People who are experiencing burnout often wonder how they will get out of it. There is a simple answer, but it requires a complex explanation. The simple answer is “hope.” The problem is that this simple answer doesn’t make sense when viewed from a position of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. How can such a little word make such an important difference, and how does one find hope in the grips of burnout?
Burnout and the Gap
We explain how burnout works with two models – the first model is the personal agency, or bathtub, model. In the model your personal agency, or ability to get things done, is a bathtub. It’s a reservoir of capability to effect change. It says that when your personal agency is empty, that you’re in burnout. The results you get, the support you receive, and the self-care you do all fill up your bathtub. The demands that are placed on you (and that you accept) drain your personal agency bathtub.
The second way that we describe burnout is by comparing the gap between your expectations of yourself and your perception of your results. When you expect too much and see too little, you’ll find yourself in burnout. It doesn’t matter if either – or both – ends of this spectrum are unrealistic. What matters is that you feel the gap as being too large and you lose hope.
Nothing Ever Changes
The problem with the gap between results and expectations isn’t in the momentary problem. It’s not in the temporary case where you’re working hard and not seeing results. The real challenge is when you begin to expect that this will always be the case. When you believe that all your hard efforts will never be rewarded with the results you expect – that’s when burnout comes.
That moment, when you believe things can’t change, is the moment when you lose hope. You somehow forget that life is constantly changing, or you feel oppressed by the thoughts that the world is there to make things worse and not better. In your mind there will be a perpetual gap between what you expect of yourself and what you accomplish. The world will never quite be “right.”
Hope is the most powerful thing that the world has ever encountered. Whether it’s the legend of Pandora’s box or the fact that every major medical study must control carefully for the placebo effect – which occurs when the hope people have that the treatment will be successful results in improvement without any medical treatment. With this powerful force, it’s easy to understand how it’s loss could leave people powerless against burnout.
Hope itself is seen as an indivisible entity but the work of C.R. Snyder indicates that hope is made of two components: waypower and willpower. Waypower is your ability to see a path forward. It’s the ability to break down the goal in a way that seems achievable. Even the hope that folks cling on to that is far-fetched generally has a way of happening even if that way is a “higher power” magically intervening.
Willpower is, like most people expect, the willingness to push through and make things happen. Of course, there’s not much willpower needed for the “higher power” option – but even there people need to be willing to make the plea.
Once one has lost hope it can sometimes be hard to find again. Seeking it comes with requisite amounts of viewing the universe as helpful – or at least neutral – and the belief that you have the capacity to make things better. Even if you don’t have the skills today to make things better, you can find a way to get the skills you need, and then you can make things better. Often taking additional classes or reading books to educate yourself on the skills you need can be enough to revive hope and break burnout’s hold on you.