Book Review-The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It

It’s rare that I choose to take a contrary view to what an author (or set of authors) says in their book. However, I did when I started digging into The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. It’s not that I don’t think that organizations have a role to play in helping their employees avoid burnout – or recover from it if they get there. That’s not the issue. I believe that employers are responsible to their employees for good working conditions, and getting the most from employees means helping them be their best in life.

The issue is whether I choose to place blame or not. Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter put crosshairs on the organization to blame them for employee burnout. The problem is that this is no fairer than placing the blame on the employee. In truth, there’s no blame to be had. It’s circumstances that cause people to burn out – whether they’re employees or entrepreneurs or volunteers. People burn out. We need to stop that no matter what the cause.

Dim View

My first highlight from the book is, “The workplace today is a cold, hostile, demanding environment, both economically and psychologically. People are emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.” I see this as a dim view. It presumes that every organization is an inhuman place that squeezes the soul out of their employees. While I’m sure that there are organizations like this, there are equally as many that have a caring relationship with their employees.

Maslach and Leiter continue by listing the CEOs who they believe have excessive compensation packages and how things aren’t fair for employees. I’ll agree that many executives are overpaid. I’ll agree that it’s sad that, by 1994, the ratio between the CEO and the average “industrial wage” had jumped to 187:1. However, at the same time, I recognize the bias in the statements. As Richard Florida uncovers in The Rise of the Creative Class, the creative class is different than the working class or the service class. While Florida has primarily petitioned for the rise of wages for the service class – who are receiving the lowest wages – so, too, does the working class receive less compensation than the creative class. To compare CEOs – in the creative class – with those in the working class is capturing more than just the bias between leadership and the workers. It’s capturing a differential based on skills.

So, again, there are things that corporations can – and should – do to help employees recover from burnout and avoid it in the first place, but the perspective of Maslach and Leiter seems pejorative.

Burnout Misalignment

Maslach and Leiter write, “Burnout is always more likely when there is a major mismatch between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who does the job.” While this true, it misses the essential point. Burnout happens when people don’t believe that they’re effective at accomplishing their personal goals. As a result, when the organization’s goals aren’t aligned with one’s personal goals, or the role a person is in and their skills and natural tendencies are mismatched, there will be misalignment. This misalignment will diminish the capacity for a person to meet their personal goals.

So, at one level, there is truth that there’s an increase in burnout when the goals of the organization aren’t matched with the individual’s goals. However, at a completely different level, this is about how burnout surfaces in the ability of the individual to meet their goals.

The great opportunity that exists for organizations is in the capacity to allow employees to bend their personal goals towards those of the organization and for the organization to likewise bend towards the will of the employees. We see this in the recent tendency for organizations to have corporate responsibility statements and the trend towards B Corporations. (See Red Goldfish for more.) When employees are able to bend their personal goals towards the unified goals of the organization, the alignment will help to create a sense of community.

Community

Developing a community is a messy process. Bringing together people with different values and perspectives is necessarily messy. However, the resulting solutions and raw performance can be amazing. (See The Difference for more on how diversity of thought can be powerful.) Whenever you bring people together, there will be conflict. Maslach and Leiter write, “what is most destructive to a sense of community is chronic and unresolved conflict.” However, John and Julie Gottman would argue that unresolved conflict is a part of every intimate relationship. It’s not the presence of unresolved conflict that is the measure of a bad relationship but rather how it’s managed. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Furthermore, I teach that conflict comes from only one of two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. I see things one way, and you see it a different way. With good practices for dialogue, we can eventually discover what these perspectives are and, frequently, align them. (See Dialogue and Motivational Interviewing for good tips on how to discover and resolve perspective differences.)

The second source of conflict is value misalignment. Steven Reiss speaks of his 16 motivators (in other words, values) in The Normal Personality and Who Am I?. Johnathan Haidt discusses different foundations for morality (values) in The Righteous Mind. When you get the macro and micro values aligned between the organization and the person – and particularly from one person to another – much of the conflict evaporates.

Understanding of both perspective and values precedes the development of a firm community. However, while Maslach and Leiter see a sense of community as the ultimate goal to be aspired to, the writings of Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, state that communities (or, in his terminology, “teams”) need to be permeable to accept new members. When the community becomes too insular and defined, it can reject attempts for new people to enter it. In today’s organizations, where turnover is an expected result, we must consider how we form our teams and our community.

Communities occur at all levels of the organization. Often, leadership is threatened or at least confused by allegiances to the community instead of to the broader organization. Communities are about developing mutual trust, and trust is contextual. Some trust is expressed in the local community of the immediate team and other – different – trust is expressed at the organizational level. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on the dynamics of trust.)

Ultimately, we don’t want community; we want productive teams that can collaborate (work together) towards the goals of the organization.

Mutual Respect

Two of our basic human needs are to be accepted and respected. Acceptance is a prerequisite to working on diverse teams but is generally well understood. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) Respect is, however, often confused with agreement. It is possible to respect someone else’s perspective, values, and, ultimately, position even if you don’t agree with it. Respect starts with acceptance of the other person and their right to hold a different a position, but it builds upon it. Respect is built with the understanding of the other person’s position – even without agreement. (See The Titleless Leader for more on respect.)

Respect develops as people have the self-awareness to accept others, the conversational (dialogue) skills to truly understand the others’ positions, and the trust that the others will accept and understand you.

Basic Survival Mode

One of the quotes in the book from a high school teacher ends with, “So I’m just in a basic survival mode now.” This is a form of burnout. There’s no yearning, no reaching, and no trying. In short-term situations, this can be useful and necessary. When you’re in “survival mode,” you clamp down on the demands that are being made of you so that you can have time to recover. The problem is that sometimes people get stuck in basic survival mode without the opportunity to get out of it.

Survival mode clamps down on the demands that are being made so completely that it’s often impossible to start the self-care that allows you to recover, because self-care is in itself a demand. When employees are in this position, the best thing that the organization can do is to develop and implement techniques for temporarily supporting an employee – to give them a little slack that they can use to make investments in self-care. This could be systemic support like offering discounts on health care if they commit to a health regimen. It’s important that any support that doesn’t have secondary benefits be defined as temporary, so that the employee learns to stand on their own and doesn’t lean on the support as a crutch.

Sustainable Pace

A valid concern for burnout in today’s world is the reality that we are often working at a pace that is not sustainable. Every business struggles with short- and long-term priorities. It’s dividing in a way to try to ensure that day-to-day operations continue while finding ways to make strategic investments that pay off and allow for greater expansion, more revenue, and greater sustainability. However, in most organizations, this looks like trying to divide four by two and get four.

What we’ve learned from agile software development practices – and life – is that there is such a thing as a sustainable pace. We can push past the sustainable pace for a while, but to do so draws upon our reserves that eventually must be replenished. Organizations are at risk of increasing burnout when they’re unable to recognize the sustainable pace of their employees and only push them past it infrequently and in times of real need.

