When Life Loses Its Meaning: The Heavy Price of Acheivement

“If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight. What had once been a throbbing, vital structure is now deserted. Where there had once been activity, there are now only crumbling reminders of energy and life. Some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.”

This is the opening of the 1980 book, Burn-Out: The High Cost of Achievement, written by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, the first person to describe the syndrome known as burnout. Dr. Freudenberger explained his use of the metaphor by noting that people who burnout under the stress of living in a demanding world are very much like a burned out building. Although on the outside they may look the same, “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”Bottom of Form

The discovery of burnout in the 1970s came during an era of great social and personal stress. It was a time of government corruption (Watergate), war protests (Vietnam), stagflation, soaring divorce rates, oil shortages, and an unstable job market where long hours and stressful work environments were the norm. The chronic stress of this era caused many people, especially those who were “accomplishers and doers,” to lose their enthusiasm.

Dr. Freudenberger noticed that while most of his high-achieving clients had once pursued life with vigor, excitement, and optimism, over time their passion had been dulled, in some cases killed by what he called “a demon born of the society and times we live in;” times exemplified by swift changes and the “depersonalization” of neighborhoods, school and work environments. They began to feel disengaged, disenchanted, and uninvolved, even when surrounded by family and friends. They began to view their jobs as draining and unrewarding. For many, life seemed to have lost its meaning.

Sound familiar? It should. Today’s world is remarkably similar. War, economic woes, distrust of the government, soaring unemployment, seemingly endless work days, and stressful jobs-all of these things are taking a heavy toll on the minds and bodies of our best and our brightest, leading to chronic fatigue, disillusionment, discontentment, and disengagement.  In short . . .  burnout.

So I thought I’d share with you some pearls of wisdom from the man who discovered the condition known as burnout. Although the insights and advice Dr. Freudenberger offered to victims of burnout were published over 30 years ago, they bear repeating because they are no less true today than they were 30 years ago.

“In a word, slowly. No matter how suddenly it seems to erupt, Burn-Out is a chronic condition; something a person has been working toward over a period of weeks, months, even years.” (p. 13)

The Type of Person Most Likely to Burnout

“The people who fall prey to [burnout] are, for the most part, decent individuals who have striven hard to reach a goal. Their schedules are busy, and whatever the project or job, they can be counted on to do more than their share. They’re usually the leaders among us who have never been able to admit limitations. They’re burning out because they’ve pushed themselves too hard for too long.” (pp. 11-12)

The Symptoms Common to Burnout

Exhaustion: usually the first distress signal of distress in burnout victims

Detachment: Dr. Freudenberger explains that when burned out people feel let down by people and situations (which inevitably happens), there’s a strong temptation to think, ‘I don’t care, it wasn’t important anyway,'” which leads to detachment.

Boredom and Cynicism: what was once exciting now feels draining, and “You begin to question the value of activities and friendships, even of life itself. You become skeptical of people’s motives and blasé about causes.”

Impatience and Heightened Irritability: as burnout worsens and it becomes harder and harder to accomplish tasks, impatience grows and spills over into irritability with everyone around.

A Sense of Omnipotence: Dr. Freudenberger notes that sentiments such as “No one else can do it. Only I can” are expressions of an unhealthy ego. He says, “Be assured–somebody else can do it. Maybe not the same way you’d have done it or with the same degree of excellence, but it may be a situation that doesn’t require excellence.”

A Suspicion of Being Unappreciated: burned out individuals often become upset over what they see as a lack of appreciation of all they do, and they become increasingly bitter and angry.

Paranoia: when people feel put-upon and mistreated, as burned out people often do, they become increasingly suspicious of their environment and the people around them.

Disorientation: feeling a growing separation from one’s environment

Psychosomatic Complaints: Dr. Freudenberger says that “Headaches, colds that linger, backaches–all these are signs that something is wrong, and it’s usually something the person doesn’t want to look at.”

Depression: In contrast to depression unrelated to burnout, Dr. Freudenberger notes that burnout depression is “usually temporary, specific, and localized, pertaining more or less to one area of life.”

