Personal Experiences and Observations About Burnout¶
One common question I’ve gotten when confessing that I’m burnt out is “when did it happen?” and “how did you know?”. I think the phrasing of the questions limit the field of potential answers. Asking for a single point in time assumes the burnout diagnosis is binary when there are varying shades of burnout.
The industry standard testing is called the Maslach Burnout Inventory and it costs $50 for a general use copy and I was unable to find a free PDF version of it. I found that MindTools has a pretty decent one that’s not as comprehensive but still gives a good idea. Below I’ll relate some slightly more nuanced experiences around my burnout.
- I found that my burnout wasn’t a permanent emotional state in that all experiences were negative, but a shift in the distribution of states. This made it harder to ask myself “am I burnt out” simply by reviewing my experiences from the past few days. I only intuitively experienced that the duration and intensity of positive experiences is shorter, and similarly the duration and intensity of negative emotions are longer. This makes it hard to pinpoint exactly when I’m “burnt out” when everything’s kind of along a continuum of burnout.
- I found it difficult at first to delineate fatigue from burnout. Was I burnt out or was I just going through a tiring week? In 2019 I took several vacations to hopefully recover from the fatigue and come back restful. I found the vacations were pretty restful. I have friends who had gone through similar experiences and returned back from vacation eager to work. I too felt eager to tackle new challenges when I came back from vacation, but I found that the feeling didn’t last as long as I hoped. By day 3 of returning from vacation, I felt like I was returning to my baseline of low energy levels. This experience has sadly reinforced the hypothesis that I was indeed burnt out.
- I found myself having trouble empathizing and showed less kindness to other people. I particularly noticed it when someone expresses their emotions or shares a vulnerable moment. I recognize that I should feel empathy and compassion for them, but when I try to exert empathy, I couldn’t catch the feelings. This experience aligned well with the cynicism criteria of burnout referenced in literature.
- I also thought about whether I had depression. Taking the industry standard Beck’s Depression Inventory, I found that I fell in the borderline clinical depression category. There are a lot of symptoms that overlap between burnout and depression and I was worried about being depressed. However, I missed some of the key factors that would resonate with being depressed, mainly that I still was able to have positive experiences and that there are still things I’m excited about (e.g. working on my mental health). This experience does introduce a pet theory of mine that untreated burnout will likely lead to depression.
- I’ve been asked whether the burnout diagnosis applied to a specific vertical of an individual’s life or to an individual itself? In order words, “Am I burnt out of work or am I burnt out in general?”. It most likely is burn out from a specific vertical. If it’s throughout life, it’s more aligned with a depression diagnosis. That’s not to say that burn out from a specific vertical doesn’t have some negative effects on other areas of life.
Busy & The Demands of Life¶
Demands of life are the obligations and desires that propel us towards action. These demands can be external, like trying to do well in your job to keep the lights on, or they can be internal, like achieving desired goals (like working out or reading), behave according to certain standards or values, or some cognitive narrative you tell yourself (e.g. “success will get me self-acceptance”).
Lots of people burn out because they face a lot of external demands and stressors. These are the stressors most burnout psychologists study since they are easier to study and because external stressors cause the most amount of burnout in people. Working long hours, having many bills to pay, obligations to other people like family members and community, dysfunctional relationships with coworkers, lack of value alignment. Experiencing inordinate amounts of these stressors are often how people end up burnt out.
When I’ve told my friends about my burnout, they naturally inquired about external demands of life and external sources of stress. Was I pushed to work 50+ hour workweek? No, I consistently worked normal hours. Was I having dysfunctional relationships with my coworkers? No, I liked my coworkers and was friends with many of them.
Contrary to most people, most of my demands are internally-derived because I’ve been raised to hold myself to high standards and have a high bar for excellence. I often tie my self-worth to my accomplishments, so I sought out many. In 2019, I was looking to become proficient in improv and swing dance, while finding a girlfriend, expanding my social circles, and maintaining a stellar job performance. I was regularly coming home at 11pm on weeknights only to shower and sleep. I remember looking forward to the weekends when I can rest, only to find it filled with more activities. Coming out of a tiring weekend, I would look forward to resting during the workweek, only to be reminded I had already pre-committed to multiple activities that week.