Fairness

The feeling that things aren’t fair – because they don’t meet your values of meritocracy or some other measure – are another friction point that makes it harder – but not impossible – for employees to avoid burnout. Fairness is fairly relative, being based on someone’s values and cultural expectations. For instance, in union shops, promotions are expected (and sometimes contracted) to be made based on tenure rather than merit. In some Eastern cultures, nepotism is the rule. If you approach an organization with the expectation of one system and find another, you’re likely to believe this isn’t fair. If organizations say one thing and do another, you’re likely to feel frustration, which will rob you of your power to get things done.

For my own sense of fairness, Maslach and Leiter have a wealth of great content in The Truth About Burnout. I just believe that sometimes they were so into the details that they missed the point. In a few places, I feel like their pejorative perspective on companies doesn’t reflect the symbiotic relationship that employees and companies are developing today. However, don’t take my word for it: read The Truth About Burnout for yourself and see what you think.

Book Review-Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive

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.

Depression

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.

Stress Resilience

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.

  1. Need for Achievement – Some individuals have a greater need for achievement.
  2. Need for Affiliation – Some people have a greater awareness of their need to be connected.
  3. 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.

Book Review-Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It

It might seem that I lack a fundamental characteristic that would make me able to use the information from Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It; however, it’s a book that is most frequently referred to as a core book on burnout. It’s cited far more frequently than Freudenberger’s other book, Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement. That seems largely because, in Women’s Burnout, Freudenberger and North outline a 12-step continuum of burnout. In my continuing research of burnout, I had to make sure I read the classic.

Self-Awareness is Key

Very early in the book, the point is made that self-awareness is a critical step in battling burnout. The point is reiterated both subtly and directly as the book unfolds. The more clearly that you understand who you are, what you stand for, and where you’re going, the more clearly you can withstand the temptation to slip into burnout.

Of course, self-awareness is easy to say but difficult to achieve and perhaps more difficult to maintain. The more you become self-aware, the more you change – and thus the more you must consider who you are again.

Lies, Shame, Expectations, and Guilt

Much of the writing in Women’s Burnout speaks to the situational components that predispose women to patterns of thinking which aren’t helpful. The expectations are set up that a woman must be willing to deny their own feelings so that they can be charming – or entertaining, or pleasant, or whatever other words were used in their childhood. It’s not – generally – acceptable for a woman to have a voice. Changing social roles and perspectives are still in a state of flux, where the old Leave it to Beaver roles that many women’s mothers had are clashing with the expectations of today.

The unspoken message is that women today should be able to have everything. They should be able to keep a perfect home, a perfect marriage, and a perfect career. If they don’t, there is something wrong with them. After all, other people have it, what makes it so that I can’t? What is the flaw in me?

The lie is “if I could just work harder, or toughen myself up, it would all be working.” Of course, this isn’t a realistic or self-compassionate view. It’s built on shame and guilt. The chief concern when arriving at burnout isn’t how to be self-compassionate but is instead how to regain previous levels of productivity. If the voices are sending messages of shame and guilt — they will need to be altered to a more self-compassionate message.

Altered Thinking

When caught by the pull of burnout, we often find ourselves in denial. Denial isn’t all bad. It allows us the luxury of continuing to endure unreasonable pressures for the short term – but we can’t remain in denial forever. At some point, we need to accept reality; but until we do, denial has many tools:

  • Suppression – Active denial of the information, whether conscious or not.
  • Displacement – Feelings are transferred to another object, person, or situation.
  • Humor – A sleight of hand designed to distract from a serious condition or situation
  • Projection – Like displacement, there is a transference to another object, person or situation, but this time to shift the blame.
  • Fantasy and Daydreaming – The invention of a reality that’s more interesting or preferable to distract us from the reality we actually live in.
  • Selective Memory – Quickly sweeping ideas from consciousness and forgetting about them, so that they can’t be recalled.
  • Lying – Both denying to our self and to others that the situation exists. (However, denying to ourselves wouldn’t be considered a lie by some – see Telling Lies.)
  • Self-Labeling – Excusing behaviors as a part of your character – and minimizing them. “That’s just the way that I am” denies that there is a problem.
  • Selective Incomprehension – “I don’t know what you mean that I’m not myself.” Here, you deny the problem by making it difficult for the person who is trying to gently confront you to articulate the problem in a way that you can both understand.

Stress

Stress is a useful adaption that allows animals to survive. However, the way that we as humans process stress is the source of many health problems today. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) While some stress can be useful, we often hold on to stress too long. There are some events that will cause us stress that we cannot change. However, one thing that we can do is to keep from holding on to that stress. It’s one thing to have the stress, it’s quite another to keep experiencing it. Here are five ways that Freudenberger and North say that we extend stress:

  • Backed-Up Anger – When we don’t allow ourselves to express our anger, we keep reliving it. Understanding that anger is disappointment directed (see Emotional Awareness) can help us release it and let it go. However, if your family didn’t accept any displays of emotion, this can be hard.
  • Denied Hostility – Failure to accept hostilities of our past, our broken and bruised places, makes it hard to live as people unintentionally keep bumping into these raw places.
  • Neglected Needs – When you don’t learn to tend to your own needs, you’re constantly feeling a “soul hunger” that keeps you from being whole.
  • Guilt – Though the word used is “guilt,” I’d suggest that it’s closer to shame. When you don’t believe that you’re good, you’re in constant state of fear that you’ll be found out. On the guilt side, you’re constantly having to make difficult tradeoffs that make you feel pain.
  • Low Self-Esteem – If you don’t think that you’re inherently valuable – or valuable enough – even small stresses linger as you wonder if they’re because of something you’ve done.

Reliving Family Dynamics

Imagine walking up to your new home and expecting the key that unlocks your parents’ home to unlock yours. On the surface, this seems silly. You wouldn’t expect that their key would open your lock. However, every day, we attempt to use the patterns we witnessed and experienced with them in our new relationships. The way that your family of origin worked is the way that you expect that your family will work today.

Each of us had a role to play in our family of origin, but those are not the roles that we should be playing – or should expect to be playing – today. Can you identify yourself in the following?

  • Appeaser – Quieting arguments or flare ups
  • Neutralizer – Anticipating and diverting trouble
  • Referee – Mediating the rules of balance and fair play
  • Caregiver – Providing sympathetic support for everyone
  • Sparkler – Garnering attention to divert attention from other problems and issues
  • Comedienne – Using humor to deflect confrontations, suspicions, and anger
  • Troublemaker – Provoking passion to gain attention
  • Leave-taker – Threatening a hasty exit to maintain control of the situation
  • Quiet absorber – Remaining mute though this implied consent.

It turns out that we’re mostly reliving these roles in our adult lives – or at least we may be – and these roles can be unrealistic and can lead to burnout.

Stages of Burnout

According to Freudenberger and North, the 12 stages of burnout are:

  1. Compulsion to Prove
  2. Intensity
  3. Subtle Deprivations
  4. Dismissal of Conflict and Needs
  5. Distortion of Values
  6. Heightened Denial
  7. Disengagement
  8. Observable Behavior Changes
  9. Depersonalization
  10. Emptiness
  11. Depression
  12. Total Burnout Exhaustion

They’re careful to say that the stages aren’t a strictly linear sequence with people having to go through each state. However, it’s clear that there’s a perception that each stage is more critical than the previous. There’s a sense that the higher you are in the stages, the more critical your state is.

