Book Review-Ignite: Beat Burnout and Rekindle your Inner Fire

Imagine, for the moment, that you felt like India was the edge of the world. You had fought your way to what you felt like was the edge of civilization over eight grueling years – only to see more land before you than you could see the end of. Your expectations of going home and seeing your family again are dashed in a moment, and you confront the reality that you don’t know when your quest will end. This is one of the stories from Ignite: Beat Burnout and Rekindle your Inner Fire. It’s the story of Alexander the Great and his devoted army losing their hope and ultimately facing burnout at what was supposed to be the end of the world.

Missing the Point

Ignite focuses on the eight years of hardships. It proposes that, even though the army was fiercely loyal to their king, they had nothing left to give. However, I’m not convinced. In Extinguish Burnout, we point out that it’s the gap between expectations and reality that can create burnout. Things snap because the anticipated break or accomplishment doesn’t come when it’s expected.

While it’s true that the army had accomplished a great deal during its time and sustained heavy losses as they carved their way through the continent, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is they lost their way. Not they couldn’t read their compass, but they thought their leader – and they themselves – knew the truth about the end of the world. When it wasn’t there, their belief that they could reach it was dashed not by another army but by the expanse of land that still remained in front of them.

Burnout Bleeds

An important point that Ignite makes is that burnout in one area of your life will bleed into other areas. You’ll be affected in your work if you are burned out at home. And vice versa: when your work life is a train wreck, you’ll want to come home and “kick the dog.” Of course, that doesn’t help anyone, but the desire to take your frustrations out elsewhere are understandable.

The bathtub model that we use in Extinguish Burnout is filled with results, support, and self-care. What we don’t say is that you have different bathtubs for different areas of your life. When you’re feeling good at home, you’ll be more assertive at work and vice versa. You don’t have one bathtub of personal agency. You’ve got several connected bathtubs that cross-feed one another.

Inner Fire

Everyone with drive has a “fire in their belly.” This drive keeps us going, and it’s the thing we lose when we encounter burnout. Instead of being willing to take on any challenge, we stop at the first sign of difficulty. It isn’t worth it, we’ll think. That’s when we know that burnout has taken hold.

Your inner fire is your passion. It’s what sustains you when there are barriers in your way. It’s the drive that allows you to look past the lack of results in your new business for six months, a year, or however long it takes, because you know it’s right. In Jim Collins’ words, it’s the Stockdale Paradox. (See Good to Great for more.)

Passion, Purpose, and Action

Ignite makes the point that passion needs both purpose and action. Purpose as a focusing force that keeps us moving in a direction, and action to get something done. I’m not convinced that either Drive or The Psychology of Hope would view sustaining passion this way. Start with Why would certainly recommend purpose as an ignitor for passion, but it gets muddier as we look to the way that action is defined.

The book is a more story-based and novel-like, but it’s not necessarily a clear path from burnout to reigniting your fire. Of course, you can take an action: read Ignite and see if it can rekindle your inner fire.

Book Review-Breaking Out of Burnout: Overcoming Mid-Career Burnout and Coming Back Stronger

Sometimes you climb a mountain, and you realize it was the wrong mountain. That’s the sentiment you get when you’ve spoken to people who have reached the pinnacle of a career and then realized it wasn’t the career they wanted. It wasn’t right for them. It didn’t fit. Rex Baker is a former journalist who now runs a mission, and in Breaking Out of Burnout: Overcoming Mid-Career Burnout and Coming Back Stronger, he shares some of his experience and a lot of his perspective on burnout and how to break free.

The Truly Important

It’s important to note that Baker’s redirection allowed him to focus on how he wanted to leave the world rather than how he wanted to live in the world. Mid-career, or, more commonly, mid-life, crises have people reevaluating what they thought was important and making course corrections with their lives. It’s more than buying the sports car to try to regain some youthful vigor. It’s more than scuttling the life they have for something different. A mid-career reevaluation brings you face-to-face with the reality that wherever you planned to go – if you had a plan – isn’t where you ended up. Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity admits that, while he had many plans, his path rarely followed them.

