The Benefits of Burnout
An oxymoron? Not according to psychologist Joan Borysenko.
photo by Charles Bush
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., a pioneer in integrative medicine, is a renowned expert on the mind-body connection. Her work has been foundational in an international health care revolution that recognizes the role of meaning and the spiritual dimension of life as integral aspects of health and healing.
Most recently, the Harvard-trained biologist and psychologist explored the anatomy of burnout with Facebook friends in her latest book, Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive.
What does it mean to physically, emotionally and spiritually burn out?
When you’re stressed out, you keep chasing the same old carrot, whatever that may be for you. But when you’re burned out, you eventually give up the chase. The hope that you can create a meaningful life fizzles and you find yourself sitting in the ashes of your dreams.
In a culture wedded to positive thinking, burnout and its first cousin, depression, are thought of as disorders in need of a fix. What if instead, we see them as losses of naïveté, false identities and faulty assumptions that are making way for a more authentic life? What if we viewed burnout as an invitation to come into alignment with a more elegant expression of our gifts, relationships and overall life energy?
The late psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, Ph.D., who first popularized the concept in his 1980 book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, believed the condition is a painful affliction of good people trying to give their very best. He defined it as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Why do we burn out even when we regularly use selfcare practices?
Many people are shocked to learn that even though I’m a positive person, with a regular yoga and meditation practice, as well as healthy eating habits, I have burned out more than once. Ironically, but predictably, I was trying to do and be my best. For me, burnout means that my most loving, creative self goes missing; I contract into the smallest, most negative version of myself, which is not a pretty picture.
I find that for many people that intellectualize a great portion of their lives, burnout doesn’t become real until they are not only physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but are also in pain. Knowing ourselves and our limitations is essential, because our tendency is to become complacent and think we’re too busy to tend to our well-being, or else believe we can do even more because we practice self-care.
Keep in mind that we can’t solve burnout with the same level of consciousness that created it. We have to catch ourselves in the act of overlooking our true needs, stop, do a selfinquiry that looks at things as they are, and pinpoint what drains our energy, as well as what brings us to life.
How did writing Fried affect you?
In order to follow my own advice, I completely changed the way I live. I realized that at age 66, I needed to pay more attention to my physical body. Physical therapy and Pilates floor exercises are now a priority five days a week, as well as yoga, both of which have helped to correct my hip joint problems. For aerobic exercise, I walk fast for 45 minutes at least five days a week. In inclement weather, I ride an indoor bike. Altogether, it averages out to 90 minutes of daily exercise, five days a week.
My husband and I switched to a plant-based diet of organic whole foods, so we now set aside more time to plan, shop and cook. We also make more time for family and friends. We still both work, but fewer hours than before. In other words, I do what I can within a framework of love. I choose to do what is important to me—activities that give me life and energy.
What is it about living “in the now” that feels so enlivening?
When we live in our heads and intellectualize, we tend to spin negative thoughts that hurt our physical health and sap our energy. By actively focusing on what we are doing in the moment, we can engage our senses, more thoroughly enjoy ourselves and have an awareness of being that is not possible when we are ruminating over past memories or projecting ourselves into daydreams about a far-off future. In such present moments, because we are relaxed and open to our inner wisdom, as well as our interconnection with the exquisite wholeness of life, we feel the most vital and alive.