by Mark Gorkin, LICSW
"The Stress Doc" (TM)

Perhaps one of the most poignant and painful aspects of professional evolution is when a new, young or relatively inexperienced staff person is dazed by 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 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 may well 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 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, see "The Four Stages of Burnout.") 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 at a United Way Family Counseling Agency, 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 New Orleans -- "The Big Easy" -- totally blew the box away, not to mention my cultural and psychological moorings. I'll discuss this further in Part II.

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 of my electronic newsletter column in Humor From the Edge:

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 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 to speak???? Thanks for listening....Bye. Sal. :) :)

My Reply

Sal, as you know, it can be rough out there. It's not just'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'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 istic 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 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 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 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. And next time I'll return to the erosive path of blood, sweat and tears. But we do want to celebrate whenever "one flies over the cuckoo's nest." And, of course, when flying high, remember...Practice Safe Stress

Read Part 2



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).