Personal, Academic, and Professional Back-Drop
Since my research on the epidemic of burnout was published – with a concentration on its differences from depression -- I have been asked frequently the genesis of my interest. Although I did not realize it at the time, the journey began during my years as a student at Goucher, where, along with many fellow students, I became deeply involved in student activism. This passion was nurtured by many on our faculty who deeply believed in the necessity of a more just society for all of our citizens.
As my 55th college reunion approaches, I hope what I write about our present difficult, challenging period holds meaning and relevance to readers. In addition, I write as an expression of my gratitude for the importance of individual social and political responsibility stressed at my alma mater.
At Goucher, we were urged to understand what stood in the way of equal opportunity for all of our citizens and to work tirelessly toward necessary change. No one on our faculty believed this more deeply than my mentor and the department chair of political science, Dr. Brownlee Sands Corrin, who encouraged us to follow this pursuit throughout our lifetimes.
During the period I was a student at Goucher all stores and services in the Towson community (where our college is located) -- restaurants, coffee shops, a beauty salon, a bowling lane -- banned African Americans. I was incensed, and along with others, including several faculty members, I became an activist. Following two years of communication attempts, leading to protest with no change, we threatened a student boycott of all establishments in the Towson area. The Baltimore Sun wrote about these efforts. Finally, all stores and facilities became desegregated and we realized the power of group activism.
I have been blessed with a few honors in my life, but the one I cherish most was given to me at my graduation in 1962 because of this work.
For those far younger than I who may be reading this, I will try to show how often the road we deeply wish for, plan to take, and may even have begun to travel, will abruptly and often painfully be uprooted. When that happens, there is only one choice: refuse to be defeated and find another road. The combination of your self-awareness and freedom to take wise risks will be key in the determination of your path, and you are the one who must learn to make these decisions.
My first job after graduation was as a regional coordinator for the Young Democrats. These activities were a continuation of those that began at Goucher. My office was a small cubby at the DNC, pre-Watergate days. During this time President John F. Kennedy, whom I had met at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, encouraged me to begin graduate work in social work at Catholic University.
Since I am from an Orthodox Jewish Baltimore family, the president’s suggestion (taken after a year working at the Washington bureau of CBS News) seemed startling. Yet, it is impossible to tell you the gifts of this extraordinary experience: Nuns, priests, and devout Catholics became my dearest friends, and we held each other tightly on the tragic day that our president was assassinated.
The president’s suggestion of profession and school not only enriched my life immeasurably, but also led to a way to support myself years later and to afford the legal help and therapy when divorce with two young daughters, ages 4 and 7, became necessary in my life.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania (Penn continued my scholarship and stipend), where my husband, whom I married only weeks after the completion of my first year of graduate school, was also a graduate student.
Part of the work toward my degree involved a “field placement” in a social work setting. My setting was the Philadelphia Society to Protect Children, known as a “protective service” agency. Our clients were neglected and abused children and their families, with whom we worked intensively. When we could not bring about change and safeguard the children (who sometimes temporarily lived in a large townhouse, with dormitories and classrooms attached to our offices), we petitioned the court to protect them by removing them from their parents.
AT PSPC, I learned so very much from a rainbow coalition of dedicated social workers who taught me how to endure the physical and emotional abuse and torment I saw, support suffering children, and inspire and motivate their parents toward change. However, although I stayed with the agency for a year after graduation, I saw that this work necessitated looking at my own life in ways that I was not yet ready to face. I left PSPC, promising myself that when I was able, I would return to the quality of work I saw carried out with such devotion, skill, and excellence.
After the birth of two daughters, deep personal pain had to be faced and dealt with. Although the word “burnout” had not yet been coined, nor the condition described, burnout was the precise state of confusion I found myself overwhelmed by. My life came to a screeching halt: Immobilized I had no choice but to face that before I could help others find justice and direction, I would first have to find it for myself. In a state with no alimony, no equitable division of property and no “no-fault” divorce, I was finally able to attain my divorce. Four years after separating from the father of my children, I remarried; my life stabilized; and my promise to myself to return to “protective service” could be kept.
During the decade of my first marriage, I watched the major institutions we relied upon to protect the well being of us all fractured by distrust, discord, inflexibility and yes, hatred. In the passing years, regardless of one’s political affiliation, it has grown more and more apparent that the institutions of Washington are breaking down and that our electoral process is fraught with intricate and complex dangers. Further, the art of give and take, and the necessity of compromise, each crucial to responsible governance, has evaporated. This absolute necessity for sharing, conversation and discussion that can lead to an understanding of the point of view of another, for the good of the whole – an understanding that results in creative, mature decision making, a process vitally necessary in safeguarding every healthy institution, including marriage and family, seems to have vanished.
