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Escaping Early Black Hole Burnout: Parts 1 & 2

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Escaping Early Black Hole Burnout: Part I
Recognizing the Egoal Monster

On a regualar basis, I receive heartfelt email from teachers, social workers and other fairly young or new health and service-oriented professionals dazed by their early career burnout. The often unspoken or barely articulate question is, "How could this happen so soon?" The plaintive cry coming through loud and clear: "How do I get out of this hell hole."

Folks, I have good news and bad news. (Don't you just hate when experts resort to cheap theatrical tactics? I recall my internist, years back, doing that number on me: "The good news...your cholesterol score has dropped to the low-normal range. The bad news...you do have a tumor on the right lobe of your thyroid." Fortunately, the bad news was good news, or at least benign.) So the good news...There are action steps which will aid in your recovery and, for those with foresight, these steps may even be preventative, for now. The bad news...The burnout black hole will likely suck you in again. This is especially true if you are anxiously driven by a perfectionistic ego and idealistic vision, that is, you tend to push tenaciously the envelope or live on the high performance or "Savior Syndrome" edge.

Are You Egoal Driven?

Egoals are a passionate, if not combustible, mix of burning goals and a smoldering-smoke and mirrors vision (or smoldering-smoke and mirrors goals and a burning vision) fired by vulnerable self-esteem and pride, fears and fantasies, along with unconscious urges. Your pursuit is more obsession than reasoned calculation. In our professionally tender years, there is often an urge to rescue the world or, at least, all of our clients or students. And sometimes this motivationally correct guise is a psychologically incorrect disguse: For the long run, truly, you can't save yourself and others by losing your "self" in others, especially when not having a solid identity to lose.

The more elusive and expansive the idealized destination, the greater: a) the personal challenge to your identity and esteem, b) the gap between expectations and reality, c) the expenditure of consuming energy and d) the likelihood of exhaustion and eventual existential crisis. And I'm talking from experience.

Personal Burnout: Head Case Overload

Let me document several of my burnout experiences and some growing pain survival and revival skills and strategies gathered along the stressful low and highway. (For a more detailed illustration of "The Four Stages of Burnout" click here to go to the article.) Akin to many readers, the initial close encounter occurred in the second year of my first professional job. Having been a star among the new group of hirees, I was on the fast track. Sometimes nothing fails like success. My mistake was accepting the role of field instructor for two social work grad students, both of whom were decidedly older, one being a young grandmother. In my mid-20s, trying to supervise a woman in her 50s was definitely emotional overload. She could have been my mother for goodness sakes. (And you try being critical or giving feedback to my mother...Just kidding, mom. ;-)

Already self-conscious about a typically challenging caseload, now I was preoccupied with my students' clients along with my own self-image. Somehow, I could control my chaos...but their chaos was a reflection of my abilities. Nothing like being a raw beginner to induce an irrational mindset. In fact, I recall my therapist groaning when hearing that I had accepted the supervisory position. She realized I was about to become a psychic volcano...All this unfinished emotional stuff would be erupting.

Escape Routes

I don't know if I had full-fledged burnout that year, but I definitely had a recurring case of the brain strain. In the short run, what probably saved me from Stage Four meltdown was deciding to go back to school. Taking some time off or taking a sabatical can be vital for recovering from or preventing off-the-Richter-scale burnout. A major career to school shift definitely gets one out of the burnout box. And going from Type A New York City to "The Big Easy" totally blew the box away, not to mention my cultural and psychological moorings. But more later.)

Of course, school isn't the only escape hatch. Some will change jobs with dramatic results. Let me share an illustrative exchange of emails with a reader:

Doc, Loved your latest piece on work burnout ("The Four Stages")...Thank you thank you! Now you have to address the follow up issue...with humor please!!!!! Need those laughs! The follow up issue is how do you get back up after all of this has happened? The firm I worked for went through financial distress before layoffs. And, you guessed it, by the time the end came I was at total burn out....help. Now unemployed and I am like a dog that is gun shy. I don't even need to hear a bang! All I have to do is see one indicator of work place burnout and I don't even want the job. Living in an economically stressed area this is not good. How do I come up with the energy and desire to take on the fight again...so to speak???? Thanks for listening....Bye.
Sal. :) :)

My Reply

Sal, as you know, it can be rough out there. It's not just downsizing...it's downright frightsizing! And as the comedic genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: "A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy."

