America on Cultural Steroids: When Societal Burnout Overwhelms

Even before my training as a therapist, I was intrigued by what makes people do and say what we do and say, and why others react as they do to what is done and said. The entrance and appeal of Donald Trump as a seriously considered candidate for the highest office of our land has added grist to this thought mill.   How has a grandiose entertainer with the strongest possible killer instinct evolved into a candidate many voters and members of the media are taking seriously? 

Yes, of course, we are well acquainted with ugliness in our elections, but the past weeks have brought a new brand of low, one many relish.  How and why have cruelty, name-calling, clownish antics, and vicious attacks become acceptable?

Several years ago, concerned about the high percentage of mental health professionals who leave our field after arduous study and preparation, I began to do research and publish on the specifics of burnout and why one becomes vulnerable to its impact. Burnout is a condition brought on by emotional and physical overload due to events outside of our control.  It develops through the impact of other lives and circumstances that overwhelm us, depriving us of rational direction, empathy toward others, and submerging us in negativity and feelings of hopelessness.  Anyone can be vulnerable.

I see this as the state of being Pope Francis referred to on his first papal visit outside of Rome in 2013.  The Pope rode a small boat in the Mediterranean in order to lay a wreath where many migrants drowned on route to seeking refuse in Europe.  In the Pontiff’s words:  “We have fallen into globalized indifference.  We have become used to the suffering of others.”

The German-born American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, first identified the state of burnout in 1974.  Fruedenberger chose the word burnout through its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:  “To fail, to wear out, or become exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.”  According to Freudenberger when we are burned out, we become increasingly “inoperative.”  In 1993 Christina Maslach, an American social psychologist, further defined burnout as having three chief components:  1) emotional exhaustion leading to an inability to feel compassion for others, 2) depersonalization leading to detachment from the emotional needs of others, 3) lack of feeling of personal accomplishments leading to a critical evaluation of oneself.

The appeal of the Trump candidacy has shown me that burnout has reached a societal level. Our ethnic, racial, cultural and social transformations, ones unimaginable just a decade ago, have led to complex divisions and uncertainty among us.  These differences have overwhelmed and enraged us, leaving us worn out and detached from the emotional needs of our fellow human beings.

To mention just a few examples of dramatic societal changes:  We now have acceptance of not only same sex unions, but same sex marriage.  There is acceptance of birthing and adopting children in myriad family settings.   Our population is older.  There are more Asian and Hispanic families. Multiracial identities have grown in importance.  Futures for our young and their parents are less insured.  More families, by choice or necessity, live under one roof.  There are sexual choice options, and there is sexual identity confusion. Add to this our fear of another attack akin to 9/11 and strong differences about “political correctness,” which has both brought relief and caused resentment. 

Those vulnerable to burnout or already in its clutches long to escape their feelings of trapped helplessness resulting in simmering rage through any means that offer relief.  This, of course, includes entertainment and diversion, especially if these options provide an outlet for anger and opportunity to avoid confronting problems head on by attacking, demeaning, ridiculing, and scape-goating others.  Yes, you know my next sentence:  Enter a skilled manipulator, who well understands how to keep people pitted against each other in order to consolidate his own power. The timing is impeccable.

Surely Donald Trump is the opposite of the quality of leadership American is crying for – a candidate who can unite us and help us view differences as an opportunity for growth and union. The diet of mean spirited divide, conquer, attack antics Donald Trump has offered does offer diversion, but it is sick diversion, not even up to standards of a Big Top performer, much less a White House contender.