The Toll of Burnout: Research and Discovery
In 1991, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, asked me, in addition to my private practice, to return to “protective service” through a pro bono practice, The practice offered therapy to carefully selected first time offenders in cases of abuse and neglect where there was no fatality. It was a commitment I gladly accepted, one that lasted for over 20 years. (Lynne wisely saw that this approach would be far more effective and far lest costly than incarceration.)
When I returned, PSPC was no longer responsible for neglected and abused children. This responsibility had passed to Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, and much of my rainbow coalition of dedicated teachers and supervisors had left their jobs. Those who remained and those they mentored and inspired were spread paper-thin. Further, I learned that due to limited resources for programs for clients, as well as diminished and inadequate professional support, an estimated 47 to 71 percent of those trained and passionate about this essential work were leaving the field nationwide. Their decision to leave was not motivated by a lack of desire to remain. On the contrary, they left because, in the words of a colleague and friend, “we are burned the hell out.” These departures motivated my six years of research into precisely what burnout is, how it manifests itself, its differences from depression, the toll it takes, and what to do to address and prevent it.
Future Shock and Technology on Steroids
As my research progressed, I once again was reminded of the futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 groundbreaking book, Future Shock. The one reliable constant, of course, is change, but Toffler argued that our society was undergoing what I think of as “change on steroids,” as we moved from an industrial society to one he described as a “super-industrial society.” He predicted that the rate of technological and social change on every front would leave us overwhelmed, disconnected, and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler introduced the term (and state of being), “information overload,” predicting that the majority of social problems would be symptoms of future shock. Further, Toffler urged us to prepare for extraordinarily fast-paced societal changes, warning that if we did not, these changes would overwhelm and paralyze us, in effect compromising all we hold dear.
A glaring example of the underbelly of predicted change is technology, which, despite its obvious genius, is also man’s latest isolation booth. Unless we make dramatic effort, we are wired 24/7, with little time to think, to be, to share, and to connect. As a result, the average attention span is now 8 seconds. (That’s less than that of a goldfish.)
Think about it: Our communities are disappearing because people are buying online and in bulk. Our reliable neighborhood stores, where we regularly visit shopkeepers who know us and care about us, as we do about them, are disappearing. Increasingly accessible city newspapers concentrating on community and neighborhood issues are dying. Young children, rather than being spoken with, are given iPads at family dinners. Several of my clients are married couples who, in the words of several have “lost each other” due to “no time to connect and share intimacy of any kind.” Others are college and graduate students seeking help to initiate and maintain caring conversation. As one explained, “We move too fast to talk. The idea of sitting down with a person I care about without my iPhone makes me break out into a sweat.”
Four years after Toffler’s groundbreaking work, the German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger examined overload from a psychological perspective. Turning to Webster’s dictionary to define what he saw, he coined the descriptive term “burnout” to describe a state of increasing exhaustion, leading one to become “inoperative” due to “excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.”
Although Freudenberger’s research concentrated on professional responsibilities, burnout is a completely understandable and human response to personal stress and societal overload. Everyone is vulnerable to its clutches. As it progresses, those who suffer experience one or a combination of responses: a strong need to withdraw; an inability to hear another point of view (and in this way connect); the loss of a sense of personal accomplishment; long bouts of irritability and hopelessness, leading to an inability to see clearly and assess a situation rationally. Often there is paranoia, coupled with an attempt to self-medicate through alcohol or drugs.
Further researchers revealed specific personal and professional causes of burnout, which I am condensing to three primary evidence based causes, and taking the liberty, for this discussion, to address on a societal or macro level. For, in this election societal burnout played major roles in voter choice.
1. Compassion fatigue
- State of overload due to pervasive suffering
- Emphasis on the support of others that drain and anger those who feel unheard and invisible
2. Vicarious trauma
- A continual, enveloping lack of community safety and security
3. Countertransference, a term, used in the research into the causes of burnout taken from psychiatry, which describes reactions between client and therapist. Its societal translation is:
- Impact of those in positions of power whose spoken word and decisions either attract support –- or confuse, overwhelm, frighten, and anger
- Dealing with impossible people and impossible situations
- Confronting impenetrable walls of resistance
Through the insights of Toffler and the research of Freudenberger and those who followed him, I realized the ongoing impact of burnout in both society and humankind, and its dangers to us all. I began doing workshops and writing about my findings. After one of my articles won a national award, NASW Press reached out to me for a book proposal. Blanche Schlessinger, my dedicated literary agent, strongly counseled that because burnout is in the wings for us all, I write my book for the general public. However, the droves of trained and committed mental health professionals who were leaving a field they deeply cared about was putting our most vulnerable families at risk, which put all at risk. My passion was to help them to remain in their chosen profession. Later, pleased with the written results of this decision, Blanche kindly said, “If you replace the words ‘social worker’ and ‘mental health professional’ in your shared studies with any profession, including homemaking and volunteer activity, your findings remain relevant.” Some reviewers have generously agreed.
