I’ve heard burnout called a lot of things. Never once have I heard someone say that it was a joyful experience. However, Dina Glouberman’s book, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, seeks to turn the thinking about burnout around and make it a gift instead of a burden.
The characteristics of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. That’s not exactly the recipe for joy. However, Glouberman’s point isn’t that burnout itself is joy but rather that it can be a wakeup call that leads you to greater joy. While I wasn’t sold on the idea, I took the journey to see where Glouberman was leading.
Messages from Beyond
A long time ago, I heard that someone was seeking to use the word “signal” instead of “pain.” They felt like pain had developed a negative connotation. (You think?) Their reasoning was that pain was just a signal. It’s a signal that what we’re doing is causing damage. Athletes know it as a signal of muscles breaking down. When partnered with rest, it leaves our muscles stronger than they used to be. Instead of pain being bad, the idea was to think about it as a signal for us to interpret and use. That’s a fine sentiment until you’re in intense pain.
In essence, Glouberman’s message is that. Burnout is a signal. So, the question is, what’s it telling you? Her assertion is that you’re not doing what you should be doing. You’re not leveraging your unique talents in the way that was intended (by the universe, higher power, or God – whichever you choose). Said differently, our soul has a desire for our lives, and we’re not living it. As a result, our soul withdraws its energy from our lives.
A little less mystical explanation has to do with the coherence of our thoughts, emotions, and energy. Coherence is the idea that everything is consistent or aligned. When our thoughts, feelings, and actions are aligned, there’s no wasted energy. To make this make more sense, let’s look at a practical example.
Consider the light output by a regular bulb – even an LED version. It creates the light we need to see. At roughly 20 watts, an LED version doesn’t consume much energy by historical standards – however, the same amount of power applied to a laser – which is just coherent light – can cut through metal.
The inner conflict in our world is like friction. It converts the motion we have towards our objectives and converts it to heat, robbing our efforts. The more we can eliminate the friction in our worlds, the further we can get. In the case of burnout, Glouberman says that the inner conflict is the gap between what our soul wants for us and what our mind propels us towards. If we can get our heart, soul, and mind in alignment, then there will be less friction – and less of a tendency to enter burnout.
Choices, Expectations, and Commitment
Glouberman explains that we’ve got more choices and opportunities than our parents did. We have more doors open to us. We expect that we’ll do greater things than our parents were able to accomplish. At the same time, our choices have made us less prone to commitment to anything. This shift in dynamics has an important role to play in burnout.
I agree, but it’s important to separate two factors. First, and most directly, high expectations create the opportunity for a huge gap between our expectations and reality. I believe the awareness of this gap causes burnout, like a rubber band breaking after being stretched too far. (There’s plenty more about this idea on the Extinguish Burnout site.) Second, our lack of commitment robs us of the opportunity to become truly great at anything, there by keeping us from having an area of our lives to be proud of.
Our choices and lack of commitment does have an impact on our susceptibility to burnout, but it comes back through our expectations. We grew up with the Norman Rockwell view of the past. We’ve idealized the world of our parents and their parents, when communities banded together against the wilderness to conquer the frontier or to maintain the sanctity of the city. The bonds that were forged in these fires were strong and would never dissolve under the weight of a move, job change, or change of the times.
The problem with this view is that it’s not an honest reflection of reality. On average, our parents did have deeper connections than we have. (See Bowling Alone, Our Kids, and Alone Together for more on this topic.) However, just because our parents had greater community connections doesn’t mean that they had substantially more confidants. According to research cited in Loneliness, the number of confidants fell from an average of three to none in the 19 years between 1985 to 2004.
Our view of the past has us longing for the connections that our parents seemed to have. We want the confidants and the community. While we need to maintain people with whom we can confide in, the days of banding together as a community may regrettably be behind us as a society. When we expect this – but can’t get it – we necessarily see the gap between our expectations and our results.
Illusions and Delusions
One of the largest problems that we have as humans is our belief that we understand. As Incognito explains, we don’t understand the world, we perceive it – and our brain is willing to lie to us to make the perception be consistent. Thus, everything we think we know is an illusion. We have the illusion that we knew how things were just as truly as we believe we know how things are. We delude ourselves into believing that was can go back to places that never existed, because we’ve so distorted our perceptions of the past.
You see, our memory isn’t a tape recorder, it’s a set of fragments that are reconstructed. Every time we reconstruct them, we change them slightly. Every time we recall our childhood fondly, it becomes a little bit better. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more on the malleability of our memory.)
Sometimes, we learn lessons through our delusions that aren’t real. We believe that we’ll only be loved if we’re good. (See The Road Less Traveled and The Four Loves for more on performance based love.) We learn that under the sink is dangerous. For me, I was taught that under the sink was bad, because that’s where my mom kept the cleaning chemicals. I can remember that, until quite recently, I didn’t like going under the sink, because it was somehow bad. It often takes a great deal of work to free ourselves from the things that we learned in our childhood – even if what we learned wasn’t right.
Loving Ourselves Differently
If we were different, we could love ourselves. When you say it that way, it sounds funny. I’d like myself if I weren’t myself is a common undertone that permeates some of our lives. In our striving to become better, we forget that we’re good – and enough today. Burnout, from Glouberman’s perspective, is in part caused by our lack of acceptance of ourselves for who we are.
Certainly, the lack of acceptance of who we are is draining to anyone. Resolving this discrepancy will free up more energy and personal power to fight burnout and accomplish our life’s desires.
Detachment – Waiting without Hope
Sometimes, the language we use obscures as great idea. Such is the case when Glouberman explains that we should wait without hope. As I read carefully, I began to realize that she wasn’t focused on the need for a lack of hope – which would be bad. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on hope.) Instead, the intent was to convey a lack of attachment to the outcomes. That is, we can become so attached to the outcomes that, when things don’t happen exactly as we had planned (or hoped), we become dejected and burned out. Instead of being attached to the outcomes, we should be detached and accepting of whatever comes to minimize the risk for burnout. (See Resilient for more on detachment.)
To find The Joy of Burnout may be too much to ask, but to learn how to consider the growth from burnout as joy is something that we can aspire to.