Modern life is complex and stressful and we all suffer mental and physical exhaustion at times. When does exhaustion become burnout? And what exactly is meant by burnout? 

What is burnout?

The term was first used in 1975 by German psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Much research has been done since and there is general agreement that it is made up of three aspects:

  1. Emotional exhaustion (from caring too much, for too long)
  2.  Depersonalisation (the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion)
  3. A decreased sense of accomplishment (futility, feeling nothing you do makes any difference).

The Nagoski sisters on burnout

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, twin sisters with doctorates in human sexual behaviour (Emily) and music (Amelia) have written an excellent book about burnout, Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle, after Amelia was repeatedly hospitalised with chronic pain, repeated infections, asthma — all symptoms of burnout.

They explain why women experience burnout differently from men, and offer helpful scientifically proven ways to process it. They show the importance of separating the stress from the causes of stress, and how to allow the stress to make its way through our bodies, rather than lodging there, causing chronic illness. (Stress is not all in the mind – it also affects our bodies, sometimes in catastrophic ways). They make it clear that stress itself isn’t bad for us, but what is bad is getting stuck in it. 

Who are most likely to be affected?

‘People who help people’ are most likely to suffer from burnout — both professionally and within the family framework. So unsurprisingly, it is prevalent among teachers, university lecturers, aid workers, and affects up to 52% of the medical profession. Burnout affects women more than it does men and  the Nagoski sisters quote from the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, the philosopher Kate Manne describes a system in which one class of people, the “human givers”, (women)are expected to offer their time, attention, affection and bodies willingly, placidly, to the other class of people, the “human beings” (men). 

What is “Human Giver Syndrome”?

According to the sisters, human giver syndrome goes back to four basic (and catastrophic) beliefs:

  • Believing you have a moral obligation – that you owe it to the world – to be happy, calm, pretty, generous, and attentive to the needs of others.
  • Believing that failure to be any of these things makes you a failure as a person
  • Believing that such failure means you should beat yourself up
  • Believing that these are not symptoms, but normal and true ideas

And this lethal (but deeply entrenched) combination of beliefs can lead straight to burn out. They note that “it is not the giving itself that is toxic; it’s the other half of the equation. It’s someone else’s sense of entitlement to everything a woman has—her attention, her time, her affection, her hopes and dreams, her body, her very life. We want a world where everyone feels a responsibility to care for one another, not a world where some people give everything until they have nothing left and are punished if they fall short or if they do something totally against the rules, like ask to have their own needs met.”

What is the solution to burnout?

The solution to burnout, they say, is not self care (as in green smoothies, scented candles and spa treatments)— it’s all of us caring about each other. They debunk the popular idea that we women are our own worst enemy, saying instead that the real enemy “is the game itself, which tries to convince us that it’s not the enemy.” The game itself is that as women we are conditioned from birth to care and nurture others and put ourselves last in the queue.

I can highly recommend this podcast where Brene Brown interviews the sisters about their book:


My next blog will look at more solutions to burnout from the Nagoski sisters. 

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also:   How Can I Manage Burnout? Part 1    How Can I Manage Burnout? Part 2, Burnout or Stress?


  • Post author:
  • Post Category:Burnout