What Is Wrong with Me?

Sometimes when reading a book, you see a single phrase that captures something that the author has been trying to convey for pages. The message has been hinted at, teased, and walked around but never addressed directly.

Sometimes the thought is so present and at the same time hidden that, when it finally is crystalized, you want to palm your forehead and say, “Duh.” When I stumbled across a quote that said, “Sometimes, I wonder what is wrong with me?” I realized that this is a key feeling or perspective that is deeply felt by those in burnout. There’s an inner shame that they’re not able to live up to their expectations.

Whether the expectations are internally or externally driven, they’re, well, expected. As a result, when you don’t meet them, there must be something wrong with you. This feeling of shame (see Rising Strong) so permeates with the feeling of burnout that you forget that it’s there.

The key to addressing the problems of burnout may be self-awareness, but part of it is the awareness that it’s not that there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing you need to add to be the person that you need to be.

Drugs

The topic of drugs was woven throughout Women’s Burnout. The use of uppers and downers – coke and marijuana – was in no way hidden. There were two very interesting comments that reveal the challenges with addiction. First, one woman began budgeting coke into her monthly budget, like paying the mortgage or her car payment. It wasn’t an optional thing any longer, it was a requirement to live. Second, most people use drugs to escape their lives. Drugs as a broad category allow people to escape something painful in their lives for a time. Women in burnout, it seems, use them differently. They use them to regain their vigor. (See Chasing the Scream for more on drugs and addiction.)

They look to feel more fully alive, to recapture some of what the burnout had taken from them – and, at the same time, get the energy to do the same things that caused burnout in the first place.

Women’s Burnout isn’t itself a drug, but it may just help you recapture some of what’s lost – though you likely won’t continue doing the things that lead to burnout in the first place. If you are or know someone who may be suffering from burnout, it’s a better solution than drugs.

Book Review-The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism

Martin Seligman is the father of positive psychology. In The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, he chronicles his life and the life of positive psychology. While I’m not generally prone to reading biographies or autobiographies, The Hope Circuit isn’t exactly that. Instead, it’s a view into the world that led to one of the most important course corrections in psychology.

Academia

Academia, on the one hand, represents the potential for intensely mind-expanding experiences, where your life is altered in positive ways. On the other hand, academia can be a backbreaking slog through the submission of grant proposals and articles.

Seligman describes his mind-expanding experiences with conversations that weren’t in a classroom but instead in the Wilson Lodge at Princeton. He explains that he has spent much of his career trying to replicate these conversations, since he believes that they’re the heart of what university is about. Universities can concentrate scholars who think and care deeply about topics. Bringing them together has the capacity to change their lives and the lives of everyone. After all, we owe a great deal to the Medici family in Venice for bringing together a diverse set of masters to ignite what we would call the Renaissance. (See The Medici Effect for more.) These experiences are inherently life-expanding and life-giving.

Conversely, Seligman admits that his “batting average” with grants and articles getting published is around one in three. It’s quite easy to see how someone could – and would – become disenchanted when they realize that much of their best work would go undiscovered, unrecognized, and unfunded. Seligman even shares one of the loose ends from his professional career around our sexual development, which hasn’t ever been followed up on.

Learned Helplessness

Seligman is perhaps most well known for his work with Steve Maier and the discovery of learned helplessness. That is, animals will learn that they can’t control their circumstances and will just lie down and “take it” instead of trying to escape the pain.

From the outside looking in, it should be obvious that the dogs could escape the pain. They simply jump over the barrier, and they’re safe. But it wasn’t obvious to the dogs. They had learned that nothing they did changed their circumstances, so they just accepted the shocks without any attempt to flee.

Interestingly, Seligman distinguishes his life from the dogs that were in the experiment by saying that he never gave up, even when he got depressed.

Depression

The newly-arrived assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Jim Geer, walked into Seligman’s lab and said, “Those dogs are depressed.” Seligman then spent much of the next 10 years trying to understand to what depression is – and, more importantly for the rest of us, what psychological factors might make people more or less immune to depression.

While far from having a single answer, Seligman’s path took a turn from helpless to optimistic, and he continued to look for factors. Optimism might hold the key to preventing depression from grabbing ahold of someone and bringing them down.

The prevailing understanding of depressives is that they’re afflicted by an inaccurate perception of the world and their lack of control. However, research shows that depressives’ perceptions are more accurate when they have no control. They believe they have no control. It’s the optimists that are wrong in that they believe they have substantially more control when they have none – their average estimate was 35% control. Control – or perceived control – it seems was a component of depression.

Control

Seligman and Maier were wrong. Helplessness wasn’t learned. Belief of control was. The default operating mode of the brain is to assume that things outside of oneself aren’t controllable. It’s a part of our control network that manages the how we feel about our situation.

The default mode when facing pain is the activation of dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which releases serotonin (5-HT), which causes a series of releases that produce passivity and panic. That happens whether an animal is trained with “learned helplessness” or not. However, Maier himself identified that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) creates a set of new proteins that shuts down the DRN.

So, while they were wrong about helplessness being learned, they had the fundamental actions right: the lack of control produced helplessness. It turns out that our perception of control is the hope we can do something about our struggles.

Hope

In my opinion, hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It allows us to reach for the stars and dig into the depths. Hope is what powers us through difficult – seemingly impossible – situations. And hope is based on the idea that things can or will change. For most of us, the perception of the change agent in hope is ourselves. In those with learned helplessness, they’ve not learned the illusion of control. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.) Those with learned helplessness believe that things will always remain the same, because they can’t see anything that will change their situation and have no belief that they can have any impact.

C.R. Snyder in The Psychology of Hope broke hope into willpower (see Willpower) and “waypower.” Willpower is our belief that we can change things – and the courage to try. Waypower is our belief that we know how to change things – or the belief that it’s a solvable problem.

Though much of psychology has been focused on the past (and the hurts you acquired there) and the present (how you feel), hope moves us in the direction of the future. It’s a worthy goal when you’re looking to find a way for people to live out happy lives. It turns out that the way you think about your setbacks and the perception you have of your future makes a great deal of difference.

Attribution

The way that we attribute our failures along three dimensions dramatically influences their impact on us – and our ability to remain hopeful.

The first dimension is the internal vs. external dimension. Do I believe that I’m responsible for the problem or someone else is? Is the problem about me or the environment? Believing that I am responsible indicates an internal “locus of control.” In other words, I can – but may not choose to – change or address the problem. (My review of What Got You here Won’t Get You There speaks about the value of internal “locus of control.”)

The second dimension is whether the situation is temporary or permanent. There is a big difference between “I failed to make the three-point shot” and “I always miss three-point shots.” This is an area where Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset can be helpful.

The third, and final, dimension is whether the situation is specific or global. “I’m bad at geometric proofs” is different than “I’m bad at math.” The specific may be true but the global can almost never be true.

Viewing things as external, permanent, and global is a recipe for depression. Optimists tend to see problems as internal, temporary, and specific – expecting to get better the next time. While no one is an optimist or a pessimist at everything, each of us tends towards one of these directions.

