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By Helene Brun

Years ago when I first heard Neil Young sing “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” I did not question the sentiment.  “Burn out”  sounded interesting and strong, “fade away” sounded boring and weak, while my own aging and death seemed far off no matter which way I was to go.  Seated on the coattails of the baby boomers I have since been pulled into middle age.  Today, I ask questions that did not exist for me when I was young.

Simple questions?
Could one burn out very old like Picasso, who painted almost every day of his ninety-some years?  Or does burning out, as Young uses the phrase, imply the rise and fall of only a youngish person like Marilyn Monroe?  If “fading away” sounds more acceptable to me now, is that a sign of earned maturity or did mediocrity creep up on me? Young people have the better and stronger bodies to lose, yet they glamorize burning out.  Is that because they have more faith in the survival of their own spirit or are they out of touch with their fragility and in touch with a wish for fame and accomplishment?  Is it tedious and trivial to quietly survive?

How do we handle the burnout dilemma? 
The double messages we send ourselves and each other show we do not deal with it,  most of us avoid it.  On the one hand,  things change all the time and today we are likely to discard and happily buy new products before the old are burned out.  On the other hand, we preserve our bodies and try to slow the fading like never before.  The body, the one thing we would really like to design to last, does not.  Cloning is perhaps evidence of a clinging to our physical selves  fueled partly by instinct and partly by cerebral lack of faith in anything, especially in an afterlife.  But do we expect  a preserved body to preserve a spirit or an ego?  What  burns out or fades away,  and is there anything left?

Must we consider these things to deal with every day stress and burnout?
The typical case of burnout, which is not about  aging and death in any immediate sense, is actually  tied to such deep and universal concerns.  When you are burned out, those questions and dilemmas echo within you, whether you are conscious of it or not   To combat burnout, we must take such deep breaths that we bring in part of the universe.  Then we can begin to relax and put our own bodies and life spans in perspective.

What does it mean to burn out?
I define burnout as an emptiness inside.  If you are burned out, you have emotional hunger pains that you feel helpless to satisfy.  You feel half alive.  Failure to take care of your physical self can exacerbate burnout, but it is not the cause.  Tiredness is a component of burnout, but you can be tired without being burned out.  Sadness and worry  may also be components, but  burnout is not clinical depression; it is a milder, everyday unhappiness.  I think of it as “colloquial depression.”  

What follows are a few examples from two arenas prone to burnout.  

Work burnout  
The pendulum swings of work and vacations may go on for years without conscious thought.  In fact both  can fail to satisfy or replenish us because we rarely get past basic maintenance of ourselves.  People do plan their work and vacations, but they do not necessarily question or think much about the point of doing a particular kind of work beyond money and status, or the point of going on a vacation beyond rest and reward.  In contrast,  sabbaticals offer people who feel burned out time to carefully consider and restructure their approach to life or parts of their life.  New habits take about six months to solidify.   Few people emerge in the countryside as  bee-farmers after a sabbatical.  Most simply return to work with a sweetened attitude and a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

In the world of work, burnout is often considered a virtue.  It is seen as evidence of hard work and is often respected, or at least seen as unavoidable.  It  can be confused with being tired after a job well done. Tiredness is a signal to rest but, in contrast to burnout,  there is still “someone at home inside.”  Persons who are burned out describe a hollow, empty feeling because they have pushed themselves into a corner of their own being. 

Others see preservation of their own energy as a virtue.  The more they can delegate whatever work is at hand, the better for them they conclude.  In his second inaugural address Lincoln admonished us not to “wring our bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”  It has had a hold on the national conscience, but only a tentative one.  We have often been good at  finding ways to justify leverage and profit from the work of others.  Where that justification does not ring true and fair, we eventually pay the price of burnout ourselves.  Using oneself consciously and compassionately generates energy, like exercise can. 

Relationship burnout
All people function occasionally  as counselors for their partners.  Like professional counselors they can burn out from too much listening.  Therapists use the term “compassion fatigue.”  Spouses talk about  being “sick and tired of listening.”  The “sick” implies helpless burnout.  Whereas “tired of listening”  by itself is a statement that gives hope one could act responsibly and say “stop for now.”   Knowing when you want to stop listening, and finding ways to say so without blame or excuses, will keep you from burning out    It is not, however, what supplies the relationship with a full tank of gas again.

One way to do that is to become a better listener.  Good  listeners, who are also good to themselves, realize and accept that they cannot fix life for others.  They also do not expect themselves to agree with what the other is saying.   They detach from those notions and that enables them to listen easily.  Furthermore, they do not take it personally that their importance as a listener is largely as a screen for the slide show of the talker.  In good relationships people work to find a comfortable “give and take”  balance which makes it worthwhile to stay together.

Many roads can lead you to it
Burnout can be caused by too much to do, or too little to do, even by the struggle for the perfect balance if fueled by external, as opposed to internal, promptings.    Even so, burnout is avoidable.  In all the arenas where it can occur, one single effort shields you from it:  Making conscious choices.

A conscious choice has three components:  
      You clarify what you want with regard to something, 
      you realize what it will cost, 
      and you accept the price. 

Some practical things to do about burnout
The following suggestions are examples of how to begin to recover from burnout or avoid it in the first place.  The important, specific solutions will come from each individual.  During your day, stop on occasion,  physically and mentally stand still in the present moment, take a deep breath,  pay attention to yourself and how you are doing.  As you notice your feelings, sensations, needs and wants, begin to make conscious choices for how  best to proceed. 

* Think self-care.  Where can you begin to make a small improvement?  Having a carrot instead of a candy bar can turn the burnout tide.  Even one healthier choice can generate motivation to do more good things for yourself.  Avoid perfectionism, it leads to burnout.  Instead develop your ability to pay attention to what you do, and trust that over time you will move in the direction of  better self-care.  Make a health plan for yourself  to use as a guideline.  Include such areas as sleep, nutrition, exercise, companionship, etc.   
* Think simplicity.  Organizing and  simplifying your life prevents burnout.  Cancel some unimportant appointments, throw some things out, clean your desk or your sink.  Quite quickly, you start to feel better inside when  you create a better outside environment.   
*Think contrast.  If  you are fatigued from interacting with people, it may help to take a  walk or a yoga class, paint a picture, cook a meal,  anything non-verbal and less interactive.  If burned out from being at the computer all day, go out with friends, touch a person or a pet.  Write a postcard instead of an E-mail.
*Think paradox.   Giving to others can get you what you need.  That burned out emptiness will often go away if you do something nice for someone. 
*Think choice.  We always have it,  we just forget it.

Now proceed with your day using it up well.

Copyright 2000, Helene Brun.  All rights reserved. 

Helene Brun, MFT    650.949.2879    helenebrun@sbcglobal.net    www.helenebrun.com   

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