‘Just Say No’ to Burnout
In 1986, First Lady Nancy Reagan championed the phrase “Just say no to drugs and alcohol” while President Ronald Reagan’s administration made “War on Drugs” a primary aim of his presidency. In actuality, Reagan expanded on the battle Nixon fought in the 1970’s, which wasn’t about drugs at all. In truth, Nixon’s administration battled “hippies” and “Blacks.” In other words, Nixon staged a war on differences and diversity.
The humanistic movement of the social sciences, starting in the mid to late 1940’s and ending in the mid to late 1970’s, contributed to the legislations and judicial rulings that offered rights and freedoms to minorities and disenfranchised communities, most notably African-Americans. Predictably, the “War on Drugs” in the early 1970’s was about criminalizing, decrediting, and weakening the human beings and movements threatening the power and authority of privilege.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who seems under-appreciated as a leader, tried courageously to remove some of the unfairness and injustice of Nixon’s administration. Then, the charisma and Hollywood charm of ‘The Gipper’ and Nancy captured the Hearts and minds of Americans. Stereotypically, Nancy gave Americans a cognitive, internal script while Ronald played the role of the “knight in shining armor” who was punishing and battling the wrong-doers of our world. Yup, Mom and Dad were making us feel strong and keeping us safe.
In the humanistic spirit of transparency, this writing is about the psychology of burnout not about political ideology. The idea of ‘Just Say No’ as a behavioral and situational strategy doesn’t work long-term. It’s an internal script that works some of the time. It’s too simplistic and cannot navigate the situational intelligence human beings need within ambiguous experiences, especially in duplicitous human relations and hoodwinking human encounters. Furthermore, even when other human beings aren’t trying to deceive you; encountering human beings who relate differently in the world because of known or hidden diversity markers may knock your script on its bum.
Once the wind escapes the staleness of Nancy’s message, we’re confronted with another psychological barrier. Which is to depend on the leaders in our Environment to protect us. Former President Reagan, a.k.a. The Teflon President and The Great Communicator, projected an image of being unflappable. Stoic. Strong. Sure. Confident. In this way, there is no burnout because nothing sticks. Reagan and his administration seemed to create a perception of safety and illusion of protection, maybe to deflect attention from the excessive number of scandals, indictments, and convictions directly related to his administration. Suffice to say, at various times, our protectors and Environment will fail us and/or not be around to keep us safe.
In essence, burnout emerges when internal scripting/strategizing AND external leaders/managers each fail to help us in a certain context (e.g., relationship, job, decision-making about substance use, tense conversation). As a result, we feel as though we’re being attacked and victimized. Ultimately, we become angry. Underneath burnout lies the searing emotion of unhealthy anger. Of course, anger has various ways of boiling over and burning Self and/or others. Many clients seek therapeutic services when they feel burned out, using phrases such as, “I’m shutting down,” “I’m done,” “I feel stuck (trapped),” “I’m tired of being me,” or “I’m damned if I do AND damned if I don’t.”
In other words, our scripts fail AND our Environment fails us. Over time, the Pain accumulates, and our Hearts begin to ache. Human beings start saying “yes” when we should say “no” and “no” when we should say “yes.” Since we live in an either/or, binary, all-or-none culture, we become contrarian and overcompensatory. Many times, we do the opposite because doing what we’re supposed to do leads to rejection, humiliation, punishment, the silent treatment, etc. As a result, we rebel against the script, rule, convention, expectation, or standard. All of a sudden, we’re in a full-fledged burnout phase.
For many human beings, December represents the accumulation of resentments, frustrations, and irritations as we are forced back into familial and socially acceptable conventions. In other words, the Holiday Season shifts between the survival strategies of scripting and inhibiting AND the rebellious desires to ‘Just Say Yes.’ In fact, December has been the most inconsistent and unpredictable month of the year during my career as a psychologist. Clients seem more spacy, numb, forgetful, and/or jaded during this time of the year. Paradoxically and simultaneously, clients seem the most appreciative (grateful) of real, genuine connections during this time of the year. Given the paradox, it’s important to seek a greater understanding of burnout, instead of regurgitating the simple strategy of ‘Just Say No to Burnout.’ So let’s take the dive...
I get it. From a personal perspective, there have been many instances throughout my life when I have written a note or letter to another human being, spawning from the depths of my heart. Typically, the heart-felt letters were accompanied by a monetary or actual gift, and, most of the time, the recipient of the letter and gift thanked me for the gift. Regarding the heart-felt letter… radio silence. In many instances, we experience little to no payoff for being vulnerable and sharing our hearts. As such, the survival strategies and rebellious reactions are the best we think we can do to protect our Hearts. Either survival or reactivity are primary ways to manage burnout.
Optimistically, there is a middle way through the deleterious effects of burnout. Which is to follow your Heart. Following your heart means to lead with your heart and to allow your heart to receive the situation, question, conflict, tension, decision, etc. and trusting that your Heart can handle the hurt it may endure. If my Heart leads, I’ll send the heart felt letter regardless of payoff. Instead of protecting our Hearts through Teflon, we allow it to lead because our hearts are strong and can guide us more wholly, seeking the wisdom to know when to say yes or no and how to wiggle through ambiguity. Which, I know, seems counterintuitive when burnout starts knocking at the door.
Following your heart is similar to Alice following the White Rabbit. We open the door to a magical, beautiful, and tender place where the unexpected and unknown are embraced.
(For the Matrix Trilogy fans out there, Neo was guided to ‘Follow the White Rabbit,’ which led to Trinity, generating a fuller knowing of Self and the Matrix)
Yet, it would be hypocritical (and uninspiring) to end this writing with the internal script and idea of ‘Just Follow Your Heart.’ Even though I dressed up the script with a reference to a complicated and complex movie that’s anything but simple, it’s still hypocritical. As such, please allow me my heart to lead as I share more wholly and fully…
December 13th (today) is the anniversary of my dad’s death. In the image below, I was 12. Less than a year later, he died. The image below captured the last Christmas I experienced with my father. I loved my dad with all of my Being and miss him in ways that cannot be expressed through language. When he died, my heart endured a devastating blow that knocked me down in unspeakable ways.
Yet, here’s how you know for certain I’m leading with my Heart… my dad didn’t and couldn’t (probably) teach me about how to follow my heart. He died from a heart attack. Most likely, burnout and shame were the culprits of his Heart attacking him. I didn’t learn the power of vulnerability or the strength derived within honesty and transparency from my father. Looking back, I believe he struggled to be vulnerable and couldn’t find the strength to share and express his Heart.
And, my heart said ‘Yes’ to the unflappable Love between us. And, my heart said ‘No’ to his premature burnout in Life. In my heart, I know he would be proud of me for learning to follow my heart AND for living differently than he lived.
Which is the hardest thing my Heart has ever had to admit...