Internal and External Validity

Controlled experiments hold a great deal of allure. It’s like a mathematical proof showing what causes what. Done correctly, you can seemingly answer a question completely. The problem is that the question is often very tiny. If the question is too large, it’s too hard to hold all the control variables in check and keep the experiment under control. Controlled experiments that answer tiny questions can be replicated by others and thereby validated. That’s the internal validity – they prove that, in these circumstances, X causes Y. In other words, they’re replicable. That’s the intrinsic beauty of them.

The problem with internal validity is that the real world isn’t neat, orderly, and controlled. Instead, the real world has complex problems and messy solutions. You can’t keep a fence around the real world to keep it out of your experiment. You can’t isolate all the variables with enough controls. However, what you can do is prove that something works in many (but not necessarily all) environments. You get the external validity that it works in the “real world” while accepting that the results aren’t as consistent or clear.

Both are absolutely necessary. You need the seeds of an idea to be created before it can be planted in the fertile soil of the world. However, no seed that isn’t planted becomes the plant it’s destined to be. Seligman, over his life, did both kinds of research but admits that external validity holds more interest now than internal validity. Perhaps that’s why he speaks of the Values in Action work that Chris Peterson did with reverence.

Values in Action

There are numerous personality type tests. I mentioned the Values in Action (ViA) test, available at www.authentichappiness.org for free, in my review of Seligman’s book Flourish. The test standard is largely alone in helping people find and leverage their greatest personality strengths – with the notable exception of the Clifton Strengths Finder test. (See Strengths Finder 2.0 for more on that test.) Tests like the Enneagram (see Personality Types), Reiss Motivation Profile (see The Normal Personality), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, etc. are all other ways to view personalities. There are also a host of other tests that are used more as weapons than ways to help. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.)

ViA allows you to focus on the values that are the most important to you and, in doing so, find ways to enjoy yourself and the life you’re creating with those around you in a more meaningful way.

Gross Domestic Happiness

Everyone has seen reports with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on it, but the problem is that this measure doesn’t account for any of the things that make life worth living. It doesn’t account for friends and colleagues and relationships that enrich our lives. It values suffering, as those who are suffering consume products and services to alleviate their pain, while making no allowance for the loss of joy.

Maybe we need a new measure with components that we don’t yet know how to measure. Maybe instead of measuring the GDP, we should be measuring the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH)– maybe then we can find a way to see how the things we’re doing to ourselves and others are making the world a better or a worse place. Maybe if we were focused on GDH, we’d all be in search of our own happiness and read The Hope Circuit.

Book Review-How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

It’s sort of like sausage-making. You know what emotions are, but you’re not sure you want to know what goes in them. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain takes you through the journey where emotions aren’t consistent across cultures – or even people. The journey, if you’re willing to believe it, flies in the face of the thoughts of dozens of researchers. I’m not convinced that Lisa Barrett has all the right answers with How Emotions Are Made – but at least there are some things to think about.

Ekman FACS

I’ve been a fan of Paul Ekman’s work for some time. (See Emotional Awareness, Telling Lies, and Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code.) Even the Pixar movie Inside Out is a brilliant story around emotions and how our rational and emotional selves co-inhabit the same body. Fundamental to Ekman’s work is the belief that microexpressions reveal what someone is thinking very quickly and briefly. The premise of his work is that the microexpressions response is a recognizable pattern that happens before your conscious mind has the ability to stop it.

From a neurological point of view, there are some reasons to support this thinking. There are separate sensory pathways that get differing levels of processing, some of which allow you to trigger fight or flight reactions very quickly. However, Barrett says that the research doesn’t support Ekman and his perspective that microexpressions are real and consistent.

The problem is that I’ve looked at the research – including the research cited by Barrett – and though it identifies a set of problems with the theory, including the problem of emotions not being distinct, the research is far from saying that the entire model is bad. Even research that was unable to replicate the findings of microexpressions universally across the face indicates that there is something happening.

Ekman himself says that you must exercise caution in that, even if you feel strongly that a microexpression indicates the presence of an emotion, you can’t determine why that emotion was triggered. There may be reasons why other experiments partially replicated the findings. It can be that microexpressions aren’t sufficiently distinct or that the experimental controls didn’t contain unexpected variables.

There are training programs that have been created from Ekman’s work on microexpressions – including his Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and training programs created for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The criticisms Barrett levels seem squarely pointed at the lack of efficacy of the training program for DHS. Having created training programs for many years, I know that there is a winding road between the lab and the lieutenant. Who knows whether the concept is bad, or the training wasn’t effective?

System 1 and System 2

Daniel Kahneman’s work Thinking, Fast and Slow is a powerful explanation of how we think. He uses an idea of System 1 and System 2: System 1 takes the most common, everyday tasks and refers to the more calorically more expensive System 2 when it can’t handle the job. Once something is habitualized, it ends up in System 1. It’s automatic. System 2 is deep and rational thought.

Kahneman is careful to say that he views these as mental models rather than specific indications of brain regions, but many have said that System 1 is the basal brain, including the amygdala, and System 2 is the prefrontal cortex. Barrett asserts that this localization isn’t true, that emotions are composed from all over the brain, and that the lack of an amygdala isn’t enough to suppress emotion.

Here, there are many pieces. Kahneman’s work is based off earlier work of researchers who have moved on to a three-part model instead of a two-part model. My friend Paul Culmsee finds this distinction particularly interesting while I do not. For me it’s just a refinement of a model.

What’s more interesting to me is the nuanced nature of our learning of the brain. Barrett speaks about how Broca’s area isn’t the only component of the brain necessary for speech. As luck would have it, I just recently finished The Tell-Tale Brain, which speaks extensively about how speech works from a neurological point of view. At one level, Barrett is correct that speech isn’t exclusively processed in Broca’s area. However, syntactic structure does appear to be centered in Broca’s area – and that is most commonly used in the creation of speech.

Because there is still so much that we don’t know about the brain, I think it would be premature to indicate that there isn’t a space where emotions are rooted or triggered.

Degeneracy

Many neurons can create the same outcomes. It’s a process that builds redundancy into our brains. For instance, there may be multiple pathways today that can trigger the same fear response. It’s the principle of degeneracy – multiple paths leading to the same result. This concept seems to be inefficient; however, the inefficiency results in resiliency, something that evolution may have needed more. Donella Meadows cautions in Thinking in Systems about over-optimization and the lack of resiliency. Nassim Taleb is slightly more direct in his criticisms of over-optimizing the system in The Black Swan and Antifragile.

The degeneracy and plasticity of our brains allow us to recover from seemingly unrecoverable brain damage. Neuroscience has found that brains will rewire themselves to support the needs of the individual, whether it’s the larger hippocampus for London cab drivers (who need more spatial memory), or it’s how the normal workload of a damaged portion of the brain is taken up by other parts of the brain.

Simulations

Barrett notes that one of the brain’s primary purposes – if not the primary purpose – is prediction. It makes models of the world around us and then uses those models to predict what will happen next. In the book Incognito, it is made clear that we’re not perceiving reality. We’re perceiving some made-up idea that our brains have concocted.