When I thought about being busy, I also started noticing how commonplace this attitude permeated my social circles. A lot of my peers are living superhuman lives. Besides gunning for a promotion at work, a friend might attend hip hop class twice a week, host a social gathering once a week, go skiing on the weekends, and work on their side project in their free time.
I suspect there are some environmental factors and aspects of metropolitan life that contribute to the feeling of busyness. The first is the amount of opportunities that exist in cities. There is simply a higher density of things to do in a city. You could go to a company happy hour in the afternoon, get dinner with a friend, go to intramural dodgeball, meet up for drinks with an old coworker, and then attend a live concert before returning home. Saying no to anything can feel particularly painful if the natural inertia of city life encourages you towards doing more things and experiencing more stuff.
One major side-effect of boundless opportunities is that the opportunity cost of doing anything (even doing nothing) feels extremely high. I found this situation to produce some fairly intrusive thoughts and feelings that prevent me from enjoying the moment and being psychologically present.
These feelings can be illustrated by experiences like these:
- Wondering if you’ve made the right choice to attend a potluck in favor of board game night
- Feeling obligated to say yes after saying no to a friend too many times and wondering if you’ll be invited next time
- Regretting doing something because it didn’t meet your expectations and you could have done something else
- Regretting signing up for a 8-week improv class on Thursdays when there's a concert of your favorite band coming into town this month
- “I should have planned something” moments when I’m stuck on home without anything to do
- “I should have stayed home” moments when I’m bored or tired outside
- Anger, impatience, and other negative emotions at people who “waste your time”
- Trying to schedule dinner with a friend only to find that neither of you are free until 6 weeks later and wanting to give up on the relationship
- Having to leave a party you’re really enjoying early because you had scheduled something else afterwards or because you’ve decided to split the time between conflicting events.
- Feelings of guilt or shame when you want to cancel social commitments because you’re exhausted and not feeling it
- Feeling extremely guilty about having free time because it’s contrasting proof that you “do” have time to do the things you want
- Pushing yourself to attend events despite “not feeling it”
Not only are these feelings stressful and claustrophobic, I find that things consistently fill up the time available on my schedule, and become demands of life. When I feel like I can’t be psychologically present or engaged in these activities, I often feel anxious, unfulfilled or overwhelmed, which contributes to stress.
The second contribution of busyness in metropolitan life is that you’re consistently pulled into participating in the modern rat race. Most metropolitan areas attract career-oriented young workers. The result is an area that celebrates a very narrow definition of success with little diversity of values and ways of life. You’re going to be hard pressed to meet a social worker who helps children of abuse or a mother of 4 being a dedicated house mom. They can’t afford to live in the city or don’t value the things an urban city provides. Their absence from the metropolitan ecosystem makes city-life somewhat of an echo chamber of values where type A personalities reinforce the culture of material success and conspicuous consumption.
In this echo chamber, your insecurities around love and self-acceptance can very likely be guided by your environment’s idea of success, so people like me who have neither are especially prone to this cultural distortion. The metropolitan image of success where I live happens to be someone who has joined or founded a successful company, who spends his leisure time pursuing multiple hobbies, who travels around the world to eat delicious food or attends concerts, and hangs out with other successful friends. These values are exacerbated in social media where “everyone posts their highlight reel and no one posts their behind-the-scenes”.
It’s hard not to get sucked into this notion of happiness. One of my favorite quotes by Tim Gallwey captures this feeling in the context of competitive youth sports:
I have taught many children and teenagers who were caught up in the belief that their self-worth depended on how well they performed at tennis and other skills. For them, playing well and winning are often life-and-death issues. They are constantly measuring themselves in comparison with their friends by using their skill at tennis as one of the measuring rods. It is as if some believe that only by being the best, only by being a winner, will they be eligible for the love and respect they seek. Many parents foster this belief in their children. Yet in the process of learning to measure our value according to our abilities and achievements, the true and measureless value of each individual is ignored. Children who have been taught to measure themselves in this way often become adults driven by a compulsion to succeed which overshadows all else. The tragedy of this belief is not that they will fail to find the success they seek, but that they will not discover the love or even the self-respect they were led to believe will come with it. Furthermore, in their single-minded pursuit of measurable success, the development of many other human potentialities is sadly neglected. Some never find the time or inclination to appreciate the beauties of nature, to express their deepest feelings and thoughts to a loved one, or to wonder about the ultimate purpose of their existence.
