Burnout: You Don’t Have to Wait for the Revolution, to Feel Better
Unfortunately, viral article after viral article has concluded either that “ It’s not a problem I can solve,” or “the only solution is revolution.”
Neither of those things is true. In fact, believing burnout is unsolvable is a symptom of burnout. (According to the technical definition, burnout is made of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. That last one is why burnt out people feel like nothing they do can make a difference.)
“Capitalism is not some external enemy that we must defeat and conquer; it is not a virus to our collective immune system. Capitalism is us. It is an autoimmune disease — our own social body attacking itself.”
Things you do can make a difference. My sister and I wrote a whole book about it — 65,000 words of what you can do, based on four decades of science. But I want to spend this article explaining why it’s not true that “because capitalism causes burnout, only revolution can cure it.” (Plus there are practical tips toward the end.)
The cure isn’t revolution, because capitalism is not some external enemy that we must defeat and conquer; it is not a virus to our collective immune system. Capitalism is us. It is an autoimmune disease — our own social body attacking itself, because things got out of whack.
It is true, as the think-pieces have pointed out, that the cure is not “self-care,” either (though capitalism thrives when we believe it is). Self-care is how you, an individual cell in the social body, stay well enough… to continue attacking other cells in the body. Self-care can treat some of the symptoms of burnout, but it can’t cure the disease itself.
If not individual self-care, how do we treat an autoimmune disease?
We help the body learn not to treat parts of itself as the enemy.
Just because a cell in our social body is different from us doesn’t make it “foreign” or a threat; its difference means that it plays a role in our social body that we ourselves cannot play, and so we must protect it, because our own wellbeing within this social body depends on every different cell sustaining its wellbeing. We can’t soothe the inflammation of the social body by attacking any part of it.
No, the cure for burnout can’t be some fantasy of revolution, nor is it the finger-trap of self-care. It is simply care; it is all of us turning toward each other with kindness and compassion. When we see each other’s exhaustion and overwhelm, we offer support without judgment. When we notice our own sense of inadequacy, we allow others to witness it and love us anyway. The “cure” is each of us declining to let the forces of racist, sexist, capitalist oppression stop us from loving the hell out of one other, come what may.
If you’re reading this piece in search of practical tips on how to be not burnt out in the midst of sexist, racist, rabidly exploitative capitalism, here are a few of the most important ideas in the book:
- Wellness is not a state of being, but a state of action. It is the freedom to move through the cycles and oscillations of being human — from stress to relaxation and back, from effort to rest and back, from connection to autonomy and back.
- When you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, chances are what you need is rest. You can’t always get it, but it’s important to notice that the problem is not that your body or mind is “failing” but that it’s starving for rest. Explore your environment for strategies to add a little more rest to your life, and ask for help.
- Listen to your body. Learn what signals it sends when it’s in distress. When it sends those signals, trust it and give it what it needs. That need will usually be some form of body movement, loving connection, rest, or creative self-expression.
- Women and people of color do not need more productivity tools, they do not need more “grit,” they need more help. Give it.
And if you’re worried I’m saying, “Don’t try to change the system; let’s just be nice to each other while the world burns,” I invite you to think bigger. Think outside the boring dynamics of Force A acting against Force B and so Force B retaliates with overwhelming power. Imagine instead Force B transforms into a cloud, saturating Force A with peace until it deliquesces and releases us into the natural, soft flow of being human. Remember, capitalism is us. It cannot stay rabidly exploitative if each of us refuses, a little at a time, day by day, to let it exploit people who are different from us.
When I think about burnout, I think about Audre Lorde. No, not her now-famous, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” but, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (PDF).
We can’t dismantle white supremacist cisheteropatriarchial capitalism with more of the same — with hatred and dehumanization and “canceling.” But with what tool, if not the master’s, can we dismantle the shelter of oppression?
Lorde says: community built on honoring our differences. She calls us to “recognize difference as a crucial strength.” She says,
“Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community does not mean shedding our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”
The cure is not “self-care.” The cure is simply care — all of us, caring for each other, by honoring our differences and loving one another because of them.
Emily Nagoski, PhD is the co-author (with her twin sister) of Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle.