Burnout is the stress resilience book I’m recommending to friends and clients from now on. This two-part podcast series with Emily and Amelia Nagoski will explain why. We all have stress, but we aren’t all completing the stress cycle, which can have real health consequences. Learn about “human giver syndrome” and why the opposite is not “taker syndrome”— which is what I used to think. Find out how the patriarchy… ughhhh plays a role in women’s burnout.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., is a sex educator and author of Come As You Are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Her job is to travel all over the world, training therapists, medical professionals, college students, and the general public about the science of women’s sexual wellbeing.
Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A. (it stands for Doctorate of Musical Arts), is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Music at Western New England University. Her job is to run around waving her arms and making funny noises and generally doing whatever it takes to help singers get in touch with their internal experience.
Listen here to Episode 117 here or read the episode transcript
- Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle – book website
- Emily’s previous appearance on Body Kindness: Why Women Fake Orgasms
- Layla Saad — pre-order the Me and White Supremacy book
Rebecca: [00:00] … Emily and Amelia. Welcome to Body Kindness.
Amelia: [00:04] Hello.
Emily: [00:04] Thank you.
Rebecca: [00:06] I’m so excited. There’s some first times today. It’s the first time I have twins on the show.
Amelia: [00:13] Wow.
Emily: [00:13] Wow.
Rebecca: [00:15] Likely twin response. Are you guys identical?
Amelia: [00:18] Yes.
Emily: [00:18] Yes.
Rebecca: [00:19] You literally have that mind reading. The right hand literally does know what the left hand of the other person is doing, right?
Amelia: [00:27] Our magical super power as twins is that we can understand each other when one of us talks while she is brushing her teeth. That’s pretty much the extent of it.
Rebecca: [00:28] That’s awesome. That’s so cool. The other first is, Amelia, as I understand, you’re a conductor.
Amelia: [00:47] Yes!
Rebecca: [00:48] So, I’ve got the first conductor on the show. What do you conduct?
Amelia: [00:52] I’m a professor of music at a college, and I conduct a college choir.
Rebecca: [00:58] Oh, cool. My seven-year-old is interested in singing. What was it? Sound of Music, she came home just singing from the Sound of Music, Do-Re-Mi or whatever. I was like, “Where did you learn that?” Sure enough in music class in kindergarten. Then, Emily, of course, I mean you are my hero of orgasms. I’m going to love you forever. [crosstalk 00:01:27] Yeah, I mean Come As You Are. I mean literally life-changing book. I recommend it to every client. When I get real close with clients, they get it as a gift from me. It’s just so, so powerful. Folks loved our first podcast chat. Seriously, every time I have an opportunity to tell you. That pivot to realize that I wasn’t broken and there was so much more to the story. It was just personally fascinating. My life has never been better since I’ve learned how it all accelerator and the brakes.
Emily: [02:05] I cannot tell you how much it means to me to hear that.
Rebecca: [02:08] So, the book is called Burnout. I love all forms of the book, obviously, but also get the audio book because it is so entertaining. [crosstalk 00:02:17] It’s so good to you guys. I just loved it.
Amelia: [02:20] Well, I got to say they cut out some of the fun, super quirky stuff like me singing Disney songs.
Emily: [02:26] Amelia does a Yoda voice at a certain point. They did not use that take. It’s very sad.
Rebecca: [02:30] I have to say when I read for Body Kindness, I had little reflections at the end of each chapter and the closing one was actually a chant. They did not take. I started out. I did the chant in a singing voice. They ended up using me just reading it. There’s something up. They’re trying to take the fun out of audio book recordings.
Amelia: [02:53] Well, I guess they didn’t want to take many risks.
Rebecca: [02:56] You’re taking a topic that is difficult to and address and listen to. You actually make it really, really fun and interesting and entertaining, which is really helpful because if you’re trying to make a difference in your own life, it helps when you can weave in a little humor and reality that just makes it less overwhelming.
