ESCAPING EARLY BLACK HOLE BURNOUT: PART I
RECOGNIZING THE EGOAL MONSTER
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 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 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
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.
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 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. :) :)
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 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 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. 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).