by The "Stress Doc"
Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The Four Stages of Burnout: Part II

It's the last lap. We've explored 3/4 of "The Burnout Stages": exhaustion, self-doubt, and a cynical or callous attitude. Now the final test.

4. Failure, Helplessness and Crisis. Being caught in a familiar "Catch-22" often signals the final phase: "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." "Damned if you stay, damned if you leave." Your coping structure seems to be coming unglued. Next stop, the psychiatric ward? Probably not; however, the crisis smoke signals are billowing big time. Why is that? Burnout is like trying to race a marathon - full speed, nonstop. Can anyone race 26 miles full speed, nonstop? Of course not. Even Olympic marathon runners must pace themselves. If not, the body parts will break down. And with burnout, over time, the mental apparatus also wears out

In fact, one reason the fourth stage is so disorienting is that a person's psychological defenses have worn down. Cracks start appearing in the defensive armor. Painful memories and old hurts normally contained by your emotional defenses are leaking through the cracks. A slight or an emotional bump can set off an overly sensitive and personal reaction. Now a mate's occasional, somewhat annoying behavior really irritates as it reminds you of a mannerism of your father. Or jealousy towards a colleague reeks of sibling rivalry.


Hey, before throwing up your hands, remember: burnout is not for wimps. A lot of other folks would have jumped ship much earlier. Many of you reach the farther stages of burnout because of your tenacity and dedication. You have a strong sense of responsibility and don't like being deterred from reaching your goals. All noble qualities, unless compelled by rigid perfectionism and "there's only one right way" thinking. Then, pursuing your goals takes a back seat to proving others wrong and overcoming humiliation. You are chasing ego-driven goals. Especially in times of overload, uncertainty, and major change, "driven and rigid responsibility" can quickly transform a performance benefit into a personal and professional liability.

Also, these folks are usually not just responsible, they often are quite responsive to others. People lean on them for support. Are you a pillar of strength for those around you? If so, will those dependent upon you be quick to notice when you are feeling shaky? That you may need a shoulder? Often not, as their sense of security is contingent on your always being strong and available. Are you buying into this "superperson" role or hiding behind a heroic mask? Maybe you always had to help mom with (or sometimes raise) the other kids. Or you're the emotional sponge in the office, frequently absorbing your colleagues' complaints. Can you hear that screeching, scratching sound? That's the stress knot twisting and turning tighter and tighter about your neck.

On the Edge

No wonder people start jumping out of jobs or school, out of relationships, sometimes just jumping. And for those not into jumping, you may be into swinging by the fourth stage. Mood swinging, that is, between short highs and/or prolonged depressive lows. Okay, the existential question: Is it Miller Time or Prozac Time? From my perspective, it's way too late for the former (though, clearly, many people disagree with me) and a decision on the latter requires expert opinion. But that's exactly the key for transforming a danger into an opportunity. Fourth stage burnout is the crisis point, it's crunch time. Are you ready to step up to the plate and reach out for the help and resources you need? A person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities through a crisis when:

1) getting proper and sufficient support;
2) confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism, or helplessness;
3) grieving past and present losses while turning guilt, hurt, anxiety, and aggression into focused energy; and
4) acquiring and applying skills and technology for turning new problem-solving options into productive attitudes and actions.

My poetic anthem to burnout and beyond: For the phoenix to rise from the ashes One must know the pain To transform the fire to burning desire.

Four Stages of Burnout. Four Steps For Recovery and Rejuvenation. Any readers care to share how you turned a burnout situation into a transformational experience? Can you say, "Creative Burnout"?

And, will you Practice Safe Stress!?


Chris Thurman, Paul Meier, Richard Flournoy, Don Hawkins, Frank B. Minirth (Editor),Beating Burnout : Balanced Living for Busy People: How to Beat Burnout, before Burnout, Arrowood Press, 1997

Barbara Bailey Reinhold, Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload, and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career, Dutton/Plume, July 1997


Mark Gorkin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, speaker, trainer and "Online Psychohumorist," known throughout the web, AOL, and the nation as "The Stress Doc." Specialty areas: organizational change and conflict, team building, creativity and humor. (1616 18th Street, NW #312, Washington, DC 20009-2530, (202) 232-8662).


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