ESCAPING EARLY CAREER BURNOUT: PART II
STRATEGIES FOR PERSONAL RECOVERY

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

Part I opened with my near burnout experience as a young professional and new supervisor at a family counseling agency. Burnout was likely forestalled by leaving work and returning to school. The article closed on an inspiring note from a reader who, despite post-layoff burnout trauma, within a couple of months was able to grieve and find a job that helped renew the faith, energy and spirit.

Burnout Redux

Returning to my burnout odyssey, the job to school shift allowed me to escape, for the time being, the erosive spiral. However, there are many paths to burnout, which I define as:

The gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion...a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give.

A classic erosive path to burnout involves having unrealistically high expectations while pursuing, no, make that compelled by, elusive goals. And when accompanied by smoldering, long-standing and mostly underground feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness, we really can't talk of goals.

This burnout waiting to happen individual is driven by egoals -- an often self-centered, if not grandiose, vision and complex of activities spurred by false pride and a vulnerable and volatile ego. A defensive need for achievement and vindication are in the driver's seat: "I'll finally silence, if not wipe out all my doubters and critics (past, present and future); I'll show them." Under these conditions, the goal setting and goal pursuing process, not surprisingly, becomes self-defeating. As I once wrote about John DeLorean's "risky business" -- mixing a sports car production fantasy with a drug reality: "Clinging to false images and grand illusions while hooked on high risk is surely a lethal mix for the creative venture."

The Stress Doc KNOWS Burnout

So how does this all relate to my personal journey? Let's just say when I left New York City in the mid'70s to begin a doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans, at the tender age of 26, the car was packed with few possessions. However, I was carrying around a lot of baggage...self-defeating emotional baggage. While completing a dissertation would be beyond my maturity level, nonetheless, a valuable education was also occurring. The academic misadventure was forging a specialist in the farther reaches of stress.

Believe me, the burnout merit badge was earned! Let me provide the concise version. Exhausted from spinning my academic wheels in a doctoral program, psychoanalysis came to the rescue. After nine months of deep grieving of the past and present, a mystical-like, "peak experience" enveloped me while lying on the couch. This moment was primordial, it was archetypal, it was expansive...it was nuts trying to turn my visualspatial map of the experience into a doctoral dissertation.

Unfortunately, the mandala-map was destined to become this doctoral student's holy grail. Conservative or practical dissertation advisors be damned. Being egoal-driven, I was compelled less by rational and conscious goals than by old feelings of intellectual inadequacy and insatiable, self-aggrandizing ego and pride. Big surprise. Head banging on a dissertation wall is dangerous to a student's health...not to mention knocking oneself out of a doctoral program.

Two years later, driven to exhaustion, (self)defeated, exhibiting definite chronic stress symptoms, like vertigo, I now refer to those defiant days of "marching to a different drummer"...when academic flash dancing whirled to a burnout tango!

Still, there were silver linings. First, mercifully, the black hole of burnout provided an escape hatch from my hard head and dissertation web. Second, passion and direction lay not in traditional academia but by independently exploring my creative ideas and energy: "What really felt like me?" "What did I want to be doing?" These were now the compelling questions. And finally, there was professional lemonade to be made from this academic lemon: I would become an expert on stress and burnout!

Before closing, one last squeeze of academic juice to provide a framework both for understanding and, hopefully, inoculating against future burnout, The Stress Doc's Vital Lesson of the Four 'R's:

If, no matter what you say or what you do, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming, and you can't say -- and mean -- "no" or won't let go...trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.

Have I captured your attention???

Personal Recovery

How did I recover from my dissertation trauma? Let me outline key components, including the "Four 'R's" of rehabilitation and rejuvenation:

  1. Good Grief. I did a lot of grieving with friends. I needed to know they still loved and respected me despite my feelings of academic and personal humiliation. I had failed again! Never mind that I had created a wildly creative verbal-visualspatial mandala-map of self-actualization or Jungian individuation (psychological wholeness through reconciling psychic opposition, e.g., the conscious and unconscious, masculine and feminine, introversion and extroversion, etc.) Forget the fact that this experience had clarified my life's purpose -- uncovering, discovering and creatively expressing my inner world...All that mattered is that I had not achieved the impossible. (If I'd been in the Fine Arts department they probably would have granted me an honorary degree, if only to set this wild man free.)