Denial of Feelings: “Since we know that people who are subject to Burn-Out are the carers among us, it doesn’t make sense to assume that one day, for no particular reason, the caring simply stopped …. Far more logical is the assumption that the caring has been shut off for a very good reason–and shut off by the person himself.” (pp. 67-68)

What Burnout Looks Like to Others

“A person who is burning out is not, on the surface, a very sympathetic figure. He or she may be cranky, critical, angry, rigid, resistant to suggestions, and given to behavior patterns that turn people off. Unless we’re able to probe beneath the surface and see that the person is really suffering, our tendency will be to turn away.” (p. 11)

The Excessive Demands High-achievers Place on Themselves

“As we pile layer on layer, the weight bows us under. We begin to make excessive demands on ourselves, all the time draining ourselves of energy. To compensate for the weakness, the burning out we feel, we develop rigidity. Things must be just so … to maintain our position, we must constantly excel. Unfortunately, the harder we try, the more we impair our efficiency. About the only thing we succeed in doing is burning ourselves out more.” (pp. 5-6)

Taking a Good, Hard Look Inside

“Since being out of touch with, or shutting off, large parts of yourself is a primary contributor to Burn-Out, your greatest protection against it is self-awareness.” (p. 27)

Keeping Perspective

“… never lose sight of the fact that you, as a human being, are more important than the task, no matter how crucial the task may be.” (p. 158)

Keeping a Sense of Humor

“Remember, if you want to avoid Burn-Out, heavy is out; light is in. Any time you can laugh at something, you reduce its importance, even if that something is yourself.” (p. 179)

The Paradoxes of Society

“At the same time our society dangles the impossible dream in front of us, it sets the stage for Burn-Out by eroding tradition, banishing our support systems, barricading minority groups, and dissolving relationships. It sends out mixed messages to all our emerging groups. Women, gays, Hispanics, blacks-we tell them all they are entitled to the same rights and privileges as the rest of the population; then we take our children and move to the suburbs. We advertise ourselves as “equal-opportunity employers;” then we offer unequal pay for equal jobs. To someone buying the promise and setting up expectations based on it, the contradiction between the myth and the reality is devastating. Not the least reason why Burn-Out is on the rise today is that our society abounds in paradoxes like these.” (p. 198)

Dr. Freudenberger offers three basic ingredients for overcoming burnout:

Self-Awareness: He says to ask yourself, “Are you in charge of your life? Or has it taken charge of you? By fostering this kind of awareness, you will eventually get in touch with the real you that you have become so estranged from, and some of your detachment will vanish.” (p. 205)

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast:  Don’t try to be everywhere at one time. Breathe.

Kindness: Dr. Freudenberger recommends getting out an old family photo album. He explains, “Old photographs teach us a lot, especially about kindness … when you sit down with your album, look at that child you were from the vantage point of who you are now …. And remember, that little kid hasn’t vanished from the earth.” He reminds us that the child in us is alive and well somewhere inside and that we can help that child emerge by being kind to ourselves, accepting who we are, and exploring where we want to go.

Changing: The more well-rounded our lives are, the more protected we are from burnout. He recommends, “If you’ve stopped trying new activities, make a conscious effort to start again. Dig up your old adventurous spirit and get it going. Try jogging or skating or swimming or tennis or dancing, but try something.”

Finally, Dr. Freudenberger offers encouragement: “In every fire,” he says, “there are glowing embers. You can use them to rekindle the spark.”

And that’s true. Burnout is not a terminal condition. But it’s also not a condition that gets better by being ignored. So take an honest look at your life. Reassess your goals in terms of their intrinsic worth and update them as needed. A choice you made early on in life may not be the best choice for you right now.

Also, look at your relationships as objectively as possible. What are you bringing to your relationships, good and bad? And explore what your relationships are giving to and taking from you.

Look at your work. Does it consume you? Do you have a life apart from your job, or is your life your job? And is that what you really want?

Finally, what’s the state of your social life? Do you have one? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never took the time to do it? Why not?

When I was writing my book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, a friend sent me what I considered a very powerful quote, so powerful that I ended my book with it. Written anonymously, I believe it should serve as an important reminder that life is more than just a job or a marriage or the zealous pursuit of any singular goal.

First, I was dying to finish high school and start college.

And then I was dying to finish college and start working.

Then I was dying to marry and have children.

And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough so I could go back to work.

And then I was dying to retire.

And now I’m dying . . .

And suddenly I realized I forgot to live.

Achievement and success are important, but are they worth sacrificing everything for?

By Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.


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