Sometimes the dream job – whether that’s in front of a camera or as the leader of a company – isn’t the right job for you long term. Somewhere along the way, we get distracted by something that seems desirable, and we lose track of what we long for most in our lives. When I started my career, I couldn’t have told you that I’d be working on burnout. I was enamored by the technology and figuring it out. However, my goal today isn’t to figure out technology (the challenge is gone in that). The goal today is to help people live better lives. Technology isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’ve not supported people into learning how to be happy and fulfilled.

Great Expectations

Generation X, as we’re called, had great expectations. We were raised to believe that we could do anything. We didn’t get participation awards and we expected that if we worked hard, we’d get rewarded with success. (See America’s Generations for more.) Most of us will have to accept that our lofty ambitions for ourselves didn’t end up happening. News flash for you, I’m not an astronaut.

Having great expectations can be a powerful driver that propels us forward into being more than we could be without any drive. I remember a single word that a teacher said about me while I was within earshot. “Potential,” she said. I remember that it was the best thing she could have said – and the thing I resented most for many years. If she had said I was great, then I could coast. If she had said that I didn’t have potential, I could coast. However, to say that I had potential set me up to strive and try to reach that potential. (She was a kung-fu master of Mindset before the thing existed.) She set up in me an expectation that I could do great things.

While great expectations are powerful forces for good, they leave us vulnerable to burnout. When we can’t connect our perception of reality to those great expectations, the rubber band pulling us forward can snap. That’s what burnout is: our expectations and results being so far out of alignment that we can’t sustain the gap any longer.

With today’s children expecting to do better than their parents, they’re set up for an expectation that will be difficult to meet – especially since their parents are the Gen Xers, and they were very productive. The other problem is that we set expectations that the world will reward you for just showing up. Participation awards, ribbons, and trophies taught our children that they deserve to be rewarded for gracing us with their presence rather than doing the hard work it takes to get the job done. We’ve set them up for the problem.

Master Caution

In twin engine airplanes – and larger – there’s generally a panel that illuminates cautions and warnings. Each caution and warning has a specific indication calling out a function of the aircraft that isn’t working as intended. Any time that any caution comes, on the master caution light comes on as well. It’s a bit redundant to ensure you can always see when there’s a problem, and it’s a way of focusing attention to something that may become a critical problem soon.

Baker views burnout as our emotional system’s master caution – or worse, master warning. It indicates that there’s something wrong. It may not be something that we fully understand yet, but it’s something that we need to pay attention to. It’s important, and if we don’t pay attention, we may crash and end up in burnout.

Burnout may be, as The Joy of Burnout also indicates, a way for us to wake up and pay attention to the things that are not right.

Short Term vs. Long Term

Baker posits that burnout can be either short-term or long-term. That is, we can experience episodes or periods of burnout driven temporarily by circumstances or long-term burnout that we can’t seem to shake. I think he may be articulating the difference between a momentary loss of hope, where we’re shaken so completely that our coping mechanisms take some time to catch up, and a loss of hope that we’re going to need help with or changes to recover from.

Short-term burnout simply needs relief of the pressures that are causing it. By simply giving enough space for our coping mechanisms to catch up, the burnout will eventually fade. That’s why some folks will recommend some time off work, a special event of self-care, or some other momentary solution that will seem like magic to help the person recover.

However, when I’m speaking of burnout, I mostly speak of the kind of feelings of inefficacy that loom over a person for weeks, months, or years. I’m talking about an exhaustion that doesn’t go away after a long weekend or even a week’s vacation. Something has done serious damage to the hope that things can get better – and that’s a problem to be solved. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about how hope works.)

Who is Responsible for Burnout?

Baker explains that he doesn’t agree that you can blame other people – or your job – for being burned out. The idea is that an individual must take responsibility for themselves. I agree with Baker that individuals need to be responsible for addressing their burnout but for slightly different reasons. Here’s the thing. If you break a bone, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The person whose bone is broken is ultimately responsible for healing. It’s that simple. Fault and blame just don’t matter. What matters is finding a path to health.