Status-seeking is often compounded for single men like me seeking to find romantic relationships in the bay area and its results are often magnified on online dating. Being consistently rejected because you don't fit the echo chamber mold reinforces some distorted thoughts about what it takes to find love in the valley.
Working Harder = Results¶
I sought to accomplish a lot in 2019. I was going to find a girlfriend, get more involved in improv, swing dancing, and work while maintaining and expanding my social circles. It felt doable because the hours fit into my calendar and because I truly believed I was capable enough to accomplish what I set out.
What happened were some moderate setbacks. Nothing major or soul-crushing. In fact, it’s partially due to this that enabled my maladaptive coping styles to kick in. Schedules were slipping, I wasn’t hitting my milestones in time or at all, other things came up. Fatigue and exhaustion at some point started kicking in. I was falling behind and I was not rising up to the demands to accomplish my goals. This was my first-order stressor, and I was looking towards my usual habits of coping with stress.
Coping styles are roughly grouped into emotion-focused coping (dealing with the emotions) and problem-focused coping (dealing with the problem). Emotion-focused coping might be things like resting, playing, and seeking social support. Problem-focused coping might be things like problem-solving, working harder, and planning. I’ve come to realize historically I’ve almost always chosen to deal with my problems rather than my emotions. This has worked tremendously well for me up until post-grad life1.
What’s different about life after college? It turns out that post-grad life resembles very little of life up until then. I remember in college I would always say “[homework/projects/studying] takes time, but it’s always a reasonable amount of time and, if you spend that time, you will get results”. Homeworks have solutions, projects have rubrics, tests have finite domains. Education is such a controlled environment of correlated effort-rewards curves that students get angry when professors accidentally design a homework problem that is too hard or a test that takes longer than is expected because students expect to be rewarded for the effort they put in. Living in that environment reinforces this mentality.
In post grad life, working harder isn't the answer to all of life's problems. In odd cases, working harder might work against you or you might find out you’ll never get the results you seek nor matter how hard you worked. For example, you might be working towards a promotion at your current company. An effort-orientated mindset would conclude that putting in 60 hour workweeks equals promotion, but you would also find out that effort could be necessary but not sufficient for a promotion. Maybe your company only allowed 1 promotion per team, and the senior engineer who’s been there 3 years longer than you had threatened to quit unless he got a promotion this cycle. Maybe you had just been promoted 6 months ago and it’s been an implicit company policy to not promote someone twice in the same year (in which case working more for the rest of the year would only normalize your expected output and make the next promotion that much harder). Maybe you were pulled into a project that eventually didn’t ship because the market has shifted under your feet. A common theme I’ve experienced is that a lot of my goals relied heavily on factors out of my control, so a problem-focused coping style wouldn’t resolve my problems (and therefore my stress).
When coping styles don’t work, people tend to double down way past the point in which they are helpful. My problem-solving mentality had me futilely banging my head for months thinking about how I could have had a promotion that never existed. I would have looked at the previous scenario and thought about how hard I’d have to work to overcome 3 years of seniority, or how to evade an implicit no-2-promotions-in-a-year company policy. I would have tried to predict the future of the global economic market just so I could foresee a failing project and planned ahead. Problem-solving is generally an effective tool for coping with stress. If you can solve your problems, then coming up with effective solutions works wonders. The complication is that in some cases, problem-solving hard problems shifts into rumination and worrying.
You know that phrase “success forgives all sins”? It’s extremely relevant to mental health situations. A child who was raised to believe that their parents’ love is conditional on their success will continue to try hard as long as the other end of the bargain is held up, and often much further past after those conditions aren’t met.
For me, historic material success has enabled several unhealthy mental thought patterns in me that have existed for a while. I was doubling-down on effort to my detriment, and only a few years after doing that did I realize I need to confront these cognitive habits.
You know what happens when we work hard? We get tired and fatigued. And when we are constantly tired and fatigued, we reach a core component of burnout called “exhaustion.”
