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On Burnout (06/08/2021)


We have already spoken about handling stress, anxiety, and trauma before. Although these topics are related, this post will focus in on the experience of "burnout" specifically.

In the fascinating article "Understanding the Burnout Experience", the authors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter define "burnout" in the following manner:
Burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. The significance of this three-dimensional model is that it clearly places the individual stress experience within a social context and involves the person's conception of both self and others.
[*Note: Bold has been added for emphasis.]

Even though the word "job" is used within the above quote, it is important to keep in mind that this state extends beyond any sort of work environment. Anyone can experience burnout for a variety of different reasons. We will speak of it here in this more general sense.

Again, we reiterate the causes of burnout:
1. Overwhelming exhaustion
2. Feelings of cynicism and detatchment
3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Let's go through each of these one-by-one and explore some ways to resolve them.

Part 1: Countering Overwhelm & Exhaustion

It can be overwhelming to be repeatedly inundated by multiple sources of immense stress in a short span of time. For example, someone's friend might pass away when they are going through a bad breakup, or a person might lose their job when they are dealing with an illness. In instances such as these, we should slow down and carefully assess our circumstances. What issues have the most bearing on our immediate safety, health, and well-being? These should be handled first.

As uncomfortable as it may be, sacrifices are sometimes necessary, and our core physical and mental-emotional needs have to take priority over other desires. This is not meant in a greedy or selfish way, but rather, some events are so dire that they require us to think about our survival and sanity before we are able to do anything else. Do not feel guilty about this. Taking the time that we need to process and to heal is always better than doing something regretable (e.g.: hurting ourselves or other people).

As the word implies, overwhelm arises from a sense of "too much going on at once". Therefore, if we break down our experience into more manageable pieces, then we are less likely to shutdown altogether. By "shutdown" we mean a state where a person is so overwhelmed that they no longer show care or concern for anything. They simply "want it to be over" and are too tired to do anything about it. We could think of it as a form of indifference or apathy.

The method that we use to split our experience into smaller chunks does not need to be overly involved or complex. For example, take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. In the first column, write out everything that is negatively impacting your physical and mental-emotional state. In the second column, write out an ideal resolution to each issue directly across from it. If you are drawing a blank, then start smaller. Write a single step that you could take that will ease the tension. It doesn't matter how long or short these lists are. All that we need is a simple outline in order to begin.

Once overwhelm is addressed, then we can tackle exhaustion. Unless it has some kind of injury or illness at its root, physical exhaustion is usually ameliorated by getting some restful sleep and adopting a healthier diet. Whenever possible, detox from stimulants (e.g.: nicotine, caffine, excess sugar, etc.) and avoid sensory overload (e.g.: loud noises, flashing lights, etc.). While it may not heal them completely, some injuries and illnesses will also benefit from these practices.

Generally, we are attempting to build up our resilience and energy to the point that we no longer feel "burnt out" and can think more clearly. Not every action will help us in this regard. For example, sometimes people turn to binge eating, alcohol, promiscuous sex, drugs, or other things to try to escape or numb their pain without treating the underlying causes. Such approaches do much more harm than good. The moments when we are tired and stressed are the most important times to remember to make wise decisions.

Part 2: Countering Cynicism & Detatchment

The human mind sometimes homes in on the destructive. That one act of violence or cruelty that consumes our attention might drown out the thousands of acts of gentleness and kindness that are constantly taking place all around us. This is called "Negativity Bias". Sometimes people fixate on things, like news and other forms of media (such as books, music, movies, shows, games, etc.), which exacerbate this tendency.

Sometimes people "psyche themselves out" and give up before they see the results of their effort, or they become so afraid and discouraged by things that appear outside of their control that they do not even try anymore. This is called "Learned Helplessness". Being patient is quite different from avoidance.

In combination, Negativity Bias and Learned Helplessness make the world into a very depressing place. Anytime that these habitual perceptions and behaviors arise, we must do everything within our power to challenge them.

No matter how awful our environment, there are always things that will help us to point our hearts and minds towards the constructive. Further, any action that moves one towards a peaceful resolution of their current circumstances is useful, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem. Just do your best to take it all "one step at a time", and trust that no matter how "bad" it is in this moment, a peaceful resolution is possible. This is more than enough to start to make positive changes.

If one feels stuck, there is no shame in asking for outside help too! This could seem impossible if we are socially isolated or have absolutely no "support system" (i.e.: close family or friends who show concern for our safety, health, and well-being). However, whatever the case may be, there are often counselors, therapists, social workers, medical professionals, and many others throughout our communities who are both capable and willing to patiently walk with us through difficult situations. For those with financial concerns, some resources are completely free. All that we need to do is ask directly. Reach out as much as possible until you find the assistance that you need.

In general, the company that we keep can either be our greatest strength or our greatest weakness depending on the values that those relationships are founded upon. Likewise, one's environment could augment their healing process (e.g.: someone from their support system periodically checking in on them), or undermine it (e.g.: becoming a source of physical danger, emotional drama, or other stressors that inhibit one's ability to concentrate on constructiveness). But by building up optimism about life and confidence in our ability to heal, we can operate with more joy and calm wherever we are at any given moment.

Part 3: Countering A Sense of Ineffectivenss & Lack of Accomplishment

If our goals are unclear or our standards are unrealistic, then we might be prone to think that anything we do is never "good enough". Similarly, if we compare ourselves to others, we might feel like a "failure". These tendencies do not serve us. In fact, this kind of destructive thinking and negative self-talk often make it harder for us to achieve our goals.

At every point throughout the process, we should take some time to fully understand what it is that we are trying to accomplish. What skills do we need to do each task and what specific feedback will let us know that we have completed it? Do we need to adapt? And instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should become inspired by them! Be open to learning from their experiences and "leapfrog" off of their knowledge. As cheesy as it sounds, look in the mirror and tell yourself, "I accept myself. I do not want to be anyone else, only my best self."

We can find a balance between individual meaning and collective purpose by focusing in on the subjects that evoke a sense of wonder as we apply our skills towards the service of all. As long as we approach these things sincerely, we do not need to worry about being "successful" or encountering judgments about what "success" means. Gratitude and humility lead to a reasonable sense of contentment, and without them, no desire is ever satisfied.

Like "orthorexia" (i.e.: an unhealthy obsession with diet) and "over-exercising", some people push themselves towards extremes in order to "get more done". However, it is possible to be productive without experiencing burnout or causing ourselves harm. Our efficiency actually increases when we cultivate a relaxed awareness and periodically rest in order to rejuvinate!

There are frameworks, like Ikigai, that can assist us in getting a more refined view of how we want to direct our time and effort after the essentials are taken care of:

This diagram is taken from the above website.


We hope that all of these concepts and resources will be useful to you.
Thank you for reading! ❤️

Some music:
John Dunder - Vega

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CorBin has shared a wonderful article that gives some more insight into the recognition and management of burnout:

Trust Me; Burnout Is Real. My story of experiencing and overcoming... by Soha Sherwani

Thanks CorB!