We share about the common topic of everyone’s life at one point of time, “Burnout”. Do you remember how you attempted to relax after rushing through deadlines after deadlines in your job and school. You took that 5 days of leave to a beach destination but ended up even more exhausted than before? Maybe sometimes, the best solution is to.. do nothing.. yet at the same time could one just do nothing and find your way through burnout? Let’s dive in deeper to gain insights to the way out of burnout.
A patient of mine named Elliot recently took a week off from his demanding job as a GP. He felt burnt out and badly needed to rest. The plan was to sleep late, read a novel, take the odd leisurely walk, maybe catch up on “Game of Thrones”. But somehow he found himself instead packing his schedule with art museums, concerts, theatre, meetings with friends in hot new bars and restaurants. Then there were the visits to the gym, Spanish lessons, some flat-pack furniture assemblage.
During the first of his twice-weekly evening sessions, he wondered if he shouldn’t slow down. He felt as exhausted as ever. Facebook and Twitter friends were joking about how it all sounded like harder work than work. “I’m trying to figure out how I’ve managed to be doing so much when I didn’t want to be doing anything. Somehow not doing anything seems impossible. I mean, how can you just…do nothing?!”
When Elliot protests that he can’t just do nothing, he is seeing and judging himself from the perspective of a culture that looks with disdain at anything that smacks of inactivity. Under constant self-scrutiny as to whether he is being sufficiently productive, he feels ashamed when he judges himself to have come up short in this regard. But this leaves him at once too drained to work and unable to rest.
As I describe in my feature for the August/September issue of “1843”, this is the basic predicament of the burnout sufferer: a feeling of exhaustion accompanied by a nervy compulsion to go on regardless is a double bind that makes it very difficult to know how to cope. Burnout involves the loss of the capacity to relax, to “just do nothing”. It prevents an individual from embracing the ordinary pleasures – sleep, long baths, strolling, long lunches, meandering conversation – that induce calm and contentment. It can be counterproductive to recommend relaxing activities to someone who complains that the one thing they cannot do is relax.
So what does it take to recover the capacity to do nothing, or very little? I might be expected at this point to leap to psychoanalysis as an instant remedy. But psychoanalysis is emotionally demanding, time-consuming and often expensive. Nor does it work for everyone (a basic truth of all therapies, physical or mental).
In less severe cases of burnout, it is often the case that difficulties inducing nervous exhaustion are more external than internal. Time and energy may be drained by life events (bereavement, divorce, changes in financial status and so on) as well as the demands of work.
In such cases, it is worth turning in the first instance to more external solutions – cutting working hours as much as possible, carving out more time to relax or for contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation. This is as much a matter of discovering a remedy as the remedy itself. Merely listening and attending to the needs of the inner self as opposed to the demands of the outside world can have a transformative effect.