Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski has been on my list for a while. Book Riot listed it as one of their Books of the Year, and a few different colleagues, podcasts, and blogs have recommended it. I was excited to hear it recommended as a counterpoint some of the more extreme productivity books. I appreciate how it gives advice that is grounded in research, and approaches the reader where they are with non-judgmental methods. The book itself is composed of three parts:
- What You Take With You
- The Real Enemy
- Wax On, Wax Off
The meat of the book lies in part one. This is where they explain the stress cycle, and discuss how to move from tension to release without too much collateral damage.
Although the book is titled Burnout, the book address both those stressed to the point of breaking, and those who see themselves on the path to the breakdown. What I appreciate most about the Nagoskis is that they base all of their suggestions and approaches in reality. They remind me of Roxane Gay’s book Hunger. Gay opens her memoir with the caution that “There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans…Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.” Similarly, Burnout is not a charming before and after book. While they use examples of imaginary women formed from an algamation of antecdotes they’ve heard from others, the Nagoskis don’t refer to their strategies as cures. Instead, these strategies are a means of release, of lowering the built-up tension to something manageable. Despite the title, this is not a book that shows you how to never experience stress or burnout again. Instead, it contains straight forward, applicable methods to help you mitigate your stress level.
Part I: What You Take With You
Complete the Cycle
The first chapter reframes stress as part of a cycle. It’s something that will recur, yes, but it doesn’t have to be awful all of the time. Everyone experiences stress, some beneficial but often not, and the strategies recommended act as a release valve to prevent the often resultant burnout. A continuous cycle of recognizing stress and utilizing coping strategies can help even things out. The Nagoski’s use the flight, fright, or freeze responses as a way of looking at how stress takes shape in the body, and the role catharsis plays in exiting the resultant anxieties and bodily impulses that result from the stress. Often, the response to stress is to let it go or to minimize it into something that’s not worth worrying about. And while that may be true, for those (I mean me) inclined toward more negative readings, it says that your body is foolish for reaching that way and if you were better at letting things go you wouldn’t even be stressed in the first place. By focusing on the physiological purposes and implications of those stress reactions, the Nagoskis validate whatever stress you may encounter, and give a method for creating catharsis that doesn’t delegitimize your concern.
What I appreciate most is that the Nagoskis provide ways for you to use their methods with whatever adaptations you need. One of the most commonly recommended methods of stress reduction is to exercise. The Nagoskis solidly acknowledge its ability to help, along with its other benefits. But there are plenty of people who for various reasons can or will not do strenuous, physical exercise. The important thing to recognize in this situation is that the stress reduction can still be achieved by moving your body in ways that simulate the release felt from these types of exercise. Exercise allows your body to create a physical tension that can match the mental stress you feel, and then release and execute the physiological response your mind wants to take: flight. Acknowledging that exercise can sometimes be seen as a privilege or luxury, they include an anecdote in which a woman who cannot exercise desperately needs a release from stress. She is advised to lie in bed and focus on building physical tension in her body, then release it. This example, one of my favorite anecdotes of the book, shows how they are not going to simply tell you to not stress, to just get over it, or to just exercise. They will dig into the why of its effectiveness and look at what alternate methods can accomplish the same, if not a similar goal.
One of the biggest difficulties I face is in dealing with what they call “The Monitor.” This is their name for the internal voice that spits back all the criticism and negative thoughts you’ve absorbed from both yourself and from others. This is the voice that tells you to give up. But instead of telling that voice to shut up, which most advice would do, the Nagoskis dissect just why it pops up when it does. In Chapter 2, the Nagoskis describe the Monitor as a voice that is watching for the moment when the effort it thinks you are putting in doesn’t have you at the progress you think you should be at [CHECK FOR CRITERIA]. Perception plays a huge role in this, yes, but this criteria also helps to understand why the Monitor isn’t shouting down negativity constantly. There are plenty of times when my inner voice is not clouding my mind with criticisms and the don’t-wanna’s or not-gonna’s. But in the times when it is, it’s easy to give in. What the Nagoski’s recommend instead is to redefine winning. Knowing the monitor is watching effort and progress, if you change what ‘winning’ entails, you can prevent the monitor from acting. Their solution is somewhat similar to the SMART goal method, but with a few very meaningful changes. Along with larger goals, you should have incremental goals that are:
- and personal (p.39).
The soon isn’t time-specific, though, instead it refers to a goal that is “achievable without requiring patience” and positive should “be something that feels good, not just something that avoids suffering.” The concrete must be measurable, and by making it certain, you are focusing on things within your control. This advice dovetails nicely with the Atomic Habits advice to make a habit identity-based.
After reading the book, I worked on identifying as a runner, not just someone trying (and failing) to run. And it helped a bit, but I would still have bad days. I only persisted with the help of my boyfriend and the RunBet challenges. Because I very much wanted running to be a thing we share. Using the guidelines from this book, I worked on examining why my monitor told me to quite relatively early, and how I could help mitigate it. And the goal is now: do I feel that I am improving my performance. It’s not “am I there yet” nor is it “why can’t I do this without pain.” This goal allows me to “fail” and still count it as a win. And that has been very powerful.
In the third chapter, the Nagoskis return to an idea from the beginning of the book, their discussion of what they term “Human Giver Syndrome.” This syndrome is most commonly experienced as the emotional exhaustion that comes from being positioned as a giver only. They are penalized if they want to receive, and instead are expected to derive complete fulfillment from the sacrifice of themselves so that others can do. As someone who works in a library whose foundation is service, and is incredibly familiar with the gendered socialization of women to be givers, having a name for the experience wasn’t too groundbreaking. However, I recognize that being able to name something is powerful. What I appreciate most from this chapter, however, is how the Nagoskis thread the needle to critique the idea that service-oriented women must give all of themselves while not discounting the very real sense of fulfillment that can come from service.
The Nagoskis recognize that having a larger sense of meaning is an important part of self-actualization, and as a tool that helps combat the daily grind. They identify approaches to meaning that include service, but also recognize other conditions for fulfillment. In doing so, they recognize that meaning 1) may not be fun, 2) offers a sense of positive significance, 3) is fluid, and 4) has physical benefits in addition to the mental (p. 57-58). The third condition was the most new to me. You mean I don’t have to create an end-all/be-all mission for my life? 7 Habits for High Successful People, among other productivity and business books, asks you to create a mission for yourself. During that exercise, I found it extremely difficult to create a concise statement that could encapsulate my feelings about my personal and work lives in a way that could guide me through the future. And while your mission and meaning may not be the same, knowing that it can change is incredibly freeing.
The Nagoskis also emphasize that you make the meaning for yourself, and that comes from looking at the journey not the destination. They identify that this meaning commonly stems from one (or more) of three sources: legacy, spirituality, and intimate connections with others (p.59).
Of course, the Nagoskis have a strategy for naming your meaning as well. method I prefer is when they suggest that you “think of a time when you experienced an intense sense of meaning or purpose or “alignment” or whatever it feels like for you. What were you doing? What was it that created that sense of meaning”. I feel lukewarm about assigning meaning to legacy or spirituality, and I’m not entirely sure about connections with others. But I do know that I feel strongest and most at peace when I can say that I am happy with myself: when my routine helps me move past depressive or anxious fogs, and when I feel that my mind and my body are capable and strong. I have already done a lot of work on my sense of what they call “Human Giver Syndrome” by slowly and painfully shifting my sense of validation away from what others think. However, it’s still a powerful moment for me when the discuss the internal nature of meaning. It’s not something that can be taken away. It will be there, waiting for me, able to help me repair the emotional and mental damage that I’ll encounter through life.