The Candidate Meets the Precarious Times
By the time of the publication of this book, my third, I was writing increasingly about the impact of Toffler’s truths on those who could not keep up with the changes within our “super-industrial society” -- the racial, cultural, and social transformations unimaginable only a decade before. Simply, our vast societal transformation was burning them out.
Several were my clients who, in addition to their family members, bravely defended their cherished country in battle. To quote a Viet Nam veteran, “I risked my life to protect the freedom of others, and now as hard as I try I cannot protect my own family. My government cares more about immigrants than it does about me.”
Some of my clients were laid off as their jobs became obsolete and the companies that employed them closed, downsized, or shifted work to other countries. Feeling confused, invisible, frightened and angry, they longed for political leaders they believed heard them and responded to their frustration and anguish. In the words of a 36-year-old mother of four whose husband’s place of employment, where he worked diligently for 10 years, suddenly closed, “Washington is broken. I do not think either party gives a damn about families like mine.” She confided, “I can’t deal with all the changes in marriage, in who is male and who is female, and who belongs with who. I just can’t keep up anymore.”
Others deeply unsettled by dramatic societal changes are those with the unshakable religious belief that everyone is a born sinner who must repent, that G-d created our world, and that evolution and Creationism cannot exist side by side. They believe, too, that homosexuality is sinful. With this mindset, they are vehemently opposed to changing laws and government programs that ease suffering, offer choice and provide protection for all citizens.
Enter Donald Trump, one who knew how to pitch to the fears, anger and frustration of a large segment of our population suffering from signs of burnout. As a young man, the Republican candidate (whom we know values apprenticeship) had been apprenticed by the unscrupulous, flamboyant, win-at-any-cost attorney, Roy Cohn, a master of inducing fear, who was eventually disbarred. Cohn counseled Donald Trump to act as he did, to think big, to keep his name in the press, and to never admit a mistake. Before this mentorship began, Cohn had been chief counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy in a relentless crusade against Communism and homosexuals in the mid 1950s, where he skillfully avoided public scrutiny of his shameless tactics.
Until he was finally discredited, Joe McCarthy convinced much of the public that he protected them from the menace of Communism and the danger of homosexuals forced to spy in order not to be exposed. In like manner, Trump convinced many of those overwhelmed by a vastly changed society that he would be their protector and savior. To achieve this, immigrants, the press, and long relied upon government institutions became scapegoats, castigated as enemies of the people.
No one, however, received stronger wrath and ridicule than Hillary Clinton, and the Trump campaign is now being investigated as having collaborated with the Russian government to undermine her credibility. Ugly accusations were made about Clinton, once again igniting discussion about her likability, as if this were a necessary quality with so much at stake. (“You do not have to invite her to lunch, dinner, or tea,” I often said, trying levity with those who shared this view. And then continuing, “The future of the Supreme Court rests with this candidate.”)
Of course, the strong appeal of Bernie Sander’s candidacy also shone light on Clinton’s vulnerabilities, as did errors in decision making during her campaign and in the actions of the DNC. Although Sanders backed her strongly when she won her party endorsement, many of his supporters did not. Sanders’ support and a lack of enthusiasm of many of his supporters can also be attributed to burnout. Once again, to quote a client: “Sanders exposed Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and the manipulations of the DNC on her behalf. Her lifetime decisions to compromise values in the name of ambition overwhelms me. I am disconnected from both major candidates and have decided not to vote.”
I have blogged for The Huffington Post since 2008. Many HP bloggers have hundreds plus followers. That is not my case. The only followers I know of are my husband and four adult children (sometimes), who I think may summarize blogs to each other and take turns texting to cheer me on, knowing that what I write goes the way of cyberspace wind. This past summer, I blogged that due to societal overload the appeal of Donald Trump was strong. I felt deep within that this ruthless candidate, who would do anything to win was not going away and was no laughing matter. There was not one comment, but the blog got 15 “likes,” which for me is an extremely high number
By early Fall, I was telling my husband quietly that common sense about who would lead our country would not prevail and Trump was going to win, hoping with every fiber of my being that I was wrong. My reason was not merely Trump’s successful divisive, “stir-the-pot” populism. It also was based on what I can best describe as “a perfect anti-Hillary storm,” one that put many of those who should have been her natural supporters on overload, in effect burning them out. In the words of a close friend, a 46-year-old-journalist and mom, “This campaign began as Hillary’s to lose, and I am worn out watching one campaign error after another. Hillary just does not understand the people she must appeal to.”