Emily: [03:20] That is exactly the response we were hoping for. I’m so glad it worked that way for you.
Rebecca: [03:23] I think we all know what Burnout is, but I’m going to ask what is it anyway. What are some of the warning signs?
Emily: [03:31] It is the case that everybody knows what Burnout is. We spent three years writing the book. Until the book came out and we started talking to journalists, nobody ever asked us, “Oh, what’s burnout?” Because everybody has it sort of intuitive sense of what it feels like in their bodies, and what happens to weigh their thoughts raised through their heads, or how their emotions get more rigid or more fluid. It does actually have a technical definition. Back in 1975, Herbert Freudenberger made up these three things that he identified as being the characteristics. There’s emotional exhaustion, where you just feel like you have cared too much for too long. There is deep personalization, where you lose your capacity for empathy and compassion. Then the last one is a decreased sense of accomplishment, where you feel like you might be working more and more and making less and less progress.
[04:26] Over the 40 years that followed, the original definition, it turned out there were different burnout patterns for men and for women. For women, it’s really about the emotional exhaustion. That’s the one that predicts the negative outcomes, the destruction to your relationships, whether you’re going to quit your job or be dissatisfied in your job. All of the health consequences that are associated with burnout. It’s really the emotional exhaustion. For men, it tends more to be depersonalization. Of course, there’s lots of variability. All three are important. In the book, we spend a lot of our time talking about emotional exhaustion.
Rebecca: [05:04] I feel that on a day-to-day basis
Emily: [05:07] Shorthand or sort of like lay person is if you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do and yet somehow still worry that you’re not doing enough, that’s burnout.
Rebecca: [05:21] There are so many things that impact it, right? I mean there’s gender differences, right?
Emily: [05:28] Yeah.
Rebecca: [05:30] I guess in my family, I feel that in just noticing the different ways in which the extra emotional labor I’m putting in to always thinking about something. There’s that, “Where’s my personal life? Where’s my family life? Where’s my work?” I don’t know. It’s called the juggle struggle because that’s something real.
Emily: [05:49] Yeah, it’s good.
[05:51] There might be biological differences about how women and their hormones tend to respond to stress. The most important factor we found in impacting the way women respond to stress was a thing that we call Human Giver Syndrome. This is language that we adapted from a book by a moral philosopher, Kate Manne. Her book is called Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. In that book, she posits a universe where there are two kinds of humans. Human beings who have a moral obligation to be, to live their full humanity. Human givers, who have a moral obligation to give their full humanity, which means their bodies, their time, their energy, their very lives to the human beings. This sad state of affairs is not exactly this black and white. This is the cartoon version. If we imagine which one are the women, I think we can all figure out pretty quickly.
[06:46] “Oh, yeah, the women are the human givers.” Being a giver is not inherently bad for you. If you’re a giver who’s surrounded by givers, that’s really a beautiful relationship. They can support your personal growth. Then keep you from ever burning out because you’re surrounded by givers, who will notice and give you whatever you need to make sure that you are safe and comfortable. Whereas, if you are human giver and half the people you know are human beings who feel entitled to your time and your energy. They expect you to be, at all times, pretty happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, then you’re going to give and give and give and never get fed. Never receive any fuel back. That is exactly the formula for burning out.
Rebecca: [07:31] This is interesting to me because, first of all I loved Human Giver Syndrome in the book. I was like, “Yes, yes,” but well, what’s the opposite of giver? Taker. Nobody wants to be a taker. Whether there’s that natural predisposition, what is culturally constructed for people as should be giving at any and all costs. You’re kind of saying, “Well, there’s human being”, right with permission to just be. It’s actually not in that opposite, that fear-based opposite that we might be afraid. If we’re not giving, then we’re taking and that’s bad. Any thoughts on that?