Much is made of a bad fit between an employee and an organization. That bad fit, they say, is why we have burnout. I’m closer aligned to Baker’s thinking that the problem isn’t fit – it’s expectations and the ability to feel like those expectations are being met.

Starting the Healing

If you’re in burnout, the key is to understand what you can do differently to change your results. Baker quotes Charlie Jones as saying, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” One might expect, given that I’ve read a book every single week for years now, that I’d recommend reading. Sure. However, how do you change the people that you meet? That requires getting out of your comfort zone and doing something different.

With burnout, it’s not that you need to make one connection to solve the problem. It’s more likely that you need to find people who you can connect with and who can shine a light on the results that you are getting and perhaps make your expectations a bit more reasonable. (By the way, loneness is a key challenge. Look at Loneliness for more – and try to increase your connections.)

Do the Work

As I mentioned in my review of Seeing David in the Stone, James McDonald says that many people wanted his success, but few people wanted to do the work. The thing is that whatever you want in life you must work for. It takes courage to get back on the horse. It makes winners to do it faster. (See Peak for more about becoming the best at something.)

If you’re interested in Breaking Out of Burnout, maybe it’s time to do the work of reading the book.

Book Review-The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning

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.

Coherence

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.

Book Review-The Burn Book: 8 Key Strategies to Recognize and Extinguish Teacher Burnout

I’m not a teacher in the traditional sense. Sure, I’m an educator. I stand in front of classes and teach, but not in the way that Colleen Schmit means “teacher” in The Burn Book: 8 Key Strategies to Recognize and Extinguish Teacher Burnout. As a former kindergarten teacher, she means teacher in the kindergarten-through-12th-grade sense. Still, I wanted to get a sense for how teachers experienced burnout, so I started reading.

Independent Book Publishing and Speaking

First, it’s important to note that several of the books I’ve published have been self-published. I even laid out the math of self-publishing in my post Self-Publishing with Lulu.com. It talks about the finances to get a book done and what you get back from it once it’s published. I also explained that self-publishing wasn’t for the publishing revenue.

There’s a well-known reality in speaking circles that a book makes you more credible and more valuable. There are numerous services that exist to help speakers publish books to create more credibility. From extensive editing services and flat-out ghost writing to services like Lulu.com, they are designed to get someone listed easily.

This is important, because The Burn Book feels very much like a book that was designed to increase Schmit’s credibility as a speaker. She speaks once in the book about needing to teach occasionally to maintain “street cred.” She also discusses her work doing professional development workshops for teachers. While I don’t fault the desire to get credibility, I’m sometimes frustrated when I’m looking for a well-researched and well-thought-out book on a topic. The Amazon listing for the paperback version of the book says 120 pages – but the Kindle version reports 59. In any case, the book is short.

Work Wife

Schmit recommends that teachers get a work wife (her preferred term) or a work husband. The intent isn’t something adulterous. Rather, she advocates a close relationship with a peer and mentor who can help you become a better teacher. My problem with this is that a friend of mine was deeply – and appropriately – offended when her former boss called her a “work wife” in front of the team.

Certainly, having others who can help you up when you’re feeling down and provide a path forward when your waypower is lacking can be helpful. However, I’m not sure everyone’s spouse would appreciate the recommendation. (See The Psychology of Hope for willpower and waypower.)

Blame, Shame, Guilt, and Sarcasm

Schmit appropriately recommends that teachers avoid blame, shame, guilt, and sarcasm in their classes. I’ve written several times about shame and guilt. Having said that, shame is bad, and guilt can be, but isn’t necessarily, good. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.) I think the key here is to respect your students and try to help, not harm, them.

What About Burnout?

Honestly, I missed the connection to burnout. There was the occasional reference thrown in – but, all in all, it felt like this was a book about how to be a good teacher that got wrapped in a thin veneer of language that seemed “hot” to make it interesting.

If you’re a teacher and want to know how to be better, then by all means, pick up The Burn Book. If you’re looking for an understanding of research on burnout or different perspectives on burnout, there are better options.

Book Review-Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nursing

I’m not a nurse, but I’m married to one. My daughter is also a nurse. If nursing could rub off onto someone, I’d be covered in it. That’s one of the reasons why I was so curious about what Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nursing had to offer to help me understand.

