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.
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
*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.
2000, Helene Brun. All rights reserved.
Helene Brun, MFT 650.949.2879