  2. The Four "R"s of Burnout Recovery: Running, Reading, Retreating and Writing.

    Running. After regaining my energy and balance, I started a regimen of daily jogging. First, I got those mood enhancing endorphins pumping. Also, running or jogging is great for grounding you when you're feeling vulnerable or your life feels uncertain and up in the air. There's a beginning and end point, with a tangible sense of control and accomplishment.

    Reading. The other endorphin producer was reading humorous novels. (As previously indicated, laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but vigorous internal massage.) Two selections that come to mind were, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger and Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth. As the erosive effects of burnout had spiraled my laughter energy and humorous mind set had withered. How wonderful it was to laugh again.

    These two books also helped me chuckle at the absurdity of my own outrageous egoal quest. Self-accepting laughter is a great antidote to shame. What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master...or a doctoral student...And my academic Waterloo gradually became okay.

    Retreating. Now I needed time to reflect on this ego and identity shattering process. I realized my essence was not well-suited to academia. The key existential biggies: Who was I? What were my skills, gifts and talents? What were the emotional, knowledge and learning gaps? What direction(s) and what enterprises really felt like me? The blank canvas is scary. There's no absolute way or pre-existing structure. The blank canvas is exciting. There's no absolute truth or pre-existing limits. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: Follow the open road and discover or recover your soul.

    Writing. Reading for enlightenment followed the lighthearted variety. I started devouring books about burnout, and then began to write about it. Initially, I played burnout battlefront correspondent, detailing the perspectives of a client and a friend doing daily battle in the legal field. In reality, the words were a transparent disguise of my recent blood, sweat and tears. Using the writing as a networking tool led to a speaking engagement on burnout at a regional paralegal conference. My speech was turned into an article for two national paralegal magazines. (Bless my heart, this was the first major writing I had done since dropping out of the doctoral program. You know my effort was overdetermined.) Two new career components were consolidating -- professional speaking and writing. This academic lemon would make lemonade. I would become an expert on stress and burnout...and spread the word far and wide. (Obviously, once an egoal-driven narcissist....)

  3. Transition and Diversification. I began to realize a burnout recovery-prevention mantra: Fireproof your life with variety! Initially, this entailed working part-time as a staff trainer and therapist at a family services agency in New Orleans. With energy, confidence and a sense of resilience, I started building a private practice as well. Eventually, I went from employee to self-employed. I was ready to transform a recent crisis into a career opportunity: Along with my writing, I began marketing workshops and training seminars on stress and burnout, and was also teaching "Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment" as adjunct faculty at Tulane's Graduate School of Social Work. Clearly, I was cooking up a challenging and energizing career path gumbo.

    Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone...I broke into Cable TV as a stress expert; that's another exhausting, "high anxiety" story. (Which I've captured in an article titled, "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder." Okay, so I should probably join an AA 12-step group: Adrenalin Anonymous.) After a stint on Cable and some inserts for Public Television -- on stress and burnout as well as Mardi Gras and creativity -- there was a run on radio. I wrote and delivered psychology essays for a twice/week drive time feature called "Stress Brake." (This was back in the mid '80s. We really did anticipate "road rage.")

    So, an alternative to getting consumed by one job is to diversify your path, positions and projects. Weave these three into an uncommon career tapestry. Even if one or two strands weaken, loosen or start getting frayed, the safety net-work will likely hold.

Closing

Three key approaches for rebuilding your fire have been outlined: a) grieving loss and shame with trusted people, b) practicing "The Four 'R's" for initial burnout recovery and c) developing skills and strategies for eventual career transition and diversification.

So rejuvenate and then, on an ongoing basis...Practice Safe Stress!

08/17/00

 

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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