Burnout: A Blessing in Disguise?

Burnout: A Blessing in Disguise?

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The holiday season is upon us, and for many it’s a celebratory marathon of organization, preparation, execution, and exhaustion; a somewhat crazed annual rite of passage from one year to the next.   Stress, sleep deprivation, and overextension of energy, time commitments, and finances also can be part of the festivities.   It’s a good time to consider the concept of burnout, a depleted state of mind, body, and spirit in which the fatigue doesn’t go away when the tree comes down and the giftwrap is put away.  Burnout brings with it deep emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense of going through the motions to get through the day, and the sense that our best efforts are just not enough.  When we are burned out our ideals seem empty, our enthusiasm for work sours and we may show a cynical or uncaring attitude toward those we work with or whose needs we serve.


“When your eyes are tired the world is tired also. When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you.”   From the poem Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte


Are You Vulnerable?

Those most vulnerable to burnout are often the most conscientious: the high achievers and perfectionists, those who never give less than 100%.  They may start out as the most idealistic, deeply caring and committed among us, though increasingly, in a culture that values achievement in the form of externalized power and financial success, it isn’t only the altruists who are burning out.   From Wall Street to the entertainment industry, from healthcare providers to prison staffers, in lawyers, therapists and first responders, burnout seems to be pandemic.  Burnout also is common in caregivers for ill family members and in many an overburdened parent, particularly during the sandwich years of caring for both children and parents.

Although it’s not a diagnosable condition like depression or anxiety, burnout as a syndrome has been studied since the 1970s.  It’s viewed in much of the literature as the outcome of poor coping strategies for stress, both in individuals and in organizations.

Personality characteristics associated with people who are vulnerable to burnout include approval-seeking (overreliance on the positive opinion of others for our self-esteem), perfectionism (which creates stress because the pursuit of perfection is doomed to failure, and gets in the way of asking for help or delegating—after all, no one else can do something quite as well as we can), impatience and free-floating hostility (two primary traits of the Type A personality), and tendencies toward pessimism and anxiousness.   People who burn out may be unconsciously attracted to a line of work that enables them to work on unresolved psychological issues from early life; this dynamic may lead them to choose work they don’t believe in, over time become disillusioned with, or are innately not suited for.

Burnout and Work

If there’s a mismatch between our values and those of the organization we work for, we’re more likely to find our work stressful and eventually burn out.  Work environments that foster worker burnout tend to be highly stressful and short on support: they provide unclear job descriptions; vague and/or unreasonable expectations for workers; offer a low level of control in jobs; poor compensation, either financial or in the form of simple recognition for work well done; lack of recovery time for periods of high stress; low tolerance or serious consequences for mistakes; and poor lines of communication between individuals and within the culture as a whole.

“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”  Lewis Carroll


The psychologist and mind-body expert Joan Borysenko, Ph.D, in her excellent book Fried:  Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, describes twelve stages of burnout:

Stage 1:  Driven by an Ideal

Stage 2: Working Like a Maniac

Stage 3: Putting Your Own Needs Last

Stage 4: Miserable, and Clueless as to Why

Stage 5: The Death of Values

Stage 6:  Frustrated, Aggressive, and Cynical

Stage 7: Emotionally Exhausted and Disengaged

Stage 8:  “I’ve Morphed into What?”  (Significant changes in behavior)

Stage 9: “Get Away from Me!” (Withdrawal and isolation)

Stage 10: Inner Emptiness

Stage 11: Who Cares and Why Bother?

Stage 12:  Physical and Mental Collapse

Caution: Burnout Ahead

When we are approaching burnout, we grimly work longer hours with greater effort and less result.  We often withdraw from the pleasures of social interaction, spending less time with family and friends.  We tend to give short shrift to ‘timewasters’ such as sleep, exercise, vacation, and relaxation; nor do we have time to feed or care for ourselves well.  And we dismiss the worries of loved ones and concerned observers (like therapists, physicians, and people with more balanced lifestyles) about our driven lives.

These behaviors are some of the danger signs that burnout is up ahead, and whether it takes months, years, or decades, they can lead us, sometimes gradually and sometimes as abruptly as taking an off-ramp from a high-speed freeway, to a dead stop at burnout.  Burnout takes over at Borysenko’s Stage 12:   “When you’re stressed out, you keep chasing the same old carrot, whatever that may be for you.  But when you’re burned out, you eventually give up the chase.  The hope that you can create a meaningful life fizzles and you find yourself sitting in the ashes of your dreams.”

“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.Commedia (The Divine Comedy), Dante Alighieri

A first step toward healing is to admit that you, too have awakened in a dark wood, and to let go of the compulsion to trudge on, not waking up to your pain, never acknowledging the loss of your own true way.   The first step to finding your inner compass is to sit down (better yet, lie down!) in the road of life and let yourself be lost for awhile.

Beware of Superficial Fixes

But burning out is painful, so it’s understandable that what most people want who are in that exhausted and empty place, is to try to go back the way they’ve come—to regain the energy, engagement and drive they formerly brought to their work and lives as a whole.  They may think of themselves as depressed, or may see a healthcare provider who diagnoses them with depression and medicates them; and while yes, burnout may be accompanied by depression, an antidepressant alone is not the solution.

