Peggy doesn’t even know what burnout is. Imagine that! I mean, many of us don’t have to imagine, we can just remember: a time, likely in childhood, when life seemed to limit itself to the small world around us. There’s a time when the world and desires, if unfulfilled, potentially fulfillable: I want that doll. I want that box of Lucky Charms. I WANT TO STAY UP LATE. I yearned for things (going to the pool, Christmas) and feared things (the dentist, talking on the phone with my grandparents) but my world was small, the demands on me smaller.
But the privilege of living without anxiety starts young. I had two parents and felt continuously loved and cared for and cherished. I was white, and middle-class, and lived in a town where both of those things were venerated. I went to the “good” public elementary school. I did not experience gender dysphoria. My “work” was to empty the bottom half of the dishwasher. I was not teased for who I was, or who my parents were, or where I lived. I didn’t feel afraid in the home, or of family members. I wasn’t abused by people I trusted in my church. I was not disabled, or grappling with illness, and neither were my parents or anyone else in my immediate family. I ran around my neighborhood without fear. I was never hungry, or worried where my next meal would come for. I had a home, and knew where I would be sleeping the next night. I was able to grow up surrounded by joy and knowledge and promise.
Yes, some of that joy and knowledge and promise transformed into perfectionism and anxiety. But I was not born tired, already exhausted with my parents’ and grandparents’ weight of survival in America as a black or brown person. As poet Tiana Clark wrote in her incredible response to my piece, “I wonder if this zeitgeisty phenomenon — this attempt to define ourselves as the spent, frazzled generation — has become popular because white, upper-middle-class millennials aren’t accustomed to being tired all the time? Aren’t used to feeling bedraggled, as blacks and other marginalized groups have for a long time?”
There are no Burnout Olympics. I cannot stress this enough: acknowledging the ways in which other people are burnt out does not diminish your own feelings of burnout. Reading the hundreds of emails in my inbox from disabled people, caretakers, stay at home moms, students from India and tech workers from Ireland, political activists, genderqueer people, social workers, neuroatypical people, elementary school teachers, high school students, parents of burnt out kids, Indigenous people, pastors, priests and grad students did not make me feel like my experience was less valid, or that I shouldn’t feel burn out because the parameters of my experience were different than theirs.
People wrote me that they felt seen in the description of burnout: that the contours of their experience were articulated. But they wanted to tell me more about the specifics of their experience. They wanted to me to see them even more clearly. That doesn’t feel like work to me, or some due diligence I must fulfill because of my privilege within the world. It feels like community. It makes me feel more empathetic and generous — with others and with myself. It reminds me of the passage I quote in my original piece from social psychologist Devon Price: “If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you,” Price writes, “it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple.”
My own behavior didn’t make sense to me because I didn’t recognize it as burnout. But everyone’s burnout works differently — which is why my immediate follow-up to the piece was to collect 16 different accounts of how burnout accumulates differently for people from different backgrounds, with different life conditions, with different contexts. As I said last week, no one’s “bottom half of their to-do list” — the things they avoid and find themselves incapable of completing — are exactly the same, and the consequences of the inability to complete them are different. If I don’t get my knives sharpened (still haven’t! the sharpener guy wasn’t at the store!) I might accidentally cut myself while cutting onions, but no huge deal. But if one of the things on my list was my inability to go renew my driver’s license, or make a doctor’s appointment, or find shoes that are comfortable for walking, or have a conversation with my kid’s teacher, or tell my boss about a coworker who makes my life hell — the consequences are different.
Which brings me to one of the things I’ve been thinking about all week, and what I’ve been asked, over and over again, in interviews about the piece: what can we do? My general answer is that giving the condition a name, and language to talk about it — and recognizing how unalone we are in the experience — lifts the shame and embarrassment, and liberates us to think and act differently. But I’ve also been thinking about my friend Jonathan Malesic’s response to my piece, and what he suggests at the end:
It may be impossible to eliminate burnout altogether. As long as we toil, there will be pain. But we can surely ease it. Burnout arises in our organizations, but it’s a product of the unhealthy interpersonal relations we have there. That means it’s not fundamentally an economic or political problem. It’s an ethical one. It stems from the demands we place on others, the recognition we fail to give, the discord between our words and actions. The question can’t just be how I can prevent my burnout; it has to be how I can prevent yours. The answer will entail not just creating better workplaces, but also becoming better people.
The question can’t just be how I can prevent my burnout; it has to be how I can prevent yours. Put differently: trying to understand others’ context. Not competing to see whose context is “worse,” but just trying to understand and empathize, and not in a hackneyed way that involves trying to compare your experience to theirs (“I know all about racism because when I was young people made fun of me because I was tall,” etc. etc.) It means listening, and positioning yourself as someone willing to listen, and actually internalizing what you’re told. It believing others and their narration of their experience. But it also means trying — as a parent, or a manager, or a friend or family member or coworker — to avoid creating situations that invite more burnout.
How can you communicate to your kid — in a way that they will actually hear and trust and internalize — that you care about them learning, but that their ability to get into a “good” college is not tied to your love for them? How can you work to make the “mental load” in your household visible to your partner, and collaborate with them, in a way that’s not passive aggressive or creating even more load, to share it? How can you implement policies in your workplace that don’t incentivize demonstrations of “overwork”? (It’s not just saying that there’s no expectation to answer emails after 6 pm, for example, but that no emails should be sent). Or even just simply acknowledge that events that seem like fun work “escape” to some people on your team feel like much, much more labor to others?
A lot of the messages I’ve received have started with “I’m sorry to give you yet another thing on your to-do list.” But that’s not what those responses feel like. They make me feel seen. If you’re feeling burnout, if you’ve felt burnt out all your life, I hope you find someone who makes you feel seen. I hope we can practice radical empathy while also acting and moving forward with the understanding: it doesn’t have to be this way. But the only way to change things is by acknowledging that this isn’t a personal affliction. It’s a societal one. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility. But it does mean that changing it has to mean thinking beyond one’s self.
If you haven’t already, please do read Tiana Clarke’s piece. And here’s some other things I read and loved/was compelled by this week:
“Sometimes, I’ll read a novel written by a man in which a woman walks home alone, late at night, in America, without having a single thought about her physical safety, and it’s so implausible that I’ll put the book down.”
Do I like shiplap because I like shiplap or because I distrust American financial institutions?!?
A truly lovely conversation with the internet’s most beloved advice columnists
I loved this Rachel Cusk piece on driving very, very much
On the Experience of Entering a Bookstore in Your Forties
(vs. Your Twenties)
#MeToo in the science community — can you separate the science from the scientist?
This week’s “just trust me.”
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