Exhaustion is the main variable that starts the vicious burnout cycle (more on this later). Studies across the field have also indicated that exhaustion is often the earliest signs of burnout and that treating the exhaustion component of burnout seems to yield the best results.
Why is exhaustion so detrimental to burnout? Look at the summary table below to see how exhaustion changes certain aspects of daily life.
|Evaluation of demands of life
|Rises up to demands
|Engagement with task
|Performance & Results
|Higher performance & Results
|Lower performance & Results
|Evaluation of results
|Positive affect & savoring
|Negative affect & numbness
Demands of life: When we are energized, we feel capable of meeting the demands of life. When we are tired, we have lower self-efficacy and feel less capable of rising up to the demands.
Resourcing: Exhaustion is almost by definition “lack of energy”, which means we have less energy to effectively meet our demands. Paired with an effort-orientated mindset, when we push ourselves when we’re tired, we are actually exhausting more mental energy to produce suboptimal outputs. Not only do we have rise up to the demands, we have to overcome our feelings of being overwhelmed, which is a double whammy.
Engagement with Task: Exhaustion makes us less engaged with the task, which makes robs us from the enjoyment of doing the task
Performance and Results: Exhaustion makes us perform worse, which in general produces poorer results
Evaluation of Result: Exhaustion makes us unable to savor positive experiences in our lives, which makes us devalue the work or activity.
Emotional regulation: Exhaustion makes us more mindless in our day-to-day lives, which lets our negative thoughts run rampant. Emotional coping strategies require a lot of energy when they aren’t ingrained, long-term habits.
Recovery: Exhausted individuals take longer to recover physical and mental energy. The body is not capable of handling as much stress. When experiencing stress, exhausted individuals take longer to recover to their baseline stress levels than non-exhausted people.
We’ve discussed some of the points already and we’ll visit some of these points below.
Savoring & Devaluation¶
I found exhaustion to have seriously handicapped my ability to savor positive moments in my life. Just like how I described how exhaustion has prevented me from connecting to those around me, it’s also preventing me from connecting with myself.
A common occurrence is that I’ll have a pretty positive experience, like spending a weekend in New York to see some friends, and then two days later someone would ask me how my week was. Then it would take me some embarrassingly long time to remember what happened during my weekend. And when I recount my memories of the good times I’ve had, it feels kind of muted.
Lori Gottlieb reference this phenomenon in her book “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed” in which she says, “People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn't the absence of feelings; it's a response to being overwhelmed by too many things.”
I’ve tried to savor experiences during positive moments with mental thoughts like “I’m having a great time and I’m going to capture this feeling of awe and wonder and gratitude” but when I recollect these memories later on the feelings also just fall flat.
The downstream consequences of inability to savor is that it makes us devalue activities we normally enjoy2. After all, why should we do something if it doesn’t make us feel good? When I’m working hard to accomplish a goal, I expect to feel good and accomplished after completing it. But instead of feeling good, I often feel relief from the burden of having that goal and regret for having taken on it in the first place. The next time I come across a challenge, I might have a lower expected emotional reward for reaching this goal or objective. I might try to remember how good it was to finish a similarly difficult goal in the past but then have the feeling fall flat. This in turn makes me not want to do the thing that normally would make me excited because it doesn’t physiologically reward me. This is called “devaluation” and it’s one of the chief symptoms of burnout under the cynicism umbrella.
Coping and Emotional Regulation¶
At some point when I kept futilely banging my head against the wall against life’s problems, I decided to look for ways to improve my mental health. However, my emotions were so tightly coupled with the outcomes of life that transitioning towards an emotion-focused coping style felt pointless. I rationally “knew” that of course I would improve my mood if I worked on it, but my brain didn’t feel that way. Psychologists call qualities of these thoughts the “3 P’s – Personal, Permanent, Pervasive” and is often intuited by the phrase “it’s my fault, it’s never going to change, and it’s going to affect all areas of my life.” Cognitive narration of these thoughts seriously contribute to less stress-resilient individuals.
