This is my final blog looking at the excellent book by twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski “Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle”. I’ve called this the Hidden Side of Burnout because I was especially impressed by the way that they look at less talked about pieces of the burnout puzzle including whether solving the external problem always ends the stress, how connection with others is one of the most powerful ways to prevent burnout happening in the first place and how our tendency towards perfectionism, can be one of our biggest potential stressors.
Does solving the problem always end the stress? NO!
We tend to expect that solving the problem that activated our stress response will end the stress response cycle. If I leave the job I don’t like very much, or the partner who I’m arguing with, I’ll be free of stress. In actual fact the process of dealing with most modern stressors, like traffic, children, difficult bosses and partners, money issues, etc., is separate from the process of dealing with the stress itself. We have to deal with both.
Take the example of traffic. If you have a difficult journey home from work one evening, once you get home, you don’t instantly feel peaceful and relaxed in your body. You’re still in the middle of the stress response. Even though you’ve dealt with the stressor (by getting out of traffic), your body still needs you to deal with the stress itself by completing the stress response cycle.
As responsible adults, we can’t simply walk out of situations we find difficult – and very often, if we can complete our own stress response, manage our own difficult emotions and responses to a situation, then the situation suddenly becomes a lot more manageable. (This sounds a lot like the well known quotation from concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”)
How connection lowers stress and prevents burnout
This is something that the last 12 months of lockdown and limited connection with our friends, family and colleagues has certainly shown us. Humans are not built to do big things alone; we are built to do them together. Like bees or ants, we are almost a hive species. A twenty-second hug tells our bodies that we have arrived in a safe place with our tribe. Our hormones shift, our heart rate slows, and we recognise that our body is a safe place for us to be.
Of course, we don’t have to live in a state of constant connection. We are built to oscillate from autonomy to connection and back again. Time spent with people we care about renews us so that we are well enough to go off and face the world outside. Time spent petting your cat or playing with your dog or caring for a horse also give you the benefit of a loving connection. Our capacity to connect is not limited to the physical plane. We have the capacity to connect to higher dimensions in religious worship or other spiritual belief, whether we recognise a creator or a source of life or inspiration. The sense of loving presence we feel in religious practice is just as real as connection with fellow humans.
How much of burnout is tied to our own perfectionism?
Finally, the Nagoski sisters are very clear that our own harsh inner voice or self critic is one of the biggest predictors of burnout – those “should” statements, as in “I should clean my car this evening because I’m taking my mother-in-law to the hairdressers tomorrow” or “I should bake cakes for the fundraising event at my child’s school even though this is the busiest time of the year for me at work and I’ll have to stay up until 2 am in order to do it.”
The sisters say: “The toxic aspect of perfectionism isn’t having high standards or setting challenging goals for yourself; it is believing that failure to meet those standards or achieve those goals means that you are a failure and your endeavours are worthless. Harsh self-criticism sets in and we burn out faster when we’re constantly punishing ourselves for being imperfect. Letting go of the idea that you have to be all things to all people—especially the idea that as a human giver you must be perpetually pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others—doesn’t happen overnight. It took a couple decades of indoctrination to make you believe that was the standard you were supposed to live up to; it will take another decade or two to unlearn it. It will take surrounding ourselves with people who don’t treat us as if we’ve failed if we fall short.”
Listen to this excellent podcast where Brene Brown talks to Emily and Amelia about their book:
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