When Terri (my wife) was working in a pediatric intensive care unit, there were days I knew she would come home to go directly to our room, and I knew I needed to just hold her and let her weep. The things she saw were horrific. How she was able to face it day after day was beyond me. While I can’t say I understand compassion fatigue directly, I can understand some of the burden that is borne by healthcare workers trying to ease the world’s suffering.

I also understand burnout and largely see it as an overarching container that includes compassion fatigue as well as other specific types of burnout. While this view isn’t uniformly held, it’s one that many people agree with.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is the experience that workers sometimes get while caring for others who have experienced trauma. It happens in nursing and other workers who have care at the center of their lives. It’s sometimes called “secondary trauma,” because it’s the trauma suffered by people caring for those who experienced the trauma directly. However, care must be exercised to not minimize the trauma or dismiss it because it’s not primary.

Our egos are amazing things. They allow us to ignore the very real and present fact that we’re all vulnerable. We’re not nearly as powerful as we’d like to believe. Our psyches couldn’t cope with the idea that, at any moment, an asteroid could come raining down and destroy our lives as we know it. (See Change or Die for more along this line.) When you witness the harm that happens to others – particularly when that harm comes at the hand of other human beings – it forces you to confront your own vulnerability and recognize that there are many intentionally and unintentionally cruel people on the planet. The only way to blunt out these feelings is to stop caring about others. You can still care for their physical needs but disconnect emotionally to protect yourself. This is the heart of compassion fatigue.

Burnout

Burnout, on the other hand, is a result of the gap between our expectations and our results. When we expect that we can do much and then see results that are not much, we’ll eventually experience this as burnout. Another way to think about burnout is as the exhaustion of our personal agency. (See Extinguish Burnout for more about these and other aspects of burnout)

For most caring professionals, the expectation is that they can prevent, alleviate, or heal the trauma that others experience. When the patients keep coming, it takes great strength to maintain the belief that you’re making a difference. When the traumatized doesn’t seem to be getting immediately better, the caregiver is faced not only with their own vulnerability but also the understanding that their expectation of their capacity to help others was likely very over blown.

Compassion fatigue is viewed as an acute event associated with the care of others, and burnout is more frequently viewed as a chronic condition that doesn’t have a precipitating event. However, burnout is often triggered by an event that causes someone to question the gap between their expectations and their results. In this context, it makes sense that compassion fatigue is a form of, and triggering factor for, a broader condition of burnout.

The Unseen Impact

Combatting burnout often means recognizing the impact we have that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked. The patients who get better don’t come back, so the only observations are that patients don’t get better. We begin to believe that what we see is all there is. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this.) The most prevalent image in our minds is the image of the person who didn’t recover and is back again.

Combatting compassion fatigue is a bit different. Our natural tendency will be for our ego’s defenses to attempt to “right the ship” and make us feel as if we’re more powerful than we are. However, this takes time, and when you’re bombarded by pain and suffering, it may not be possible for our egos and our faith in humanity to get a foothold. For that, we need to create space by focusing on the beauty, joy, and compassion in the world.

It’s easier said than done. But the more we can find comfort in the fact that most people are decent human beings, and few people face the kinds of trauma that caregivers witness every day, a sense of balance and normalcy can be regained.

Care and Compassionate Care

It’s entirely possible to do one’s role as a nurse and not care. The technicalities of the role can be learned and executed, like a robot making their millionth widget. However, that’s not the role of nurses – or any caregiver. The technical aspects of care are necessary but not sufficient to be a good nurse. Good nurses have a genuine concern for those in their care. They don’t become overly involved with the patient’s (and the family’s) needs, but they do adapt their way of working to maximize the things that are important to the patient and the family.

Without losing their own identity, they place themselves in the position of the patient and respond from a place of compassion – the same place that drew them to the career in the first place. Compassion is empathy – understanding another’s situation – and the desire to alleviate suffering. (See more about compassion in Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.) When a caregiver suffers from compassion fatigue, they no longer have the strength to connect with someone – to understand them – and protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed with their circumstance.