We use these concoctions as models and run simulations – what Barrett calls predictions. Gary Klein was clear in his belief that we develop these models unconsciously, and we use them to provide predictions. (See Sources of Power for more.) Ultimately, we adjust our predictions when we perceive that our predictions are incorrect.

The problem is that sometimes our ego prevents us from accepting the mismatch between reality and our predictions, because it’s unwilling to give up its grip on the perceptions that it holds. Sometimes we become blinded to the discrepancies in the world and our beliefs. This sometimes manifests in disorders like schizophrenia. In these situations, it’s difficult for the person to continue to realign themselves to reality and to prevent their perceptions from drifting too far. Somehow the mechanisms, like humor, aren’t sufficiently effective to hold perception and reality into relative alignment. (See Inside Jokes for more on humor as a correction mechanism for predictions.)

Interpreting Interoception

Most people can describe bodily sensations which match their moods. Before taking a test or performing on stage someone might discover they have “butterflies in their stomach.” This is perceived as an indicator of anxiety. If you ask someone how they felt the first time they were kissed or when preparing for a special date, they may report the same feelings. In fact, you’ll infer the emotion that I’m trying to convey with “butterflies in my stomach” based on the context. You’ll assume I’m excited or anxious depending upon the context. We have learned to listen to our bodies and evaluate how we feel about something based on the way that our bodies are reacting. Our heart rate quickening may be a result of a spark of fear.

The problem that Barrett raises is that we can – and do – interpret our bodies signals incorrectly. We believe that we’re becoming attracted to someone – when we really have the flu. (Her example from the book.) Sometimes the things that we interpret as coming from our mental state are just side effects of our body doing its normal processing.

Our brain can and does make wild predictions about what is happening to our bodies on very little evidence.

Affect, Arousal and Valence

Affect, as described by Barrett, is a general sense of feeling – not an emotion, but simply a feeling. Other definitions say that affect is the expression of emotion. Affect is described as having two dimensions – arousal and valence. Arousal is how alert or relaxed you are – effectively, the relative state of the competing sympathetic (aroused) and parasympathetic (non-aroused) systems. Valence is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel.

I can say that I use an exercise in my information architecture workshops where I hand folks emotion words and ask them to categorize them. The intent is to indicate the degree of difficulty that sometimes occurs with content that you’re unfamiliar with. One of the most common dimensions that students attempt to categorize emotions into are positive and negative. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that emotions are afflictive or non-afflictive rather than positive or negative. (See Emotional Awareness.) Their point is that anger, for instance, can be non-afflictive if it motivates you to address the disappointment (anger is disappointment directed) and afflictive if it paralyzes you or causes you to ruminate.

Categorization

Barrett points out that, when we create categories, we’re not discovering similarities in the world, but rather we’re creating them. When my students are categorizing, they’re creating mental structures that allow them to simplify objects into categories that they can work with. These categories don’t objectively exist in the world, but they exist inside the heads of my students.

For each category, there’s a representative prototype. That is, for “furniture,” you’ll see a specific object. For most folks, it’s a chair, a couch, or a table. (I’ve done this exercise a few times.) If you put rugs into the furniture category, it will be difficult for other folks to find it there because the specific item looks and “feels” nothing like the prototype. Therefore, developing information architecture is difficult. You must recognize that not everyone sees things the same way, and there will be some items that don’t fit the prototype. Once you’ve created a category, you’ll fall into the trap of the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation) and be unable to think that others don’t know about the category.

Concept Development and Prediction

It’s a simpler model to think about information being processed linearly, from individual sensations up through concepts and into our perception. However, the reality is that the process isn’t linear. Things don’t flow only in one direction, from the many sensory neurons to the neuron clusters making up concepts. Instead, as we learned in The Tell-Tale Brain, the path is bidirectional. The information is fed upward, and as concepts are formed and predictions are made, that information is fed back into the neurons that are working on less-processed data.

We push data back from our concept into what we see, in some sense distorting it by amplifying the attributes that match our expectations. This isn’t a desirable situation but rather an adaptation. It is how evolution allowed us to be successful with so little processing power. We swing the spotlight of attention to the areas that are the most interesting. We identify ways of recognizing things that don’t require further processing and ways of identifying those that do.

We like to believe that the concepts we see are independent of our beliefs or predictions, but this isn’t the case. We see, as Chris Aryris said, what we expect to see. (See Organizational Traps.)

Words, Collective Intentionality, and Emotions

Barrett argues that emotions are social realities. They are, in a sense, a way of communicating our inner state to others. She further argues that having a word – or a name for the emotion — makes this substantially easier than having an emotion for which we have no word. (Actually, in some places, she implies it can’t be done, and in others, concedes it’s possible, just difficult.)

So, I’ll concede that our emotions are more complex than we’d like to believe. There’s more going on than a simple amygdala hijack. (See Emotional Intelligence.) There are ways of reducing sensitivity to amygdala hijack. There are factors – like adverse childhood events (ACE) that make it more likely. (See How Children Succeed.) So are our emotions constructed from our previous experience and our skills? Yes. However, I’m not convinced that this means that we have to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

I often think of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) The rider can’t control the elephant when the elephant really wants something. However, I think of the rider-elephant relationship, and how your emotions can be calmed when the elephant (emotion) trusts that the rider (rational reason) will respect it and keep both the rider and the elephant safe. Building that metaphoric trust is the way that I believe we get better at managing our emotions.

I still don’t believe that I’ve figured out How Emotions are Made – and though I’ve got dozens of issues with Barrett’s sometimes skewed data and logic, the challenge of our assumptions about how emotions work makes it worth the time. Who knows, maybe you’ll figure out How Emotions Are Made.

Book Review-Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Depression is a deeply personal thing. Each person confronts the demon differently. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life is the story of one woman’s journey through suicide, depression, and, particularly, acedia. I got drawn into the story by the distinction between acedia and depression.

I wanted to understand if what we were seeing in our world today was not depression but was instead something called “acedia.” Along the twisting road that Acedia & Me follows, I had to solidify my understanding of depression.

What is Depression?

Depressive disorders get their own section inside of the DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the previous edition, depressive disorders were lumped in with bipolar disorders; but the prevalence and importance warranted additional space, attention, and focus. DSM-5 considers depression a cluster of disorders but says, “The common feature of all of these disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function” (p. 155). A key distinguishing factor for depression isn’t found in the mainline text but is instead buried in a footnote on page 161 – “In distinguishing grief from a major depressive episode (MDE), it is useful to consider that in grief the predominant affect is feelings of emptiness and loss, while in an MDE it is a persistent depressed mood and the inability to anticipate happiness or pleasure.” Depression is the presence of a depressed mood, but, more critically, it’s an inability to feel pleasure.

Here though we see the problem with the diagnosis of depression and the associated definitions. It’s too broad. It includes too much. Someone who feels the need to get out and contribute to the world but simultaneously feels like the weight of doing so is too heavy fits the criteria. So, too, does someone who is sad. The guidelines in DSM-5 calls the duration of the mood two weeks or longer to qualify as depression – with a few exceptions – so there is established a time component to distinguish it from grief, but the qualifications are still needed to be clear.