When I decided to shift towards emotion-focused coping I began by sorting out the sources of stress. Where was the stress coming from? If meeting the demands of life and exhaustion were first-order stressors, then the psychological harm I do to myself via cognitive narratives are the second-order stressors. At a rough outline, I would say 30% of my stress came from first-order stressors, and 70% of it comes from second-order stressors, although upon closer inspection the relationship between the two isn’t so clean cut.
First-order stressors have already been mitigated as much as I could. My problem-focused coping style made the stressors from my lifestyle as minimal as possible (although my tendency is to continually increasing the demands of my life until I reach the breaking point). The natural strategy is to simply deal with the stress as a byproduct of the effort exerted.
My second-order stressors however, are leaking stress hormones out the wazoo. These are the mental thought patterns that say “you’re not doing enough” or “you should” or “you should have” as well as attempting to “solve” or “optimize” everything. Not only is this psychologically harmful, I began to find out these patterns also undermine typically healthy forms of coping.
Rest was the component of emotion coping I struggled with the most. I knew I needed rest because I knew I was pushing myself to burnout, but besides knowing my need for rest I had no idea what rest means outside of recuperating resources. Until recently, I thought rest meant recovering resources like physical and mental resources. Following that logic, diet, exercise, and sleep should have been sufficient to recover the strains of daily life. Yet I could be “well-rested” in the sense of getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising, and still feel extremely unmotivated or burnt out.
I then began to poll my friends what rest looks like to them. Their responses were all across the board. Some people preferred to stay in and watch Netflix, others wanted to go out and party. Some people even consider things like programming outside of work restful! It felt like what people consider rest was so … arbitrary. I would sometimes mimic the same activities only to find the experience not restful at all.
At some point I realized that the real output of restful activities was spending enough time in a relaxed state. This changes the framing of rest away from the activity and towards the expected emotional outcome you're trying to cultivate. Not everyone who reads books finds it restful, but all people who are restful spend significant time in a relaxed state.
This idea also deviated from my previous mental model of rest as something to “restore” some resource that I’ve used up during the day. That mental model didn’t lend itself to this new idea since the thing that I’ve “exhausted” is somewhat less tangible. Asking myself “what resource have I exhausted?” overlooks the possibility that I have simply spent too much time in a stressful state.
The relaxation response is also the factor that explained the diversity of what people considered a restful activity. When I realized this the very first thing my optimizing brain did was raise the question “well, if different people find different activities relaxing, then why can’t I just trick myself into thinking what I'm already doing as restful?” I’ve played a loooonggg time with this idea of trying to rest and be productive at the same time, only with very limited success. For example, I tried picking up new hobbies that my friends have considered fun and relaxing but I would find myself bogged down as just another activity. Exploring this route for such a long time with limited success made me realize that trying to make an arbitrary activity relaxing is equivalent to telling yourself to “just relax.” If I couldn’t “just relax”, I also couldn’t make some arbitrary activity enjoyable enough to be relaxing.
Even during unproductive activities like watching TV or playing video games I would consistently find myself not in a relaxed state. Often when I’m going through the motions of relaxing, I find my brain still continues its default tendency to turn inwards and ruminate. For example if I’m watching TV, I’ll have periodic flashes of thoughts like “shouldn’t you be doing something else?” or “I wonder if I’m feeling more rested now” and it takes me out of the zone. One summer vacation I sat by the pool on an Alaskan cruise during vacation, with little to no stimulation, I naturally gravitated towards ruminating thoughts.
So I end up in a position where common relaxing activities become arenas where I have to face my inner demons. In order to elicit the relaxation response I need to continually practice mindfulness when I confront these thoughts. Being mindful takes work, and saps some of the benefits of rest itself. I then come to the conclusion that even resting for me can be a form of work!
Actually it hasn’t, but problem-focused coping has done a good enough job for me to ignore the problem until now. I’ve been burnt out in 2014 after grinding out all my college classes within the span of 2 years, while running a club, interviewing for internships, pursuing multiple hobbies, and maintaining a social life. ↩
I’ve asked myself why I don’t implicitly learn to work less hard than to devalue the thing I’m doing? I think it’s because the mental thought pattern of effort-to-reward is so ingrained that if you take that as an assumption, you still reach a consistent conclusion that if doing an activity isn’t rewarding, it’s the activity that’s not rewarding, not our relationship to the activity. ↩