As a result, the best care that nurses offer, the kind of care they all became nurses to give, cannot be done while experiencing compassion fatigue. Organizations are well served to identify and support nurses in resolving their compassion fatigue for better nurse retention and patient outcomes.

Moral Distress

If you want to find something that will steal the motivation and personal agency for someone, put them into a situation of moral distress. Moral distress is knowing the right thing but feeling as if you can’t do it. There are times when this moral distress is real, times when it is perceived, and, unfortunately, times when there should be moral distress but is not.

Shortly after the second World War, the world was asking how it was possible that so many German soldiers were able to assist with the mass extermination of Jews. Milgram devised an experiment where a test subject thought they were shocking another test subject –even when the shocks were presumed lethal. Milgram showed that many people could be coerced into these acts. (See Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect for more on this set of experiments.)

For those cases where a nurse feels moral distress because of a difference in point of view, perspective, or diagnosis, the pain they feel is real. The organization (and the nurse) are missing an opportunity to understand the problem more fully so that the moral distress can be alleviated. In medicine, there’s rarely one right answer. The truth is that most patients are complex, and there are a variety of risk factors that the team navigates to try to return the patient to health. When the whole team – including the nurse – can openly discuss the challenges and agree upon a plan, the moral distress of some situations can be addressed.

There are, however, some cases of moral distress that are real. A surgeon won’t scrub up when walking into the operating room or picks up an instrument after it’s been dropped to the floor and continues to use it. Providers ignore nurses’ pleas for more pain medications or a different course of treatment for patients who are suffering. In some cases, nurses don’t feel as if they’ve got the opportunity to safely communicate their concerns, and that is their moral distress. (See The Fearless Organization for more about creating a culture of safety.) In other cases, even after a nurse voices the concern, they’re ignored or minimized. These are organizational challenges that eventually need addressed, or they’ll rip the organization apart.

Emotional Violence

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nursing contains more than a few semi-related nuggets of information, including the revelation that emotional violence is still violence. While this may seem obvious, our world treats our words differently than our actions. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” just isn’t true. Most of our hurts in the modern world come from words and the emotions they stir inside of us. While there’s a law against striking someone else, there’s nothing protecting us from a tongue lashing.

Emotional violence, or the words we say to each other and the non-verbal ways we communicate our disapproval with another person, are a form of violence that is all too often ignored. They’re the kinds of senseless attacks that we see around us and do nothing about. Left unchecked, they’re also one of the ways that we encourage Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nursing.

Extinguish Burnout Launch!

Terri and I are excited to announce the launch of our brand new website, https://ExtinguishBurnout.com to support our forthcoming book, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery. While the book doesn’t publish until June 21st, the site and online course are available today.

Burnout is pervasive. As we speak about this topic and ask who has experienced it, nearly every hand goes up. When we ask how many people feel as if they’re actively in burnout during our talk, a sheepish 20% or more of the hands are raised. Burnout isn’t new, but its prevalence is increasing. An estimated 50% of physicians and 30% of nurses are currently experiencing burnout. I first wrote about burnout in 2003, and it’s been a recurring theme over the years as I worked with clients and led teams.

There’s some literature on burnout, but the problem was that it either blamed the individual – that they’re not strong enough – or the organization – that they’re not taking care of their employees. The problem is that neither view resolves the burnout, it just assigns blame.

We set out to identify the key causes for burnout and find strategies for preventing burnout or recovering from it if you’re already stuck in it. We found the answers were hidden in the research. All the clues necessary to find the answers were already available – they were just hard to find through all the misdirection.

The book is roughly 200 pages, with chapters that can be read in 5-10 minutes. The online course has an average module length of 13 minutes. The point was to keep them short and easy to consume if you are already in – or near – burnout.

We’re honored to have already received a substantial amount of positive feedback about the book and the materials. Some of those comments are available on the home page of the website. If you’re struggling with burnout – or you know someone who is – we’d like to invite you join us at https://ExtinguishBurnout.com, where you can preorder the book for shipment on June 21st (when it publishes) or order the course and start today. If you’re just interested, you can sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll keep you up to date.

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-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-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.