Depression and Suicide

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers has something important to say about the relation of depression to suicide: “The psychomotor retardation accounts for one of the important clinical features of depressions, which is that severely, profoundly depressed people rarely attempt suicide.” Despite this direct inverse correlation, depression is often associated with suicide.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t an incidence of suicide and depression together – it happens, Acedia & Me explains, as Kathleen Norris discusses her husband’s struggles with a suicide attempt. It’s to say that though depression and suicidal ideation are often assessed together – and indeed DSM-5 calls out suicidal ideation as one of several diagnostic criteria for depression – there seems to be pointers that make depression and suicidal thoughts different.

Choosing Depression

Making things even more complicated is that Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers predicts depression will be the largest medical reason for disability by the year 2020. William Glassier directly warns against the ills of believing in the change of brain chemistry, including the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health. With SSRI effectiveness in the range of 50-60% and placebo effects in the 47-50% range, it’s easy to see why there may not be much effect. This is a part of broader thoughts that some folks need to realize that they can choose something other than their depression as expressed in Choice Theory. This aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, where she explains that a growth (or malleable) mindset is more valuable than a fixed one.

For my own perspective, I accept that there are some people with neurochemical deficiencies in the brain that impact their ability to avoid depression. In those cases, drugs like SSRIs can be helpful. However, the research seems to say that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) should be used. Only if that’s ineffective should SSRIs be added – and only for as long as necessary to allow the CBT to be effective. (See Redirect for more about CBT.) The long-term consequences of SSRIs (and other psychotropic drugs) are still being discovered. Recently a friend was published with a link between dementia and SSRI use.

Whatever you or I might believe about depression, acedia is something different. It’s something that gets swooped up into the broad definition of depression, yet it has a different mark on the person who is afflicted.

How is Acedia Different from Depression?

The definitions for acedia vary but often contain the words “apathy,” “boredom,” and “torpor.” At its Greek root, it means “absence of care.” Acedia & Me spends much of the book trying to precisely define what it is. The problem with the definition is that much of what acedia is has been swallowed up into the idea of depression. Depression has picked up more than sadness or lack of joy but also is diagnosed with “fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.” The criteria for depression may inadvertently be picking up folks afflicted by something different – acedia.

Acedia misses the other symptoms of depression, unless you take a path through burnout.

Bridging through Burnout

In the review of Burnout: The Cost of Caring, I discussed how the classic definitions of burnout include being overwhelmed, cynical, or having a reduced personal efficacy. The outcomes of burnout are quite often depression. A cynical attitude sounds depressing to me. The road to depression from acedia may only have one stop – and that stop is burnout.

However, when defined in the context of a perceived lack of personal efficacy and therefore a lack of ability to control outcomes, we may find that acedia is caused by burnout. After all, if you’re feeling like there’s nothing you can do to control your life or your outcomes, what’s the point in caring about them?

The causality of the arrow isn’t clear. Does burnout cause acedia, or does acedia cause burnout – or neither? What is clear is that there is a relationship between burnout, acedia, and depression. So, while acedia may be something separate, because it is so often followed closely by depression, it makes sense that it might get misdiagnosed that way.

Misdiagnosis aside, how do you avoid the trio of conditions: burnout, acedia, and depression? How do you hold onto that idea that you are effective at moving towards your goals – particularly when you don’t know what your goals are?

Finding Life’s Purpose

In reading Acedia & Me, I was struck by the twists and turns that Norris’ life followed and the quest to find what mattered most to her. Writing was a part of who she was and what she wanted to do, but the stories conveyed that this was just one part of her world, that there remained an inner turmoil which couldn’t quite be tamed. In explaining her fears of having children and her time running the family farm, she exposed the lack of articulated goals. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have a great impact on the world – she has. It wasn’t that she wasn’t learning deeply her faith, something that so few people even try. Instead, there was this yearning for something that was missing or wasn’t quite set right.

Most people wander through life never really pondering the mark they want to make. For some, there are unconscious answers, like having kids and raising them to be “fine upstanding citizens.” They want to teach children to help them be better prepared to contribute to the world. For others, their careers are important. The scientists want to make the next big discovery that will change the course of humankind – even if only slightly.

Few have had the patience and persistence to really understand what they want to leave the world with. Simon Sinek suggests that we Start with Why as we seek to motivate others – and that’s good advice we should accept for ourselves. However, it was the earliest monks who first described acedia. Didn’t they have their big why – to devote their lives to God?

In a sense, yes. They knew whom they were serving, but I suspect they may have had trouble articulating how they were going to make their unique contribution. What good can an individual monk in a monastery make? It turns out quite a lot, if you read the writings of some of the more famous monks. However, it’s hard to articulate a specific goal. It’s easier to answer with the platitude to know more about God or to be more Christ-like.

Perhaps they had their “why”, but they didn’t have Clayton Christensen’s insight to ask, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The question is subtly different, but that subtlety matters. If you ask how you’ll measure your life, you’re asking a question that helps you know if you’re making progress. The monotony of the life of a monk is legendary. If you have nothing to measure your progress with, how will you keep from not caring and simply going through the motions – or not even doing that?

In the end, Acedia & Me seems to draw no firm conclusions. There’s no redemptive end to acedia for Norris (that she shares in the book, at least). There is, however, a chronicle of how she experienced it, lived through it, and learned to persevere. Perhaps that’s all we can ask for. I’d prefer to think that there’s a resilience from burnout and acedia in shaping our perceptions about what we want to do in the world – and how we think we’re doing. (See Hardwiring Happiness for changing our perspective.) Generation X – of which I am a member – was supposed to have lost their faith (see America’s Generations). I, however, continue to hold on to the belief that the world is getting better, and I’m doing my part to change it for the better. I hope to say that I never have to walk such that I feel it’s just Acedia & Me.

Book Review-Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement

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.

Not Whole

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.

Blindness

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.

Expectation Management

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.

False Cures

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.

Being Content

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.

Book Review-Burnout: The Cost of Caring

It’s been many years now since I first experienced burnout – and since I have written about it. I was not – and am not – in the kind of professions that Christina Maslach focuses on in her book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, but I experienced burnout just the same. My works were Tips for Identifying Burnout in Yourself and Your Staff (June 23, 2003) and Breaking Out of Burnout Mode at Work (June 30, 2003). They were part of a weekly column I was writing at the time. I expressed a general sense of what burnout is and some useful tips for getting out of it, but I didn’t have the clarity on the topic that I now have. Unfortunately, Burnout: The Cost of Caring doesn’t seem to offer any more clarity than my articles so many years ago. However, there some nuggets to be gained.

Compassion Fatigue

Most people in IT aren’t labeled with compassion fatigue. They’re assumed to have no compassion to begin with. However, in professions such as nursing, psychiatric counseling, and others, the people who start out with a great deal of compassion for others seem to have lost their way and become burdened by that same compassion. What once was the primary gift they wanted to give the world has become the burden that they can’t lift.

To some degree, it can be that no one ever bothered to look to see what compassion really was. It felt good to take care of others and receive that recognition that you were being a good girl or boy. As people grow up, they continue to look for that same recognition and find roles or professions where that is designed to be the case. You can go into nursing, teaching, or counseling to be told what a great job you’re doing with patients – or what a noble cause it is.

