When You Can't Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal
( Kindle edition $9.95, audiobook (90 pages, 2022)
It's difficult for those who haven't burned out to understand burnout. People use the word lightly ("I'm so burned out") but what they mean is they're temporarily exhausted. That's not real burnout, which is life-changing complete-collapse exhaustion.
Burnout isn't a disease like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) (now called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis ME). Very little research has been conducted on burnout.
Burnout is the mind and body's response to being pushed beyond their limits for too long. They shut down as a survival / self-protection response.
Non-burnouts might think burnouts are lazy or unmotivated. Lazy and unmotivated people don't burn out because they never push themselves to their limit, much less beyond their limit for years on end.
The people who burn out are highly responsible, goal-oriented, high-performance, high-achieving, highly motivated, driven people with high standards who always try to do their best. They have high self-discipline and are accustomed to pushing themselves relentlessly to reach goals or do what has to get done. People who burn out tend to be people who get more done in a few years than other people accomplish in a decade.
The best analogy for burnout is a car that's out of gas. The burnout has nothing left in their tank. They have nothing left to give others or even themselves.
Asking a burnout to do a task is like asking a car that's out of gas to start up and accelerate to 60 miles per hour and get back on the freeway. Demanding or cajoling the car to start up and get back on the freeway isn't going to work. Calling the car lazy isn't going to change the fact that it's out of fuel. It's the same with burnouts. They don't respond to demands, cajoling, etc. because there's nothing left in their tank.
Prior to burnout, it was possible to refill the tank to a full 15 gallons. Over time, this ability to refill the tank erodes. As being pushed beyond our limits takes its toll, there's no way to refill the tank to even 5 gallons. Eventually it's not even possible to add a gallon to the tank.
If the burnout has a chance to recover a bit, a single quart of fuel is slowly poured in their tank. Once this quart of fuel is consumed, the burnout coasts to a stop and no longer has the energy to keep moving or even caring. Caring takes energy and the burnout has nothing left.
Burnouts can work maybe two hours a day on that quart of fuel in their tank, and once its gone they collapse again. This is why they often need an afternoon nap. This is why they are often asleep by 7 or 8 pm and why they dont watch TV, as that demands more energy than they have.
They also have no energy for emotional conflicts, dramas or negotiations. The tank isn't just empty of physical fuel, it's empty of mental and emotional fuel, too. They can only do a few hours of intellectual work before they can't do any more.
Being highly responsible, goal-oriented high-achievers, burnouts are good at masking their burnout. They consume the last of their fuel to present a normal façade to the outside world. They don't want to try to explain burnout because nobody understands, and they're tired of well-meaning advice that isn't helpful.
Recovery from burnout can't be rushed, and supplements, yoga, soothing music and similar suggestions don't accelerate recovery, any more than inflating the tires of a car that's out of gas will somehow fill its tank with fuel.
Burnouts are typically very frustrated by their inability to hurry up their recovery, and depressed by the loss of their ability to get a lot done day after day, month after month, year after year. This frustration and depression increases their suffering.
This book encapsulates what I've learned about my own burnout, reckoning, recovery and renewal.
* * *
When I burned out, what I wanted but could not find was a practical guide by someone who had experienced burnout themselves. None of the material I found spoke to what I was experiencing or to my sense that our economy is now optimized to burn people out.
I decided to write the guide I wanted but could not find. This is my experience of burnout, reckoning and renewal.
I am not an expert in burnout, I am only an expert in my own burnout .
This book is my account of what helped me. The intended audience is other burnouts and those who want to better understand the experience of burnout.
Burnout is a life-changing experience in a good way , as absurd as that may sound to those in the depths of burnout. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: I cant go on but I must go on. There is a way forward.
Ive burned out twice, once in my early 30s and again in my mid-60s. What I wanted but could not find was a practical guide by someone who had experienced burnout themselves. In the mid-1980s, there were few resources. When I burned out again in 2018, there were numerous books and articles, but none spoke to my feeling that burnout was more than overwork, or to my sense that our society and economy are the kindling that ignites burnout.
I decided to write the guide I wanted but could not find, a guide to burnout as an intensely profound experience, an experience those who havent burned out cannot fully understand.
You may find that my experience is different from yours; this is to be expected, for burnout differs with individuals, circumstances and age. Whats universal about burnout is that it is a gift of life, an opportunity to look deep within ourselves and an opportunity to change. In the depths of exhaustion, despair and depression, it feels like a curse. But the more profound the gift, the greater the difficulty in understanding and making use of it.
The story about the desert traveler who comes across a hoard of gold coins comes to mind. To maximize the amount of gold to be carried away, the traveler dumps the food and water from his pack and sets off, empowered by the shimmering dreams of all the luxuries and status the gold would buy. Long before reaching the glittering bazaar where gold reigns supreme, the traveler realizes the real treasure was the water and food that he foolishly dumped, for his life depended not on gold but on what he had tossed away.
This book is organized to first offer a hand to hold for those experiencing burnout: you are not alone; Ive been in the same place and got through it. So have many others. There are no miracle quick cures (at least to my knowledge), but perhaps reading about my experiences may help in small ways. Over time, small things add up and we feel better.
The second part is intended to help those who want to explore the sources and lessons of burnout. Burnout is a life-changing experience, in a good way, as absurd as that sounds to those in the depths of burnout.
This is my personal account of burnout. I am not a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or physician. Those professionals can all provide help; thats what they are trained to do. This is not an experts clinical guide to burnout, or a survey of the literature on burnout. It is not intended as advice or guidance. I am simply sharing one individuals experience of burnout, reckoning and renewal, and what helped me.
Chapter One: My Experience of Burnout
Chapter Two: Triage
How Long Will It Take to Get Through This?
Make a Simple Recovery Plan
What Helped Me
Chapter Three: Why We Burn Out
Chapter Four: Burnouts Hidden Complexities: Its Not Just Work
What Healthcare Misses
The Economy s Role in Burnout
Our Individual Complexities
Our Social Complexities
Loss of Meaning
Summary of Complex Sources of Burnout
Chapter Five: How Do We Feel Good About Ourselves?
Chapter Six: How Did Work Become the Primary Source of Self-Worth?
Chapter Seven: Running on Empty
Chapter Eight: What Changed?
Seasons of Life
Our Economys Devils Pact
Summary of Whats Changed
Chapter Nine: Acquiring Yourself
Chapter Ten: Silence and Listening
Chapter Eleven: Life Beyond Burnout
Taking Care of Ourselves
Tapping Our Enthusiasms
Identifying Our Sources of Burnout
Gaining Control of Our Life
Where We Are Now