Burnout is one of the diseases of our times. Writing this down reminds me of my grandmother. According to her all the psychological problems and diseases actually don’t really exists. We make them up, she said, because they simply weren’t there when she was young. Her advice for people with whatever psychological problem: just toughen up!
I remember going into discussions with her about that over and over again. As a psychologist I obviously had a bit of a different view on it and I wanted to defend my work. But somewhere along the way, we came to an understanding and an unspoken agreement. Not only because of the divorce of her son and her daughter, but also because she started to acknowledge the difficulties of our times.
She always used to speak about it as ‘times full of opportunities and possibilities where you can do whatever you want’. After a while (and lots of talks) she saw the disadvantages of all these opportunities and chances as well. And we talked about how possibilities can create stress and how this society can create psychological problems. She agreed to a certain extent.
I remember I was having some hard times with my relationship back then and one day she replied, she wouldn’t want to be in my shoes. It made my day. It sounds stupid maybe, but the fact that a 87-year old understood I was struggling and relations these days are not easy, meant a lot to me. Not only because of the understanding, but it also gave me hope. If she could still change her beliefs at 87… So burnout is a disease of our time. Does that mean it’s not real? Not at all! In any case it is very real.
Let’s first have a look at what burnout is. When we look for scientific answers, it gets difficult immediately. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a classification system used worldwide to diagnose any mental disease. And a burnout is not recognized as a distinct disorder in the DSM-5 (the latest version). However, it is included in the ICD-10, another international classification system of diseases.
Social psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson developed the most widely used instrument for assessing burnout, namely, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Here it is defined as a state of vital exhaustion. It’s been seen as a three-dimensional syndrome with the three dimensions being: exhaustion, depersonalization and poor personal accomplishment. The last century however there’s been quite some critical notes on these dimensions and on the scale. Another problem is that burnout has a job-related character, meaning that burnout is almost entirely connected to work. But is that right? And last but not least, there’s quite some similarities with depression, so what is the real difference between these two?
As you see, there’s still a lot of questions and things that are unclear when it comes to scientific answers. And what exists right now is not enough to really work with. When you start surfing on the internet you do find a lot of sites people created to fill up the lack of answers. Mostly people that experienced a burnout themselves. I would like to have a look beyond the definitions to my way of looking at burnout. Out of experiences and with my background as a psychologist, there are a few things key to me:
- A burnout is not job-related. It can be, but the reason of the burnout mostly goes beyond the job or the job related stress. And so it’s also not something only busy managers and superiors bump into.
- There’s no age limit. It’s not something only for people older than 50. You can get a burnout as easy (maybe – or I would even say – easier) when you’re younger.
- The overall reason or problem when it comes to experiencing a burnout is our society and more specific the expectations of our society, people around us and our own expectations.
Let me zoom in on the latter. We live in times with tons of possibilities and opportunities. It’s been stated that we can do whatever we want. And accordingly we are responsible for our own happiness. That is where it gets tricky. Because if there’s all these chances and possibilities and we just have to chose something in order to be happy, it means we’re terribly failing at a very simple task when we don’t feel happy. Problem.
Thing is that this so called freedom of choices is not entirely true. You still have to follow certain rules as well, though they are not really spoken off. You only realize they are there when you break one of these invisible rules. Sometimes you don’t even realize, but just take it as a failure of your side.
Besides that there’s Facebook with everlasting pictures of happy and successful people. They all seem to be exactly where they want to be. Everything they do seems almost effortless. And you are struggling.
Well, let me tell you a secret… They are too. We all are. We just pretend we’re all fine and happy and balanced. And at the same time we’re all fooled by other people who do the same. Silly isn’t it?
It also seems this richness of choices only applies on other people, not on us. Because we have to take our kids into account or we have a mortgage to pay. We first need to deal with a certain problem before happiness might occur.
In the end we are running a marathon and we don’t even know whether we like jogging in the first place.
We are expected to have a career, own a house, have kids, raise them well, be good friends, take care of our family and a lot of other things. Not that easy… At the same time one of the invisible rules is that you can’t put your career first. But you do need to have a splendid career. In other words, you need to be superman (or -woman) and there will always be conflicting interests and expectations. Maybe your boyfriend thinks you work too much while your boss even needs more of your time.
In the end we are running a marathon and we don’t even know whether we like jogging in the first place. In other words, we lost an important connection with ourselves in order to try to keep up with the expectations all around us. We don’t know what we want anymore. We know what we have to do and what we can’t do, but all these possibilities and opportunities are miles and miles away for us. We decide to go for realistic goals and mainstream ideas since everything else seems impossible.
So what does this have to do with a burnout? Everything. Since a burnout is all about these expectations and us not being able to live up to them anymore. It’s about conflicting interests and the loss of who we truly are and what we really want. About living life in a way that simply isn’t your way. A way of life that does not fit you. As if you’re wearing clothes that are simply one size too small. It’s not comfortable, it doesn’t make you feel good and it slows you down. So doing a job that doesn’t fit you, being in a relationship that does not allow you to be yourself, dealing with expectations, standards, values that are not yours, feeling the pressure from people around you to conform: it will all slowly wear you down. And mostly you won’t even notice. As a frog who stays in hot water, simply because he’s boiled so slowly he does not notice it.
You’re simply on the wrong track. A road that’s not yours. And it’s not easy to acknowledge that, to change it and in the end to find out what your own path is and follow that. In the first place since at that very moment you’re completely drained. Empty batteries.
This is where I pitch in (want to know how: take a look here). I can help you search for your road. We’ll draw a path step by step in a way that will provide you with some energy again. Step by step coming closer to a life that fits you and only you. Away from jobs, relationships, values and expectations that do not fit you. Because it’s simply a pity to walk around in a dress two sizes too small…