From the perspective of naturopathic medicine, burnout (with or without depression) often is associated with adrenal insufficiency (stress hormone imbalance) and neurotransmitter (brain biochemical) imbalances, with nutritional depletion and metabolic disruption.  As a naturopathic physician, it’s easy to move into agreement with patients that burnout is a problem to be ‘fixed’, so they can get back to doing what they’ve always done, pretty much as they’ve always done it.  And whether the ‘fix’ is a pharmaceutical antidepressant or a naturopathic plan for supplement and dietary support, it is indeed possible to assist many people to get back in gear—to crank up the ol’ engine, get back on the supersonic freeway and accelerate into the fast lane once again.

But, like most superficial fixes, this doesn’t solve the underlying problems and can only hold for so long.  It can be dismaying for these folks to hear that if they go back to zooming through their lives as they’ve done in the past, they may well find themselves sooner or later, back in burnout.

“The antidote to exhaustion is whole heartedness.” Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, as quoted by David Whyte

What’s necessary to truly and fully recover from burnout is a deeper, more holistic healing journey.

There’s much to be said for promoting practices to improve stress tolerance, heal overworked adrenal glands, and transform sick work cultures, but unless we go deeper, examining more closely the mix of personality, behavior, choice, and metaphysical disconnection that brought us to burnout, we may cure the symptoms without healing the disease.  Like any existential crisis, burnout is undoubtedly an extremely uncomfortable state of being, but it also can be a positive life-changer—a turning point for transformation, for finding our own true way—if we allow it to be.

“What if…we see (burnout and depression) as losses of naïveté, false identities and false assumptions that are making way for a more authentic life?  What if we viewed burnout as an invitation to come into alignment with a more elegant expression of our gifts, relationships and overall life energy?”   Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., in Fried

There is so much support available to us if we accept this invitation and begin the journey from darkness and depletion to light and aliveness: books, poems, blogs, therapists, workshops, CDs, videos, downloadable MP3 programs, and retreat centers.

Drink from Wells of Wisdom

Writers, poets, and spiritual traditions through time have told us that times of darkness, difficulty and disillusionment are and have always been a part of every life, and point to the potential hidden within these challenging times for initiation into richer self-knowledge and more authentic self-expression. The poet David Whyte, through his poetry, books, workshops, and recorded talks; the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero’s Journey and in recorded talks and interviews; the writer Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul and other books and writings: each draws on the wisdom of the past to illustrate and illuminate his own message and is inspiring, excellent company for the journey inward.  And online, at conferences and in talks and videos, Ariana Huffington has been expanding on her “Third Metric” concept of “redefining success beyond money and (external) power”.

Take Time/ Make Time for Play

Many of the behaviors that predispose to burnout are tied to an overexpressed tolerance for delayed gratification—so getting off the merry-go-round of life’s never-ending tasks is essential to creating space for finding perspective.  Regularly scheduling pleasurable activities with family and friends; making yourself take time for a daily walk in nature, for yoga or meditation; taking a weekend away for rest and recovery; these simple steps will begin to bring balance and ‘beingness’ to a life skewed toward ‘doing’.

Go Deep

Think seriously about connecting with a therapist skilled in working with burnout; attend a workshop at a retreat center (Wisdom House, Kripalu and the Omega Institute are wonderful nearby transformational retreat centers); or commit to a program of instruction in mindfulness techniques.  If the idea of taking so much time for yourself is scary, do some reading on the subject: The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by experienced life coach Cheryl Richardson is a wise and to-the-point assist.

Give Work a Demotion

Changing the dominance of work in the hierarchy of your life can allow for some relaxation of the tension you feel toward it.  A physician interviewed about his experience with burnout noted that he had always thought that he loved his work, but when he burned out and took some time off from it, he realized that he liked his work, but no longer loved it.  With this simple shift of perspective he gave himself permission to relate differently to his role when he returned to his practice (on a reduced schedule), and he began to open up to other interests. If the time/ energy/ focus devoted to your work were a room in your house, how big would it be?  A practical and creative tool for evaluating and ‘resizing’ the ‘rooms’ of our lives is The Not So Big Life, by Sarah Susanka, a book/ workbook that directs us to “make room for what really matters.”

Consider a Change

Sometimes the issue at the heart of burnout is a profound lack of alignment with our work (or work culture), or some other core element of our lives (such as a relationship, our social circle or spiritual tradition).  From this perspective, burnout is a cry for help, for change, from our authentic self to a false identity in danger of sleepwalking through the brief and precious span of life.  It takes courage and faith in the existence of Dante’s “true way” to make a course correction and take a different road than the one we set out on, but this may be precisely what is necessary.  The concluding lines of David Whyte’s Sweet Darkness express this so beautifully:

You must learn one thing.

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

confinement of your aloneness

to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Debra Gibson, N.D. practices naturopathic family medicine in her Ridgefield, CT office.  She can be reached at 203-431-4443 or at drgibsonsoffice@sbcglobal.net. Her blog is www.debragibsonnd.com.