The World Health Organization is reworking their definition of the 'Burnout syndrome' in hopes of sparking some much-needed conversation about what goes on in certain occupational sectors. But this is also a good reminder for each of us to reflect on just what exactly we're shooting for, and what our own expectations do to us.
As a counselor, I think of Burnout as a place we come to when the demands of meeting a certain standard or expectation have left no room for us to adequately take care of ourselves and build things of true value in our lives. This lack of room for life creates exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. And this isn't just caused by high-pressure work environments; it can also be our own inner expectations, the goalposts we look for to tell us we are good people, good parents, good partners. The milestones that we believe will signal to us that we made it, we can be happy.
Do you know what you're striving for? What are those goalposts for you?
"I don't give A's," the professor said with a touch of smugness that first day of class. He went on to explain how A's are about "mastery" and, as students, we needed to learn that mastery wasn't something we'd risen to yet. Or something. I shrugged it off and set my sights on doing what I could to attain the best grade he was willing to give, but another classmate of mine was absolutely freaking out.
You probably ran into other students like her somewhere along your education--the ones who have to get straight A's. Not a bad goal, to be sure. But for this young woman, it was several notches north on the intensity meter. That first day she was in full panic mode.
"You don't get it," she explained in a pained voice, "to me, a B means I failed. It means I wasted my time."
What's the true value of an education? It's about learning, laying a foundation of knowledge on which to grow your competence. Doing your best work is, of course, part of that. However, the fixation my friend had on the letter grade exposed a different standard operating underneath: She wasn't just there to learn; more importantly, she needed to be perfect.
And that standard, while you might think it would drive one to excel and stand out among classmates, was now creating anxiety she couldn't cope with. The goalpost was moved out of range. The thing on which her self-approval hinged had moved out of her sphere of influence.
Over the years I watched students like this one have meltdowns when a test score wasn't as awesome as they hoped or when a group project got frustrating. It wouldn't be enough for them to do well; if they didn't do perfect it was unbearable. More than one ended up dropping out. In the end, I don't believe that the expectation of "anything less than an A is failure" moved them closer to what was truly important.
The Family Man
Being a husband and father is tough. It's a bigger job than anyone expects it to be. So how do you know you're doing it right?
I've had more than one client--more than one friend, too, for that matter--who found himself surprised and frustrated with the pain and dysfunction in his family. "I'm doing everything I'm supposed to," is something most of them said.
And you know, they were right.
It isn't as if they lack dedication--obviously they're willing to put their back into supporting their family--but what so many of us have been sold as the milestone of a good husband and father is a falsehood. It says "providing for your family" is working 60-80 hour weeks to earn a material lifestyle that's the envy of your neighbors. It tells you to "set a good example" by always being the smartest, always being right, always winning. And ironically, it makes it impossible to invest in what family is really made of: relationship. Where togetherness and belonging should be, we find angst and conflict and disappointment.
So as the struggle to meet the demand consumes your time and energy, only to move you further from your loved ones, you feel the joy and satisfaction fading out from life. And you know it's not the life that, many years down the road, you'll wish you had lived.
When the expectations we hold ourselves to are impossible, and pull us away from what makes life worth living, the light inside begins to burn out. We're not just physically exhausted, there's an emotional ache that begs for something to change.
How do these false milestones and impossible goalposts enter our lives? The secret lies in our stories, and in how we continue to tell our own stories to ourselves.
So what are your goalposts? When did you decide that that was what you needed to be a good person, parent, or partner?
And, if you could, would you write a new story?
I'd love to help you start.
Mike Ensley is a Nationally Board-Certified Professional Counselor in Loveland, Colorado.
Contact him today.