We think of burnout as simple mental and physical exhaustion, but it's more than that according to psychiatrist and author Josh Cohen. After all, if burnout were just extreme tiredness, a bit of rest would cure it. But as anyone who has ever had the misfortune to experience the end stages of burnout can tell you, the worst thing about the condition is the dual feeling that you can't do anything but you really should be doing so much more. Burnout never lets you really rest.

At its core, burnout stems from the anxiety "we might not be doing enough--and that we might not be enough," he explained on amazing book recommendation site Five Books recently. As a result, we run ourselves ragged and still feel inadequate and unsuccessful.

So what's the cure? That's a complicated question that spurs a long and thought-provoking discussion on the site, but a good place to start tackling your burnout is with these five books, Cohen insists.

1. The Weariness of the Self  by Alain Ehrenberg

Yes, this one sounds a bit heavy, but I think a lot of Americans will see themselves in Cohen's description of the book's critical look at the relationship between depression and our ever-optimistic, can-do culture.

"Positive thinking always assures us that we can be more, that we can do more, that we can achieve and attain more," Cohen writes. "This is supposed to be empowering. It's supposed to make us feel very good about our own capacities. But, in fact, it sets us up against an ideal of ourselves, in the face of which we always feel inadequate, and against which we're always falling short." In other words, because we're always told we can do anything, we frequently feel bad we're not doing more.

Hikikomori are Japanese young people who refuse to leave their rooms. Why would burnt-out American professionals want to read about them? Because, Cohen insists, the phenomenon is a great illustration of the point that burnout is more about expectations than exhaustion.

The book "cements the idea of burnout as being a malaise of inadequacy and a sense of failure," he explains. "These kids are, in a way, so overburdened by the prospect of not achieving, of not fulfilling the potential that's been transmitted to them in the educational system, in the employment system, by their family. There is so much anxiety about fulfilling the role that's been legislated for them in their future that they've shut down." 

Cohen continues: "They've burnt out not so much as a result of what they've done, but as a result of a burden of expectation that they've internalized." (Which reminded me of this viral BuzzFeed article on the real reason many Millennials are so bad at adulting and basic chores.)

3. Exhaustion: A History by Anna Katharina Schaffner

Maybe your burnout is bad, but at least you can take comfort in the fact that you're the latest in a long line of weary achievers. Schaffner traces the problem of exhaustion all the way back to ancient Greece and the Bible. "Ecclesiastes is one of the great statements of weariness of the self: 'Vanity, all is vanity,'" Cohen notes.

4. Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood

But don't blame your burnout just on your own psychology. Politics, culture, and the modern economy all play a role too, as Southwood explains in his book. Not only is work more precarious these days, but it also demands a lot more from us emotionally. We not only have to get stuff done, but we also have to broadcast our achievements and our supposed joy in accomplishing them.

"Southwood really anatomizes the new culture of the workplace that ties the precarity of finding work and keeping work to this culture of enforced positive thinking and action," notes Cohen. "That's what he's describing as non-stop inertia, because you feel like you're never really getting anywhere. You have to keep going at a pace that makes your enthusiasm visible."

5. Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

What does severe burnout feel like from the inside? You need to look to literature to find out. Cohen's unlikely recommendation is this 19th-century novel.

"Against Nature is hysterically funny in many ways," Cohen promises. "It's about a languid aesthete called Jean des Esseintes who retreats to his family villa in Fontenelle, outside of Paris. The novel portrays brilliantly all the paradoxes and tortures of what we now call burnout--arguably more accurately than any nonfictional treatment." 

Published on: Feb 25, 2019
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