On the evening before the election, after two full days of canvassing for Hillary, my husband and I watched on television the extravaganza outside of Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall. (Two of our grandchildren who had worked tirelessly for Hillary for months were at the event with friends and their moms.) On this same evening, Donald Trump was televised surrounded by his family, telling viewers that they were all he needed. This, of course, was said despite ugly revelations of his conduct for decades. What the Clinton campaign leadership failed to grasp is that most people long for a loving, devoted family, one that is secure and whose future is protected, above all else. As we watched my husband knew what I was going to say before I said, “Yes, he will win,”
There are Trump supporters who believed that the unsettling lies, distortions, manipulations, and impulsive promises – as well as the thin skin -- that marked Donald Trump’s candidacy would end with his election, when our 45th president faced the weight, challenges, and realities of his grave responsibilities. However, one’s personality patterns are ingrained and can only change if one sees this change as necessary. Donald Trump had never been forced to see the impossibility of total control over others, as well as control over circumstance, and the dangers of demanding each. An experienced master of relentless, demeaning, and excoriating attacks, he has never been expected to temper his oversized pride with any semblance of humility.
Central in our new president’s vision of himself has been his belief that only he can rescue us from pervasive dangers (grossly exaggerated or non-existent), and therefore, he may not be questioned, even when what he says has no basis of truth. With this in mind, the dire negativity of his inaugural address was predictable, as was the disrespect and disregard shown our 44th president and his wife, present on the dais, and viewed world wide, as all they had worked honorably to achieve in the past eight years was denigrated. This pattern of humiliating and demeaning others has sadly continued.
Because of his perceived talent and extraordinary abilities, those in President Trump’s personal and professional circles are expected to protect his total control over others and circumstance at all times. This buffered self-view inhibits thoughtful decision-making and requires continuous affirmation by individuals and crowds. Unquestioning praise is the oxygen that fuels our president. If threatened, his temper flairs.
Surely, John Lewis, a brilliant strategist, outsmarted President Trump by using the word “illegitimate,” which he knew would result in fury, and in this way justify a decision of those who wished to boycott the inauguration. Surely there are world leaders just as savvy as Lewis, but if they are our enemies, they could be extremely dangerous; and a pattern of impulsive responses by a leader in a complex world order is a terrifying trait. Since this presidency began, President Trump’s impulsivity has led to intense and dramatic backlash on numerous fronts. President Trump must be reminded that an impulsive act in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the tipping point leading to World War I.
Moving Forward: Addressing the Impact of Burnout with Awareness
Since the 1960s, many have clung to the idealism stressed by Dr. Corrin, a hope that propelled our entry into World War II, a belief that we could and would make our country and the world a better, safer place. I hope we never give up this determination, but it must be tempered with the realism that there will be impossible people (who care only about their power and control over others), exceedingly complex situations, and seemingly impossible times that will challenge hope and idealism at every turn. Now is surely one of them.
In my lifetime, there has never been a greater need to slow down, take a break from our technological intrusions, and talk together, hearing and valuing each other, for the good of us all.
Building these quality bridges of conversation and communion with those who feel excluded, invisible, betrayed and overwhelmed is the wisest way to address and heal the fractures within our country. Included in that dialogue must be those who distrusted both major presidential candidates and those who have never participated in elections.
Respected, committed communication is the wisest way to distinguish between thoughtful governance motivated by concern for others, and one that achieves power through exploiting fear, ridiculing others, and creating an avalanche of distractions and decoys. It must include members of both parties who will come to see the dangers of governing through exclusion, executive order, and rash, ill-advised decisions.
There are parallels between what works in successful therapy involving seemingly intractable challenges and what will work to successfully navigate political quagmires. To explain: there are times when a child, adolescent or teenager is bullied by a damaging family member who will not change, but for complex reasons the young family member cannot be removed from his or her home. In situations like these, the therapist often works to isolate the abuser by involving family members, as well as community resources such as the school, church or synagogue, and neighbors. In time, the abusive parent loses a feeling of omnipotence, other family members stop fearing him or her, and the balance of power within the family shifts.
As I watch young people being involved in the democratic process as were Goucher students in the 1960s, I can hear Dr. Corrin’s voice, compelling us, “Never stop working toward what you know is right. Never be afraid to speak out for what you believe, and never stop believing in yourselves.”
It will not happen overnight, but the balance of power and freedom of speech that distinguishes our country can isolate and expose the dangers of impulsivity and dangerous policy-making within our present White House. The voices of seasoned politicians, devoted government employees and concerned citizens of all ages are growing louder. This union, as my years at Goucher College made clear, is the surest antidote to societal burnout.