Burn-out: An omen of a new world - Flux Aeterna - Praktijk voor Psychotherapie
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Burn-out: An omen of a new world

Burnout is everywhere. Every week I hear a new story on the radio or I read a staggering new statistic in the newspaper. The analyses are thrown around: too much work, too little rest, too much distraction by new technology, too little resilience of the younger generations, too little self-discipline, stressful combination of work and family life. 

Burnout is not anymore about work. Proof be the burnouts among students, stay-at-home parents and burnouts among jobseekers. As a psychotherapist I’ve seen the myriad of people struck by burn-out: young, old, successful or at the bottom, with or without a job, healthy or sick, rich or poor. Burnout is the great equalizer it seems.

I’ve been fascinated by burnout for a long time and I’ve come to belief that burnout is not at all a disease, or a shortcoming. 

It is an omen, a symptom, a harbinger. Burn-out is telling us something is not working anymore. It is the canary in the coal-mines. An old world view is crumbling, and at the same time something new and exciting is being born into this world.

The old world view that is dying is a world view in which our deepest value as human beings has been made conditional. It is a society in which value, love and inclusion must be earned. All of us have been told the manifest toxic lie that we have to prove ourselves – from school and college onwards, and throughout our adult careers. And in more recent times, the constant struggle to prove our worth has spread onto social media, where we now prove our constant success to our social circle, from the holidays we take to the meals we eat.

Everything is our life has become a statement, an unconscious throbbing yearning to belong, to be appreciated, to be loved. Since we have been marinated in this culture of conditionality from childhood, we no longer notice it. And yet, within most of us, a deep-seated belief has taken root: “I am only worth something if or as long as I …”. 

It it this compulsion of constantly proving our value which makes us collectively sick. In this culture, our constant yearning for appreciation remains unmet. It’s a vicious cycle. The more conditional we make love and appreciation, the more we try being a certain way or doing certain things in order to obtain it. But conditional love is by its very nature impermanent. So the cycle of striving begins anew. No wonder we burn out. No wonder so many people yearn for retirement – a time when we finally don’t have to prove ourselves anymore.

At a societal level, our instilled belief that our value is conditional on what we do or have, feeds a culture of fierce competition in which people weigh their worth against each other, in which we want to elbow our way to the top of the mountain in the vain hope of still receiving value and love. Once we are there, however, we feel the emptiness of it. It’s the stuff mid-life crisis is made of. 

At the deepest level, however, this conditionality of our worth creates a world where people experience constant inner stress, fear of lack, fear of meaninglessness, and doubt about their inherent worth. It means we live in a constant state of emotional threat, of limbic fear. We feel chronically unsafe. Ultimately it is a world of separation and deep solitude. It drains us. No wonder we burn-out. 

I have come to see people suffering from burn-out as the vanguards, the champions of this new world. Those who come to me with burnout, exhaustion, stress or other psychological complaints are the ones whose hearts and souls finally say: I cannot and do not want to participate in this rat race any longer. I feel deflated, I feel the pointlessness of having to prove myself endlessly in this hamster wheel. I want another reality.

And as the number of people who see the pointlessness of it grows, so too do the contours of the new world that is being born.

A new world view

The new world view that wants to rise from the ashes is a drastic paradigm shift: from an unattainable external value to a deep knowing of our inherent value. From the never-ending rat race to prove ourselves to resting in the knowledge of being of value and importance to our community as our innate birthright.

It is a world where people no longer have to do anything to be seen, appreciated and included. It is a world of radical and unconditional inclusion. Your value as a human lies in you being a breathing, living human being. No further qualifications needed. No person left behind.

The generations that are now coming of age, are people who understand as no generation before them that our world is super-interconnected. It is a generation that has self-developed like no other before it  (language, travel, studies) and is now looking how to be meaningful with all those talents and skills. It is a generation that understands that solely enriching yourself is being arrested in our human development. Self-development has no meaning if you can’t give yourself away to a bigger cause.  All the people in burn-out that I have treated became happier and regained their productivity when they started dedicating their talents to some greater cause. They found a meaning, a sense of belonging.

And herein lies the essence of this new world view: happiness as a human being is not merely about developing oneself, one’s own abilities. The ultimate happiness lies in being able to give yourself  – your talents and gifts – to a greater purpose. It is  what contribution is all about.

Citizens of this new world know and feel that our deepest happiness in life lies in being meaningful to others. In other words, I give myself to the world, and the world gives me back a deep sense of belonging. The ultimate win-win.

People who give in to their burn-out are really the first citizens of this new world. I have profound respect for them. They are the people who will change our world. They are champions.