However, compassion is the awareness of desire to alleviate the suffering of another human being. (See the post Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion and Altruism for more.) This is not the benefit that people want from compassion-focused professions. They want a result that involves being recognized for their compassion.

Lack of Recognition

The problem with doing compassionate professions in a way that meets expectations is that there is generally no recognition. While working on productions – whether church services or plays – if the technical team did their jobs right, no one noticed. That’s the point. We’d serve in a way that removed the distractions from the performance. When meeting expectations in compassion-based professions, you rarely hear any feedback or praise.

Perhaps it’s because there is so little recognition for a job done well, even if the role is vital, that it has made getting meaningful feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates such a big factor in whether people stay in their jobs or leave. However, the larger issue is not whether they stay with a company but whether they stay happy and engaged.

Burnout Basics

I disagree with Maslach about the basics of burnout and how it functions, more in sequence and severity rather than the observations of its results. Maslach says that burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. However, I believe that the root that allows burnout to grow is perceived inefficacy. That is, observationally in myself and others, I find that burnout has nothing – or little – to do with hard work. Attitude influences whether someone believes that they’re being effective or not – but it’s an influence on the perception of efficacy.

So, while burnout – according to Maslach – seems to have three roots, I believe the real root cause is the belief in personal efficacy.

Nothing Ever Happens

There’s a Del Amitri song titled “Nothing Ever Happens.” It’s about the continual monotony of life and our struggle to make it better. The truth is that life is monotony. Wake up, eat, do some work, and, ultimately, go to sleep again. The cycle repeats endlessly.

There is, however, inside of us a desire to make our world or our society something better. That desire to make things better distorts our expectations such that we expect that each day will be just a little bit brighter, a little bit less work, and a little easier. So, while we repeat the same patterns, we long to make them different – better.

Mind the Gap

Ultimately, our perceived lack of personal efficacy is the gap between what we expect that we can and should do and the results we see. Change or Die explains that we’re all slightly delusional. We all think we’re more powerful than we are. We believe that we’re better than other people, and we ultimately have more control than we do. Consider that depressed people aren’t viewing the world negatively, they’re viewing it realistically. They have more realistic perspectives on their power and capabilities than their non-depressed contemporaries.

So the problem with personal efficacy is to set the bar high enough that we strive to reach it – and not so high that we’re disappointed in ourselves when we don’t reach it. The mental state of flow and the research around it suggests that we should have the right balance between skills and challenge – and that gap might be around 4%. (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

Our ego is a powerful thing capable of bending our perception of reality. (See Incognito for more about how our perceptions are important, not objective reality.) However, at some point, even the ego feels the strain of repeatedly having one expectation and not being able to meet those expectations. Burnout is the perception that things won’t get better – because we’re not seeing the results that we expect.

Perception

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we’re objectively making progress. What does matter is the perception of whether we’re making progress. Given the “What you see is all there is” bias, it’s easy to believe that not seeing immediate progress means there isn’t any progress. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about this bias.)

Even folks for whom the outside measures appear to be going well don’t necessarily feel like they’re making progress – or making enough progress. We can ride over these moments of feeling like we’re not getting anything accomplished if they don’t occur for too long or come too frequently. In effect, we can say, “I know it doesn’t look like we’re making progress now, but overall we are.”

The problem when the impacts come too strongly or too frequently is that we’re not able to smooth over the rough patches, and all we end up with is rough times trying to reach our goals.

Find Your Why

To figure out whether you’re making progress or not, it’s necessary to understand your goals – or not. One of the challenges that face most humans is that they’re not clear about their goals. Their goals are uninspiring and unarticulated like “just to survive another day;” or they’re lofty, poorly-formed, and unrealistic such as “end world hunger.” In both cases, the lack of clarity has a negative impact on the ability to see progress towards the goal.

Simon Sinek wrote Start with Why, which explains that we as humans need to know why we’re doing something before we’ll want to do it. Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon wrote How Will You Measure Your Life? In it, they seek to focus readers on the things that are important to them in the long term. Books like these – and others – encourage self-reflection to understand what we’re doing and why. It’s these “why” questions that focus us on the ways that we measure progress. Whether we know our why or not, we’ll still measure everything on its ability to move us towards that why.

Framework not Foundation

A word of caution about finding your why and articulating it exactly. Robert Pozen shares dozens of life tips in Extreme Productivity, including the expected tips about having a plan and executing against that plan. However, as he closes the book, he admits that the greatest opportunities and successes in his life didn’t come from the well-measured and planned activities. They came from the random things that chance and life brought him.

Most of the great people I’ve known didn’t set out to be exactly who they are. Often times, the contributions that people make to society are in the general field that they intended to be in but not exactly where they left their mark.

How to Measure

Nebulous things like where you want to go in life, your why, are often difficult to nail down. They’re not the kinds of goals that can be defined as SMART. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. The goals of our life aren’t like that. There aren’t any stopping rules. (Which would make them a wicked problem, as defined by Dialogue Mapping.)

Despite their nebulous nature, you can seek to find indicators that help you know you’re making progress along the path. Sometimes you can define specific components of the goal that you can measure. For instance, if you want to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives, you might have a specific goal like: “I’ll receive more written compliments this year than last.” As long as you don’t try to manipulate the system to get more written compliments, this can be a good measure of whether you’re making progress. (If you want to understand how interference may have negative long-term effects, you might look at Thinking in Systems.)

Ultimately, nothing is impossible to get more information about by measurement; it’s just that some measurements are easier than others to make. Some are more accurate – or indicative – than others. Douglas Hubbard explains in How to Measure Anything, well, how to measure anything. If you’re struggling to find a way to measure progress towards your goals, it’s worth a look.

Burnout Doesn’t Require Clarity

Though finding your why and understanding how you’re making progress towards your life goals, it’s important to recognize that whether you can articulate your goals or not, they’re still there. And much like the framework suggested in The ONE Thing, there is generally a why at the heart of each area of your life. Collectively these “whys” make you who you are.

Equally important to recognize is that progress in one area of your life may discourage burnout in another area. If you’re seeing great rewards and progress with your children, you may find it possible to withstand soul-crushing work experiences without the slightest hint of burnout.

Burnout Is Not Your Fault

It used to be that employers expected employees to leave their personal problems at home. They were aware that employees were humans with lives outside of work, but that wasn’t what they were being paid for – so it shouldn’t interfere with work. A part of this attitude included that burnout, whatever it might be, is a personal problem – a defect of character – and shouldn’t enter the workplace. This led burnout to be treated in silence and shame rather than being viewed as a business problem.

Times have changed. The way that businesses run has changed, because they’ve had to. Employees want to bring their whole selves to whatever they do. They expect organizations to accept and embrace the fact that they’ve got personal lives outside of work. Organizations have learned that employee engagement is a problem that’s sucking productivity out of employees. They’ve learned – some begrudgingly – that an employee’s problem is their problem.

Employee assistance programs were developed to allow employees to seek counseling and other services. These kinds of problems were once considered outside of the corporate purview, but the issues addressed by these programs are seen as causing performance problems at work – and thus worthy of employer concern.

