Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I read this article in New York Magazine a while ago on the science of burnout with a good amount of self-recognition and empathy. The opening is about a researcher whose focus has been on burned out teachers, who after 13 years of research, cannot find the heart to continue that topic. Meta, no? I was going to post on it immediately, but work swamped me and it's probably for the better that I waited to post since it's given me more time to reflect on the past year since I started blogging.

I was very abashedly burned out. Did not want to accept it. Began blogging so that my frustrations had a way of escaping my own hehad before it went supernova. The writing was therapeutic at times, the blog like a friend or confessional in my long sojourns from home. In my line, we not only try to make people stronger, we like to believe that we are superhuman as well. That was what I kept telling myself as I couldn't breathe, could barely eat. Those were very dark days but I revived, slumped, and came back again. Actually, up until a few days ago, I thought I had recovered sooner than I really had. But there's a reason why it's called the healing process. This article captures so much of my experience:

Because many of these people were idealists, and because they worked with the hardest-luck cases, they were highly susceptible to disillusionment. Those who burned out were not only physically and mentally exhausted; they were cynical, detached, convinced their efforts were worthless. They held themselves in contempt. Worse, they held their clients in contempt. They began to loathe the same people they originally sought to help. . . Today, in New York City, everyone knows that the ones “screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems” are as likely to be hedge-fund managers as any species of do-gooders.

Worked overly long hours because I was lonely? Check. Finally realized that no matter how much of myself I threw into work, it would never love me back? Double check. I never got to the stage of loathing the people that I was trying to help, but I certainly didn't think I was worth much at the time. And yet, I had somehow wound up in my field because of burnout. "How strange would it be if people were trying to cure their burnout today by leaping to the helping professions, the same professions that led people to study burnout in the first place?" Indeed. In looking to regain control, I had shifted my energies. In shifting my energies, I found a job that somehow fed my worst perfectionist, overworking tendencies wth my desire to help the underdog.

Researchers have found that there are six main causes of burnout:

In 1981, Maslach, now vice-provost at the University of California, Berkeley, famously co-developed a detailed survey, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure the syndrome. Her theory is that any one of the following six problems can fry us to a crisp: working too much; working in an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little agency or control; working in the service of values we loathe; working for insufficient reward (whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback).

Check. Check (an irony when working in the social justice movement.) Check (more ironies abound.) Check - see struggle to breathe. Five doesn't hold - I don't sell out my values. Check - old supervisor was unable to say nice things.

I had five out of the six causes, which increasingly made me believe that it wasn't necessarily worthwhile to crusade for that specific cause at the cost of sanity and health. Thus I burned out, just like the matchstick picture, I was frazzled and dwindling. I even lost a lot of self respect, which to this day I still kick myself over. (If you can imagine that, it's one hell of a roundabout kick.)

And Farber often calls burnout “the gap between expectation and reward,” which may have the most relevance to New Yorkers. This has always been a city of inflated expectations. People with more modest aims for themselves seem less prone to disillusionment.

Another aspect of Maslach's research found that younger people tend to burn out quickere than old, contrary to expectations. Or perhaps because it is a game of expectations, and I had really high expectations, I fit the model. It makes sense that younger people are more idealistic. "Older workers, as it turns out, have more perspective and more experience; it’s the young idealists who go flying into a profession, plumped full of high hopes, and run full-speed into a wall."

Here I cannot help but think of the tragicly bold figure of Icarus. Icarus who flew too high too fast, melting his fragile wings under the sun's harsh stare.

Bulfinch's Mythhology tells the story of Daedalus and his son thusly:
"They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air. While his mouth uttered cries to his father it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea, which was thenceforth called by his name."

The sensation of inefficiency, of flying faster and harder towards an unfeeling ball of fire that you seek to capture. You have perfect control over your trajectory. The fear of falling. The inability to look down. Sun burning eyes. You have no control. Stop.

Our bodies send out distress signals. Our bodies, ourselves. Our friends tell each other and you to stop. You continue, berating yourself, knowing and not doing. You fall into that hated trap. You are a gerbil, running an unwinnable race. Stop. You aren't helping anyone, much less yourself. Stop. Stop. Stop. Full stop. The fullest stop is when your body gives out on you even though your mind is trying to batter on.

And so one chapter had closed. A whole other universe awaited. Icarus was reborn.



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