More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Burnout Is the Echo of Self-Judgment

Burnout takes many forms, but perhaps the most common one is that of exhaustion. There’s a feeling of surrender to a torrent of expectations, much of which are derived from workplace demands and pressures. You can’t seem to turn off the spigot of work that overflows your plate, and the result is a feeling of overwhelm that characterizes this condition.

While this depiction makes sense, I’m realizing that it makes a fundamental error. It assumes that burnout is a response to external events, when in reality, burnout is entirely the result of inner exploitation. This may sound confusing at first, so today, I’m going to take a moment to untangle the knots.

When it comes to work, there are essentially two forces that ensure your competency:

(1) An external authority figure that keeps inventory of your performance, and

(2) An inner critic that judges whether you are doing enough.

#1 is what is referred to as a “boss,” and #2 is what we can refer to as “yourself.”

The common view of burnout uses #1 as its lens. This is why any image of burnout will have an overwhelmed worker at her desk, staring anxiously at a towering pile of papers. Implicit in this image is a demanding boss that’s giving the employee far more than she can handle, which leads to acute distress.

Sure, this archetype of an insufferable boss may be the reason someone burns out at work, but I don’t think it’s the main one. The real reason resides in the second lens, which is how the inner critic keeps you chained to the belief that you’re not good enough.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has an interesting theory on the connection between capitalism and burnout. He argues that capitalism has been so successful because it has aligned one’s productivity with monetary rewards, which ultimately will be used to purchase freedom. So if you are valuable to someone else for long enough, you will eventually be able to buy the ability to do whatever you want.

But in the quest to pursue this freedom, you will end up chaining yourself to the value you produce for others. After all, if money is what buys freedom, you need to ensure that you’re being useful enough to get paid in the first place. This results in a kind of circular logic that looks like this:

Freedom is the great promise of capitalism, but it has also enshrined productivity as a virtue in order to achieve that aim. You will always feel the need to produce value for others, and it is this ceaseless tug on your conscience that makes your inner critic so loud. No external boss will be needed for you to get to work, as your inner critic will always remind you that there’s more to be done.

This dynamic is what is referred to as self-exploitation, which leads to the feeling that you’re never enough. This results in the continuous extraction of value from your own mind to prove that you can achieve the freedom you so desire. And it is this relentless chastising of oneself that ultimately takes the form of burnout.

Byung-Chul Han points to his home country of South Korea as a textbook case of what he calls a “burnout society.” Korea is an astounding case of economic growth, where a once-impoverished nation has grown to one of the powerhouses of the world. In fact, as recently as 1997, Korea required emergency aid from the IMF to alleviate the effects of a currency crisis. Fast forward to today, and it’s now in the top 10 economies by GDP, and is one of the leading exporters of culture across the world.

But Han states that this growth and wholehearted embrace of capitalism has come at detrimental costs to its population, particularly to its youth. This is evidenced by Korea’s horrifically high suicide rates, which stands amongst the highest in the world and is disproportionately skewed to young students. Han argues that the mounting pressure for people to succeed causes them to be disillusioned with themselves, which makes the inner critic roar with self-hatred. And it is the inability to cope with the resulting burnout that causes people to depart existence entirely.

Now, the burnout you’re familiar with (hopefully) isn’t as severe, but you’ll likely understand what it means to live with that inner critic. After all, if you were truly content with who you were, you wouldn’t feel overwhelmed with what you have to do next. If you didn’t think that you had to prove anything to anyone, then any demand on your attention will seem far less urgent.

When I think about the problem of burnout, I direct my attention to this one part of the diagram:

While the ubiquity of money and the desire for freedom are fixed variables, the belief of how valuable we must be to others is variable and can therefore be adjusted. If you define yourself solely by what you produce, then burnout will be an inevitable feature of your days. Since the expectations you have of yourself will continuously exceed the energy you can expend, the inner critic will always be there to tell you that you’re not doing enough.

But if you believe that there’s an essence to you that exists independent of what you produce, then you can tame that inner critic’s voice. If you know that you – as you are now – is deserving of kindness irrespective of how “valuable” you are, then you can lessen the heaviness that characterizes your work life.

You don’t have to quit your job or stop working to do this; in fact, all it takes is a framing shift. By realizing that your identity is distributed across many areas, you can approach your work identity with a lightheartedness knowing that it doesn’t define the entirety of who you are.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

The Levers That Money Can’t Pull

The Many Worlds of Enough

The Riddle of Rest

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