So we’ve moved from a place where burnout wasn’t talked about or accepted to a world where burnout is a part of the larger problem of a lack of engagement, and it’s something that organizations want to address – cheaply and easily, of course.

This is good news for the employee who doesn’t have to feel isolated and alone in their experience of burnout. The bad news is that few people still understand its causes and what to do about them.

Personal Efficacy

The heart of burnout is, as stated above, the lack of belief in personal efficacy. However, this is a fine line. There is a level of self-agency that’s required – the belief in the ability to impact the outcomes in your life. However, too much self-agency leads to the belief that you control the outcomes, and therefore when you don’t get the outcomes you want or expect, you’ve somehow failed.

Too little self-agency, and you’ll feel learned helplessness. You’ll feel like what you do doesn’t matter. Too much and you’ll be a narcissist who believes that you can get the outcomes that you want in the face of insurmountable odds.

To manage burnout well, it’s necessary to manage the perception of personal efficacy such that you believe you have influence on the outcome – but not control.

Detachment

Learning to detach from the outcome – that is, to accept that you can only do what you can do, and the outcome will be whatever it is – is critical to mitigating the risk of burnout. When you realize that you don’t control the outcome – that you only influence it – you don’t have to accept that a failure to get the desired result means you’re a failure. (The Happiness Hypothesis has a more detailed conversation about detachment and it’s importance.)

But Wait, There’s More

Through a set of unusual circumstances, we’ve decided to put together a new training program titled “Burnout: Prevention and Recovery.” It picks up where this review leaves off – and where Burnout: The Cost of Caring couldn’t go. If you believe that we’re on the right track with this thinking that builds on the work of others but also converts it into something more tangible, real, and addressable, reach out and let us know, so we can keep you up to date on our progress.

Book Review-Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently

No one is as smart as all of us – sometimes that’s very true and sometimes not. What makes people work together in a way where all their talents are expanded instead of diminished? That’s the idea behind Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently. It’s another tome in the quest to find the best way to work with one another.

[Note: In the short form, the title Collaborative Intelligence collides with another book by Richard Hackman called Collaborative Intelligence. In fairness, Hackman’s book does a better job of helping folks understand collaboration.]

Thinking Differently

At the heart of working with others is the capacity to leverage their strengths to make your weaknesses irrelevant. Much of that is understanding how to identify the best ways to work with others and to leverage their strengths. This is the same kind of idea that Liz Wiseman applies to Multipliers, those managers who bring out the best in others. However, it applies to team members as well as managers.

Much of being effective at working with others is in figuring out how they think differently and how to communicate across the void.

Kinesthetic, Auditory, and Visual

I had challenges with Collaborative Intelligence because much of the “research” that they claimed to have done was either built on myth or not done at all. The fundamentals behind different learning styles – as the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual – come from Edgar Dale’s “cone of experience.” Originally proposed as a framework, it was given some false retention percentages and became dubbed official. However, Dale never put percentages down – everything that’s here is false. (See our white paper “Measuring Learning Effectiveness” for more.)

Even though this breakdown is on such an insecure foundation, there does seem to be some evidence that people do have preferential learning styles. However, it’s unclear whether these are differences in cognitive approaches or if they’re just preferred learning styles.

I found the sorting that Collaborative Intelligence tried to do between these styles not helpful. The questions misidentified me as a kinesthetic thinker, when I’m – in actuality – a very highly visual learner.

Strengths Finders

The second breakdown are what Collaborative Intelligence calls “thinking patterns”. The book admits to adapting the strengths from Gallup’s Strengths Finder and using them in their model. They put in much from Gallup and a bit from a guy named Ned Herrmann.

Generally, I found the Gallup approach to be more clear and useful, but in one way, these thinking patterns were useful. Gallup communicates from strengths and misses – I feel – how these strengths can become liabilities. Collaborative Intelligence makes a point of saying what these strengths look like when viewed as weaknesses.

This is reminiscent of the Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery), in that the Enneagram speaks of levels of effectiveness. You can be wired in a way and be highly functional – or you can be very dysfunctional. Knowing how to identify strengths in yourself and others and then realizing when those strengths aren’t being used effectively is powerful in building relationships.

Diversity of Thought

People who think differently are diverse people. They’re different. While Collaborative Intelligence seeks to create ways to allow people who think differently to work together, The Difference provides a better foundation.

While the subtitle conveys that the book will teach skills to work with people who think differently than you, the reality is that the book stops well and truly short of giving you useful strategies. It does communicate differences, but not what to do about them. Dialogue points to the three languages that people use – power, meaning, feeling – which is practical, because you can choose to communicate in a way that addresses all three of these primary communication needs.

Burn Out

At some level, I’m sure that folks are going to feel like I’m nit-picking with Collaborative Intelligence by mentioning this, but it’s important to me that we use the right terms to speak about things. The book shares the things that positively and negatively influence folks with various thinking styles. Over simplifying – and using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – if you approach a feeling person with thinking or vice-versa, there’s bound to be some friction. That’s negative influence. Conversely, when you encounter others with your thinking style, it’s frequently a very positive experience.

My issue comes from the language. For positive, they use “lights you up,” and for negative, they use “burns you out.” Except it doesn’t burn you out. Burnout is feeling like nothing is ever changing, that your situation won’t improve, and the resistance you’re currently seeing will be the same resistance you’ll get forever. It was 2003 when I wrote the article Tips for identifying burnout in yourself and your staff. The same year, I wrote Talking Shop: Breaking out of burnout mode at work.

In those articles I lay out what burnout is, how to identify it, and what to do about it. It frustrates me when there’s a whole language (a non-trivial amount of the content) that is delivered with language that isn’t consistent with the message they’re trying to send.

Connecting Communication

By now, it’s probably clear that Collaborative Intelligence wasn’t my favorite book. There are too many places where it’s sloppy, built on poor foundation, or uses the wrong terminology. However, there is one hidden gem that I think everyone needs to know about. That is, you should choose a communication strategy that addresses the needs of everyone in the room. I often find myself doing one to two sentences in my responses that are targeted at different people in the room – to ensure to them that I did hear them, and I appreciate their concerns.

So while I can’t necessarily recommend that people read Collaborative Intelligence, there are many places where I believe the concepts are the right concepts to think about – they’re just not always delivered “right.”

Special Event: Burnout: Prevention and Recovery

We (Rob and Terri) will be delivering a workshop titled Burnout: Prevention and Recovery at the Medical Academic Center at 13225 North Meridian St, Carmel, IN 46032 on November 15th from 6PM-8PM. A light dinner will be provided. Registration is free and open to everyone.

Burnout strikes without warning. It leaves you, your co-workers, or your loved ones feeling empty, hollow, and hopeless. More than 50% of physicians and 30% of nurses are reporting signs of burnout. If you’re not experiencing burnout, the odds are someone close to you is.

In this interactive session, you’ll learn the drivers that cause and sustain burnout. You’ll discover simple techniques to make yourself and those around you more resilient to burnout and prevent it from happening in the first place. Pulling research and writings from many disciplines, we’ll help you learn what you can do – without much additional effort – to prevent and recover from burnout.

Register Today