Well, if I may be so presumptuous to modify Mr. Chaplin and delay the humor a tad, here's the Stress Doc's prescription: With a close friend or, better yet, a counselor, take some time to grieve your "4 F" losses: the loss of a familiar job and of a predictable future, the loss of face and your immediate focus. Some will feel wounded or exposed when laid off, and want to lash out. Others turn the rage inward, or feel stifled by a sense of guilt --- they've let people down. Consider this: In The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition, the first six definitions of the word "failure" describe an act or instance. It's not until the seventh and last definition that "failure" takes a personal direction. So remember, losing a job is more an act, less a judgment on you.

Next, try starting an aerobic exercise program (walking, jogging, biking, weight lifting, swimming, etc.; an exercise buddy makes it easier). Also, do fun reading that temporarily distracts you from the blahs; obviously, get and read the free online subscription to Humor From The Edge). Actually, exercise and humor have a common bond: laughter has been called "inner jogging" and both can release endorphins, the body's natural pain killers and mood enhancers. I believe it was William Frye, a medical expert and humor specialist, who observed: "Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator, giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage." Of course, some literal sensual diversion is nice too.

Actually, I'm reminded of some stress management folklore. It's been said that laughter is the best stress reliever, and sex is second. So if you're having funny sex...you're probably in good shape. (Hmm...Readers, how about submitting your personal example of "funny sex"? And, of course, I'll put you and your best stories and suggestions on the screen. So you see Sal, even if you're not in the mood quite yet, there are voyeuristic possibilities.)

One other serious suggestion. Join a "career transition" group. Better yet, if you're in an economically distressed area, you're not alone. Why not approach a local church or YMCA to see if you can start a weekly or bimonthly support group for fellow career changers. You know what they say: 'Misery doesn't just like company...it likes miserable company." ;-) (If you want more information on this subject, not misery, but starting a group, just email. I can connect you with some pioneers in this area.)

Once you've started exploring some of the above survival strategies, you are on the verge of a profound insight: Hey this unemployment thing ain't so bad!

Three months later I received another email from our traumatized, formerly gun shy emailer:

Remember me, Grid555,?? I'm the one who e-mailed you last with a lost job. Well just wanted you to know I took your advice and it worked! I let go of the past...one door closes and another opens. Took a temp job with a municipality in an office where humor is their survival tool. Boy did I need this office & staff. Suddenly I started to laugh again. I am redesigning their accounting system, setting it up on new software, added a cost tracking element, and training staff to use the new system. Have I been having fun. Then I set about expanding my personal life....Remember I am the one into show dogs. So I am now shopping for another show dog. Two bernese mountain dogs & 200 pounds of dogs should keep life interesting.

With my change has come another change...Suddenly, I have more doors open than I know what to do with....someone else wants me to start a business with them, other consulting offers...too many choices...so I am just doing what I feel like doing. Of course, it is safe to say, I have a very supportive other half. Steve just says everything will work out in time. So Mark thanks for your input and have a great year in 98. Keep up the AOL StressDoc ...gets us all through those black moments. Bye. Sal.

Obviously, it doesn't always happen this way.

Escaping Early Black Hole Burnout: Part II
Strategies for Personal Recovery

 

Part I ended with an inspiring note from a reader who, despite post-layoff burnout trauma, within a couple of months, was able to grieve and find a job that helped renew the faith, energy and spirit. For others, release and rejuvenation will not be so quick or dramatic; there's a long emotional road to hoe. For a current client, her ten years as a paralegal at a high stress, adversarial atmosphere law firm (you know the "A" in Type A is for Attorney) was akin to a battered marriage. Of course, a somewhat rigid perfectionism, being allergic to conflict and a fear of displeasing or disappointing others, contributed to her vulnerability and stasis. Two years of group therapy and some individual coaching was necessary for her to break free from a state of psychological and vocational servitude. Learning to limit the amount of time spent at work and to set boundaries on the aggressive and inappropriately demanding attorneys was the key to seeing a possible opening. Rebuilding her emotional and communicational muscle and self-worth catalyzed her exodus and entry into a promising new job.

Personal Burnout Redux

Returning to my burnout odyssey, the job to school shift got me outside the burnout box. However, if the underlying fear and fantasies, shame and grandiosity - the egoal issues - are not addressed, psycho-history will likely repeat itself. A number of you may recall my dissertation burnout in New Orleans. This was a historical period when all my neurotic energy and all my creative energy collided...The result was a spiritual and mental maelstrom. (It certainly gave my father a "mental hernia.") After months of deeply grieving past hurts, I tried to convert a mystical-like experience in psychoanalysis into a dissertation pursuit. I was defying convention, rationality and authority. Talk about off the academic wall! All those years of intellectual inadequacy would be erased by one great achievement. Talk about magical thinking.

