People who are seriously stressed out often are surprised that rest or removing themselves from the source of stress does not automatically "cure" things. They may take sabbaticals, change jobs, change partners, and "reinvent themselves," only to find themselves susceptible to the same old drained feelings once the excitement of change is over. Because the symptoms are rooted in a continuing emotional experience – namely, one's explanatory style – past perceptions and wounds can continue to infect present realities.
This means that instead of altering external events, the best prescription for stress fatigue may be learning how to adjust our explanatory style. The key to reframing is not hours spent dozing in a hammock in the Bahamas; it is systematic reflection and understanding of the long-standing lenses and filters through which we experience current events. In many cases, introspection, self-help or self-study can develop an ability to reframe. In others, the support and perspective of a therapist, counselor or coach is the best way to reset one's fight-flight-or "veg" reflex. The mere passage of time may deaden the immediacy of a stressful event, but it doesn't eradicate its reverberations. The stress simply goes underground, planting the seeds for the re-experiencing of stress over and again.
Similarly, if the stress derives from unmet internal needs, reframing must include methods for articulating those needs and getting other people to help address them. Reframing seldom works if you do it in a vacuum; indeed, the feeling that you're "going it alone" may increase the feelings of stress.
So what is "burnout?" The late Deborah Arron, a career consultant specializing in the lives and careers of lawyers and author of What Can You Do With a Law Degree? framed a powerful definition: Burn Out is the unacknowledged state of systematically putting others' interests ahead of your own.
Viewed this way, burnout is a unique kind of stressor – one that derives from one's desire to please others, rather than from forces that impinge on us from outside. Burnout often is the hallmark of perfectionists, those of us who feel that we have to excel in all that we do and who strive for the approval of some unseen judge or jury. For these people the drive for achievement is fueled not by the pleasure of achieving personal goals, but for the need to be above the reproach of potential critics. There is a crucial difference between being motivated and being driven. Although both forces may produce stellar results, motivated people stay fresh and energized over time. Driven people burn out.
Burn Out stress cannot be ameliorated through rest and relaxation. It is experienced as an unrelenting obligation to perform for others, and attempts at self-restoration often have the paradoxical effect of producing intense guilt: "I shouldn't be playing golf today, that's so selfish of me. I should be at work, working for others." You can change roles, jobs, geography, everything...and this nagging ball and chain follows you around.
If you say to a perfectionist, "you know, you can't do everything," he is compelled to agree with you, at least outwardly. But in his head he's thinking, "well, maybe I can do everything...or at least I can do more things – and do them better – than most people. All I have to do is try harder and work harder." For people who define their self-image primarily in terms of the approval of others, the pressure to perform never takes a holiday and cannot be given a rest. As one Philadelphia trial lawyer put it, "for years I have felt as if I'm only as good as my last achievement. I feel any lapse in performance will destroy my reputation. I hate this pressure, but it's better than being considered a failure."
Like other emotional stressors, burnout does respond to reframing. The burn in burnout diminishes if instead of saying to oneself, "well, okay, I guess I can't do everything," one can learn honestly to say, "I shouldn't want to do everything. My choices and priorities are mine, they're not shaped by a duty owed to others." Perhaps no form of reframing is more difficult than this. It requires one to confront attitudes and behaviors that have evolved and been reinforced throughout life. People do not become emotionally driven overnight, and they therefore cannot suddenly decide – simply as a matter of sheer determination – they don't want to be driven anymore. People prone to burnout remain susceptible to burnout; their guilt trails them around during their sabbaticals like an unhappy shadow.
So what's the cure? To attack each element of Arron's definition, to pursue "an acknowledged state of systematically putting your own interests ahead of others." This is not a prescription for selfishness; it is a call for learning to assert one's right to a healthy dose of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Kicking vulnerability to burnout is usually an extended process that requires mindfulness – that is, active and conscious reframing of the self-imposed forces that wear you down. Rest, denial and withdrawal will not rewire the underlying circuits to produce relief. However, if you can learn to focus steadfastly the causes of your burnout, to your surprise you may find that the results take care of themselves.