Women today are breaking gender norms at every turn. Women run companies and countries. Women lead organizations and steer political campaigns. Despite this freedom, women are facing burnout and chronic illness at alarmingly high rates and many feel too exhausted to truly enjoy their lives.
The current popular usage of the term burnout is broader than its original definition. According to the psychologists who first helped define the term in the 1970s and 80s, burnout means experiencing emotional exhaustion and apathy or cynicism about one’s job, combined with a decreased sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
While the term as defined here applies only to work life, humans are complex beings and I believe burnout can impact our lives outside of work, including our roles as parents and individuals. I see a lot of overlap between the definition of burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome, which impacts women at a rate 3 to 5 times higher than men. Other chronic illnesses like digestive disorders and autoimmune conditions have all been shown to have psychosomatic origins, meaning that our emotional and psychological health contribute to developing these conditions. I suspect that many people facing these conditions are also experiencing burnout.
While burnout can impact anyone, women experience burnout more frequently than men. Why? Because in our current social system being or acting like a cis-gendered white male is idealized, encouraged and rewarded. Women and people of color get paid less and are at higher risk for harassment, violence and systemic oppression. Women also do more unpaid emotional labor and housework than men. While I haven’t found research on this yet, I believe that people of color experience burnout in higher numbers, as well as those who don’t fit into our binary view of gender.
Stress is a part of all of our lives and contrary to popular belief, stress itself isn’t bad. Stress gives us energy and focus and can encourage us to perform at peak levels. But we need time to release and rest between periods of stress. Burnout happens when stress and emotional experiences compound because they aren’t fully felt, expressed and released.
Take the example of a gazelle being chased by a lion. The gazelle senses the threat and adrenaline flood its system, dilates its pupils to see better and pumps blood to its legs to help it run fast. If the gazelle outruns the lion, it gets to rest, stress hormones decrease in its body and its nervous system stabilizes because the lion is no longer a threat. Stress can lead to burnout when the metaphorical lion is constantly at your heels and you aren’t able to shift your nervous system into rest, digest and repair mode. Bottom line: Repeated stress without relief leads to burnout.
There are many short-term solutions to managing burnout like starting a meditation practice, shifting your diet, or taking time off. While each of these interventions address the symptoms of burnout they don’t get at the root cause, which is much more complex than work-related stress.
Work and life stress are only part of the prerequisites for burnout. Underlying societal conditioning and ingrained patriarchy persist in all of us despite the era of “equality” we live in. These tend to manifest as a sense of unworthiness caused by being born into a system that doesn’t value you for who you are.
Hyper-successful women often work extra hard to compensate for these feelings of unworthiness. A week long vacation might be exactly what’s needed to rest and reset after a stressful time, but a vacation alone can never break the cycle of burnout the way deep internal work to address your unworthiness and restore wholeness can.
Because burnout is cyclical, women who experience it once, are likely to experience it again. My work is dedicated to breaking that cycle. I shift my clients’ reality and guide them to take radical responsibility for their lives so they don’t experience burnout again.
In the next post, I’m sharing the six essential steps that I use with my clients to prevent and heal from burnout. Hit subscribe on the right to make sure you get it!
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