Men don’t want to admit they are burned out. Even when they are willing to recognise their tiredness, grumpiness, and diminished performance, there are ways to dodge reality: “It’s just a busy stretch.” Or better yet, “I’m fine.”
Of course, for those familiar with the formal definition of burnout, you’ll recognise the symptoms of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy in that vignette. It’s been three years since the World Health Organization added burnout to the ICD-11, the global standard for disease identification, and nearly 40 years since Dr Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term.
So why is it that many men won’t acknowledge that they are experiencing burnout?
A pretzel might help us understand. Or a knot. Either way, it’s a tangle, so let’s look at its strands.
Burnout and the rules of manhood
One of the critical throughlines in Western culture is invisible. It’s the set of unspoken social rules under which men are raised, which requires them to:
- Be successful.
- Project a sense of strength at all times.
- Refrain from revealing their emotions, especially with other men.
- Remain in control.
- Avoid asking for help.
These rules often learned through trial and error by the boys and men around them, provide a guide rope for navigating life’s challenges. For example, I learned the first of these rules–be successful–in an embarrassing interaction many years ago.
Looking back on it, I felt more than the usual type of anxiety one might feel before meeting their future father-in-law. I had been dating his daughter for a while and it seemed clear that we were moving towards tying the knot. Of course, I wanted to make a great impression. Yet, there was a roiling somewhere deep in my gut that, somehow, I wouldn’t measure up.
My anxiety ramped up quickly after our initial exchange of pleasantries on that late spring morning, as my girlfriend’s dad began to interview me.
“So, what do you do for work?” he said, a sense of anticipation spiking in his voice.
I responded tentatively, “I work in the cable television industry, in sales,” hoping he’d leave it there. He did not.
“Oh, that’s big business! What type of sales? Advertising?”
“I might as well get this over with,” I thought, a bloom of embarrassment starting to rise in my cheeks. “I sell cable TV door-to-door.”
I watched the excitement about his daughter’s choice of partner evaporate in an instant. I felt like crawling into a corner to hide.
Over the next several minutes I weaved in and out of embarrassment as I sought a way to get on this man’s good side. Eventually, I blurted out something about not wanting to wake up early, put on a tie, and work in an office. That statement was 100% true for me. Unfortunately, that combination also described to a T his lengthy–and rather successful–career. He was not impressed.
So, within 6 months where was I? Yup. Getting up at 6:30am, slip a tie around my neck, and heading into an office. I’d learned a social rule and I didn’t want to run afoul of that again. And while I achieved my own successes in the corporate world, I paid a heavy price. By going against my own instincts, I put myself in situations that would lead to my eventual burnout, which lasted for several years and cost me that marriage, not to mention lots of money and a career that I’d never really wanted to sign up for.
Shame: the second strand:
Why didn’t I break the rules of manhood and pursue some type of alternate career path?
Shame. Or more precisely, the fear of shame. I didn’t want to let my future father-in-law down. Nor did I want my girlfriend to see me as incapable of providing for her and the family that we might have one day. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly aware of the success that my friends were having–getting promotions, making big money, buying houses, etc.
I was afraid that if I followed my intuition and my dreams (which might’ve led me into music or entertainment) I’d get mocked for not having a “real job” and not living up to my earning potential. Worse than that, I didn’t want to be seen as not being man enough to provide for my family.
In recent years, researchers–chief among them Brené Brown–have helped us understand the powerful effects of shame, as well as what stimulates it. For men, as Dr Brown found in her research, shame is invoked anytime they are perceived as being weak.
Fail to live up to societal standards for men? Weak.
Follow the rules of manhood, but struggle to keep up with their impossible nature? Weak.
Run yourself into a state of burnout trying to measure up? Weak.
Ask a human to always succeed, to never show emotions, to always be strong and in control, and to never ask for help, and you’ve set up a perfect formula for failure. And for men, failure is weak, which invites shame. This is exactly why shame is both a root cause of men’s burnout and the chief reason why they stay burned out. What a vexing double bind.
Expansive intimacy: how ‘tough guys’ defeat burnout
While the tangled knot of burnout and shame is complex and hard to undo, there is a lifeline, one that runs straight through shame.
In the Al-Anon 12-step recovery programme, which helps friends and family members of alcoholics reckon with the disease of alcoholism, participants learn that “our secrets bind us in shame”. It’s a powerful message, one that helped me finally open up to the pain in my life so that it could be healed.
This simple lesson – that shame lives in secrecy – lies at the heart of how to move beyond the double bind that burnout and shame create.
Men tend to hide our deep inner realities – fears, pain, worry, longing, and more – lest we run afoul of those who enforce the rules of manhood. Holding these powerful forces in for long periods of time can lead to burnout, not to mention anxiety, depression, and worse.
Yet when we reveal those realities, something magical happens. Sharing the feelings that invite shame creates a powerful bond with another person. It opens up an intimate connection, one in which we can be seen for our full selves. We also come to see others for who they truly are.
Of course, in a culture in which intimacy has been so narrowly defined, the options for embracing intimacy might seem limited. For many men, that probably means that the only place they let themselves explore true intimate connection is with a romantic partner. The bad news in that situation is that putting all of your emotional needs on a single person is a proven recipe for straining and breaking relationships. (Trust me on that one.)
The good news? There are endless ways in which we can build intimacy in our lives. Here’s what a few of them look like:
- Bond over an activity. You might take your kids to a museum with a commitment to be totally engaged with their natural curiosity, for example. Or join that mountain biking club to get some time with the guys in an exhilarating experience.
- Go have a spiritual experience. For many, going to see a live performance of any kind qualifies. A comedy show, rock concert, your kid’s dance recital. Or maybe it’s a walk through the woods, in which you explore one of nature’s finest cathedrals.
- Tell someone how you really feel. (“I’m fine” does not qualify.) Seriously, guys. Sharing what’s honestly going on inside you is a double win. It makes you feel better to get whatever it is off your chest, and it frequently causes the other person to recognise your humanity. It also means you’ve got another person in the world who truly gets you. Then, when the temperature is rising again, you can go back to them and not have to work it out on your own.
This is what “expansive intimacy” is, and it’s an essential strategy for letting out the stress that’s been eating us alive. At the same time, it’s a pathway to discovering new passions in our lives. And when we have a wide range of relationships in which we can bring the wide range of life’s ups, downs, and in-betweens into? Well, we won’t feel ashamed of who we are or aren’t. And we won’t burn out.
Burnout continues to tie us in knots. Its partnership with shame, and its roots in the impossible set of social rules for manhood, create a set of pretzel logic that tells us to turn inwards when life gets hard. But doing so tightens the knot, rather than loosening its grip on us.
Millions of men are burned out. Many got there because of an overreliance on work as the basis of their status and identity. To borrow a principle from many wise people throughout history, to find a true alternative to burnout we need to think differently than how we got here.
Creating expansively intimate relationships throughout our lives is that alternative.
Jim Young is an executive coach, facilitator, author, and speaker. His book, Expansive Intimacy, helps men create a more expansive form of success.