a hundred pounds so that she would be overlooked, and she wouldn’t have to face the risk of being raped again. (At least, this was the thinking.)
Sometimes, in conversations with addicts, they don’t see their drinking or drugs as the problem, it’s the solution. It’s the way that they can block out the painful feelings. They can use them to recapture a zest for life that they long to grasp, even for a few more moments.
Addictions (including eating) are just maladaptive coping strategies. They’re coping strategies that may have initially been effective, but they progressively took more and more control from us. They became compulsive and more dangerous.
Whenever assessing a situation, we need to consider whether what we view as the problem isn’t really a solution to some other problem. Sometimes the problem we see is perceived to be small in comparison with what the “problem” solves. It’s like a medication that has a long list of nasty side effects, sometimes people take it because it’s better than the alternative.
In the end, what all of us want is the ability to become resilient. We’ve discovered that we can’t stop the waves of change and challenge. Instead, all we can do is change how we respond to them. Instead of experiencing profound stress and burnout, we learn to accept the waves and not become overwhelmed by them.
Borysenko quotes the work of Kobasa and Maddi in their research about stress management during a time of profound change. They believe that three Cs are essential to this skill:
- Control – There is the perception of some degree of control. (See The Hope Circuit.)
- Challenge – Is what you’re facing a real challenge or threat to survival, or simply something that must change to meet new circumstances?
- Commitment – The willingness to “show up” in all aspects of life.
The Bad with the Good
Whenever looking at research, it’s important to realize that there is some good even in the bad. The Cult of Personality Testing explains the issues with the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) – and I agree with those assessments. However, McClelland saw three categories in it that allowed for a greater understanding of people and why they become burned out.
- Need for Achievement – Some individuals have a greater need for achievement.
- Need for Affiliation – Some people have a greater awareness of their need to be connected.
- Need for Power – Some people need more power over others, perhaps as a way of compensating for how unsafe they feel.
Giving Yourself Away
One of the core things that causes burnout is the fact that the burned-out person tries to give themselves away. They give of themselves – too much – because they perceive that they have no value. They perceive that their needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. If you want to keep from becoming burned out, or Fried, you have to accept that you have value.