Almost a hundred years ago Sigmund Freud wrote the following as a reflection of his work in psychotherapy and warning for future therapists:
"No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed."
(*Say what you want about Freud, but sometimes he could be a soothsayer.)
Early on in my career, many of the professionals I met were "crispy," or what others call burned-out. I noticed a spectrum of burnout, where some individuals were lightly toasted, while in other cases the toast was burnt all the way through.
As I continued my work in the field, I discovered some of my colleagues were actively drinking at work, many had affairs with their co-workers (I lost track of who got divorced), and some appeared to be dating individuals with pathological presentations. Many of my clients themselves had also at one time been involved in the helping professions.
I told you Freud was a soothsayer.
Every company I worked for always had organizational concerns and campaigns for "self-care." Employers all meant well, trying to do what they could to improve the culture. However, I didn't understand what this meant, largely because I saw so few people actually doing it.
In each place I worked everyone seemed to have been kidnapped by urgency.
One day I was sitting at a meeting with a group of senior clinical managers and one of the managers began to complain about his staff and disregarded the notion of his staff's "compassion fatigue" stating, "I don't know how they can say they are burned-out, if you can't do the job, you shouldn't be in the field. Why can't people just do the job!?"
Tragically this same manager was also incredibly burned-out. However, in that meeting, and subsequent meetings later, I learned two valuable lessons.
First Lesson: Burnout is shameful. If you are feeling burned out, you may believe that something is wrong with you. Many professionals cover it up, complain about an organization, spouse, boss, or whatever. That shame makes it so difficult to get assistance and communicate openly. Instead, many throw themselves headlong into intensifying personal problems or inner-office conflict.
Shame is also a large reason of why burnout goes unnoticed and why many "self-care" campaigns fail. The response that burned-out employees often give when asked how they are doing is, "Everything is awesome!" After all, they just want to be left alone and avoid any criticism they might receive.
Second Lesson: Never shame the "shamer." When people experience burnout they get a kind of amnesia. They forget who they are (their goodness, strengths, etc.), and so they become obsessed with who they aren't (all their mistakes and failures). This means that addressing the burnout directly has very little effect. In fact your efforts to help may backfire and instead intensify the shame. The person may even project their frustration on you.
Working with so many crispy professionals I learned that I would have to do my own work. I started to study burnout selfishly. Seeing what I didn't want for myself I vowed to avoid it. Over the years I have collected my insights and boiled them down to three key factors that contribute to burnout.
1.) Loss of intention - As soon as you don't know why you are doing what you are doing, you start getting crispy. Intention is replaced by emotion and urgency. Since you have not made a decision on what is important (which is answered by the why), you are caught doing the next "urgent thing."
Urgent doesn't equate to important. If you are reacting, you are already burning out.
Way to increase intention: Take time to refocus and become responsible to answer for your own why. No one else can do this for you. Ensure that intention drives your behavior in all areas of life.
Prioritize: What are the 3-5 things you value most in your life?
'We spend so much time being kind to others we forget how to be kind to ourselves'
2.) Loss of Effectiveness - A loss of effectiveness in your craft has a high correlation with burnout according to recent research. Human beings tend to measure things that they can't control. This creates unnecessary anxiety and enhances negative cognition. For clinicians they begin to focus and measure the relationship with their client (subjective) rather than the goal their client has for therapy (concrete). Remember that therapeutic relationships, although important, aren't therapeutic destinations.
Example: A cabbie picks you up from the airport but doesn't know where your hotel is. It's great that you are in the car, but you aren't going to stay in the cab forever. You need to get to your hotel. Burnout is the experience of driving around aimlessly. The experience of burnout leaves you without knowledge of when you are effective or not.
Method to Increase Effectiveness: Create a sphere of self-reinforcement. Measure only things that you can control. Dr. Shoma Morita (founder of Japanese Morita Therapy) would tell his patients to, "Perfect your doing." There is only peace in the doing as we can't control outcomes directly.
Ensure that things you measure are also aligned properly with your goal. If you want to increase effectiveness in clinical work ensure you are always aligned toward your client's goal-not your goal.
Don't move the cab until you know where you are driving.
3.) Poor Energy Management - People stop attending to the areas of their life that give them energy and fulfillment. Work is a part of life, not life itself. Instead of taking care of themselves they go into an energy deficit and loose balance. We spend so much time being kind to others we forget how to be kind to ourselves.
Way to Regain Balance: Develop rituals of self-compassion. There are four areas of balance for human beings.
Physical - your body, health, exercise, nutrition, sleep, etc.
Emotional - your relationships, intimacy, connection
Intellectual - he diet you feed your mind, books, movies, training
Spiritual - connection to something beyond yourself, meditation, prayer, religious experience, volunteering, etc.
Identify things that you can do *for yourself that can increase your energy balance. If possible, one day per week, address all four of these life areas to regain your balance.
*we are notorious for doing many things out of obligations for others.
'No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed'
Dan is a therapist, writer, and consultant based in New York. You can find him online at his website or his video blog on Youtube The Hope Weapon, where he answers questions weekly about life, relationships, and mental health.