Two years later, driven to exhaustion, (self)-defeated, exhibiting definite chronic stress symptoms, like vertigo...let's talk about "when academic flashdancing whirled to a burnout tango." And I had to leave the dissertation dance floor for good.

Personal Recovery

How did I recover from my dissertation trauma? Let me outline key components, including the "Four 'R's" of rehabilitation and rejuvenation:

  1. Good Grief. I did a lot of grieving with friends. I needed to know they still loved and respected me despite my feelings of academic and personal humiliation. I had failed again! Never mind that I had created a wildly creative verbal-visualspatial mandala-map of self-actualization or Jungian individuation (psychological wholeness through reconciling psychic opposition, e.g., the conscious and unconscious, masculine and feminine, introversion and extraversion, etc.) Forget the fact that this experience had clarified my life's purpose -- uncovering, discovering and creatively expressing my inner world...All that mattered is that I had not achieved the impossible. (If I'd been in the Fine Arts department they probably would have granted me an honorary degree, if only to set this wild man free.)

  2. The Four "R"s of Burnout Recovery: Running, Reading, Retreating and Writing.

    a. Running. After regaining my energy and balance, I started a regimen of daily jogging. First, I got those mood enhancing endorphins pumping. Also, running or jogging is great for grounding you when you're feeling vulnerable or your life feels uncertain and up in the air. There's a beginning and end point, with a tangible sense of control and accomplishment.

    b. Reading. The other endorphin producer was reading humorous novels. (As previously indicated, laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but vigorous internal massage.) Two selections that come to mind were, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger and Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth. As the erosive effects of burnout had spiraled my laughter energy and humorous mindset had withered. How wonderful it was to laugh again. These two books also helped me chuckle at the absurdity of my own outrageous egoal quest. Self-accepting laughter is a great antidote to shame. What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master...or a doctoral student...And my academic Waterloo gradually became okay.

    c. Retreating. Now I needed time to reflect on this ego and identity shattering process. I realized my essence was not well-suited to academia. The key existential biggies: Who was I? What were my skills, gifts and talents? What were the emotional, knowledge and learning gaps? What direction(s) and what enterprises really felt like me? The blank canvas is scary. There's no absolute way or pre-existing structure. The blank canvas is exciting. There's no absolute truth or pre-existing limits. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: Follow the open road and discover or recover your soul.

    d. Writing. Reading for enlightenment followed the lighthearted variety. I started devouring books about burnout, and then began to write about it. Initially, I played burnout battlefront correspondent, detailing the perspectives of a client and a friend doing daily battle in the legal field. In reality, the words were a transparent disguise of my recent blood, sweat and tears. Using the writing as a networking tool led to a speaking engagement on burnout at a regional paralegal conference. My speech was turned into an article for two national paralegal magazines. (Bless my heart, this was the first major writing I had done since dropping out of the doctoral program. You know my effort was overdetermined.) Two new career components were consolidating - professional speaking and writing. This academic lemon would make lemonade. I would become an expert on stress and burnout...and spread the word far and wide. (Obviously, once an egoal-driven narcissist...)

  3. Transition and Diversification. I began to realize a burnout recovery-prevention mantra: Fireproof your life with variety! Initially, this entailed working part-time as a staff trainer and therapist at a family services agency in New Orleans. With energy, confidence and a sense of resilience, I started building a private practice as well. Eventually, I went from employee to self-employed. I was ready to transform a recent crisis into a career opportunity: Along with my writing, I began marketing workshops and training seminars on stress and burnout, and was also teaching "Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment" as adjunct faculty at Tulane's Graduate School of Social Work. Clearly, I was cooking up a challenging and energizing career path gumbo.

Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone...I broke into Cable TV as a stress expert; that's another exhausting, "high anxiety" story. (Which I've captured in an article titled, "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder." Email me for a copy. Okay, so I should probably join an AA 12-step group: Adrenalin Anonymous.) After a stint on Cable and some inserts for Public Television - on stress and burnout as well as Mardi Gras and creativity - there was a run on radio. I wrote and delivered psychology essays for a twice/week drive time feature called "Stress Brake." (This was back in the mid '80s. We really did anticipate "road rage.")

So, an alternative to getting consumed by one job is to diversify your path, positions and projects. Weave these three into an uncommon career tapestry. Even if one or two strands weaken, loosen or start getting frayed, the safety net-work will likely hold.

Closing

Three key approaches for rebuilding your fire have been outlined: grieivng loss and shame with trusted people, practicing "The Four 'R's" for initial burnout recovery and, then, developing skills and strategies for eventual career transition and diversification.