Amelia: [08:17] This is the nature of the patriarchy that in this black and white version of things, men are not taking from the givers because they’re entitled. They require. They deserve whatever they can get from a human giver. It’s not that they’re taking. It’s that they’re receiving their due. That is the nature of Patriarchy is that they feel permission. They would in fact deny that they are taking anything. They’re just accepting what they can get. You can see this at play when at any time the dominance of White male, cisgender straight men is ever called into question. When gay people want the right to marry, there’s a response as though you are taking away the rights of the more powerful demographic, which is that sense of entitlement is your your human beingness thinking that if someone else gets anything. Even if it doesn’t actually take anything away from you, the idea of them receiving anything is still a wound to you.
Emily: [09:28] So, somehow being a giver is the only way to be called a taker. For a giver to hold onto any resource, even her own energy, her own body. We’re supposed to be the loving subordinates of the human beings. For us to keep anything of our own is for us to deprive that of the human beings. When it comes to burn out, I mean there’s all these like great, internet memes. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Have you heard that one? [crosstalk 00:09:58] It’s so great. If you’re in the midst of Human Givers Syndrome, I, as a human giver, I’m standing there with an empty cup. People don’t say, “Oh, Emily. Here have some water for your empty cup.” What they say is, “Emily, what are you doing hoarding that cup.” Someone with water needs it.
[10:19] In the structure of Human Giver Syndrome, self care absolutely is selfish. No matter how often we retweet a meme that says, “Self care isn’t selfish.” We still live in a world where if you go into work and say, “I got nine hours of sleep last night.” Nobody’s going to be like, “You go, girl. That’s awesome. Rest is a really important. Good for you taking care of yourself.” There might be some snarky like, “Oh, that’s really self care is so important.” I was up until four o’clock last night decorating Becky’s cupcakes for her birthday party. I mean that’s so good for you.
Rebecca: [10:59] It’s interesting that you brought up work so far because that was one of the listener questions was this awareness of, “Yeah, we’re supposed to avoid, overwhelm from stress, et cetera,” but how do you advocate for yourself in the workplace when you can tell you’re heading for a burn out or you’re already there?
Amelia: [11:21] Every situation is going to be completely unique and this problem-solving is going to require attention to detail. We don’t know how you’re actually going to take care of your own particular situation, but we do know that no matter what the situation is, no matter what the problems are, no matter what obstacles you face, there are strategies you can use to feel better right now. You don’t have to wait for the stressors to resolve themselves before the stress that’s in your body is managed.
Rebecca: [11:54] Let’s actually go there. Let’s talk about stress because there was one. I mean, it came on early. When you talked about complete the stress cycle, I was like, “Oh, I’ve never heard that before.” It was so helpful. Let’s talk about the stress cycle and what we need to do.
Amelia: [12:17] Sure. The first thing is to know that stress is a cycle that happens in your body. It’s a physiological process like your heartbeat and circulation and digestion. It comes and it goes on it’s own in your body. Whereas, the stressors are the things that cause your stress. Basically, the stress response itself, the physiological process in your body is very well-adapted for stressors like being chased by a lion because that’s where it evolved. Savannah of Africa, where sometimes that’s the thing that happened. When you’re being chased by a lion, here it comes right for you. Your body responds with this flood of adrenaline and cortisol and glucocorticoids. This is the fight or flight response. What do you do? You run.
[13:02] At this point, there’s really only two possible outcomes. Either you get eaten by the lion. In which case, none of the rest of this matters or you escape. Let’s imagine a world where you are running back to your village as fast as you can. You are outrunning the lion. My Gracious. Someone sees you coming and opens their door and gestured you in. You run and you slam the door. You both stand with your shoulders against that door while the lion roars and scratches and tries to get in, but eventually it gives up. It wanders away in a huff. You look at this person who just saved your life. You feel grateful to be alive. You love your friends and family. It feels like the sun is shining brighter. That is the complete stress response cycle. We are, alas, almost never chased by lions anymore. Instead, our stressors tend to be things like our jobs and our commutes and our families, and the patriarchy and the global climate crisis. These are not things you can physically run away from successfully.
[14:11] However, your body doesn’t know that. Your body is pretty sure that the way to deal with a stressor is with this physiological response. Your body doesn’t know what filing your taxes mean. It doesn’t know what, “I’m going to go have a conversation with HR about the ways I’m not being compensated at the level I should be for the work that I’m doing.” Your body doesn’t know what that grownup conversation is. The classic example is traffic. If you are stuck in really heavy traffic, your body responds with that lion response of adrenaline and cortisol and glucocorticoids. Oh my. When you finally get out of the traffic, do you suddenly feel the sun is shining brighter and you love your friends and family and you’re glad to be alive when you finally park? No. Your body is still in this state of tension and feeling like it’s full of stress.
[15:04] Your body needs you to do something that will complete the stress response cycle. Just because you’ve dealt with the stressor out there in the environment doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. You have to do both of them. They’re usually a separate process. The good news about this is that you can deal with the stress before your stressor has necessarily been dealt with. Before you have that conversation with human resources about how you’re not being compensated adequately for the work you’re doing, you can address what’s physically happening in your body and care for yourself so that you can stay alive long enough to solve the stressor itself.
Rebecca: [15:41] That’s a really good point, right? We’ve heard it just, “Oh, just go take a bubble bath.” Actually, bubble baths can be great. Or even using lavender oil. I love to do that. Often, people will think that’s the thing that you do to make the problem go away. It’s like, “No, there’s still a problem that needs to be addressed.” That is, you can do something that can help you regulate your emotion if you have permission to feel the stress or the anxiety or the feeling that’s coming up, you can do something to help you regulate as a short term. That can help you better deal with the deeper issue, the longer-term problem. Again, things you may or may not be able to control. You can’t control everything in your workplace.
Emily: [16:28] In the long term, it is absolutely necessary that we take care of ourselves in this way to keep ourselves healthy and having enough energy in order to fight the patriarchy, to get the harasser fired. If you are deprived of sleep, if you are overly stressed out and feeling burnt out, you are not going to have the time or the energy or the willingness to go confront what needs to be confronted in order to solve the problems. Getting a good night sleep is actually an act of smashing the patriarchy. We say in the book: “You can’t spell resist without rest.” You, being healthy and well-cared for is absolutely essential for you being here for the resistance.
Rebecca: [17:07] I love that connection too, right, because of course anyone listening is probably like, “What are you talking about? That’s not enough. I need to do this list of 72,000 things.” Which the work will be there in the work can also be overwhelming, but to be able to make that connection that self care isn’t selfish. I mean, could we also be real for a minute? There’s this message of self care, right?
Emily: [17:37] Oh, yeah.
Rebecca: [17:38] The three of us are White women too, right? That beauty ideal, that thin White women, “Oh, just love yourself and take care of yourself.” That’s really popular in our culture, right. Cry and go wash your face, if you get what I mean. It falls really sure.
Emily: [17:58] I am so worried about Rachel Hills.
Rebecca: [18:02] Yes, I mean it’s never real [crosstalk 00:18:05] what really works, isn’t it?
Amelia: [18:08] Yes, in Human Giver Syndrome, what givers are required to be is pretty happy, calm, generous, and attentive to needs of others. That very first one, pretty, is a very important one that digs across many aisles of our lives. In terms of what pretty is and how it’s defined, it is a White supremacist ideal. It is the thin ideal, which is deeply and profoundly toxic, but it’s also a White ideal in when it comes to face shapes, skin color, all of that. It’s not just really terrible for body image and fat shaming, but also it’s a White supremacist problem.
Rebecca: [18:48] We have to talk about it because we’ve got to start somewhere, right? If you’re listening and it’s like, “Okay, this idea of completing this stress cycle and understanding that I can deal with the stress that’s impacting me in the immediate term before dealing with the stressor.
Emily: [19:05] So that you can be well enough to deal with the stressor, yes, exactly.
[19:10] A lot of white women feel like they don’t have the energy to fight somebody else’s fight, right? They’re being pushed hard enough. Everything is already extremely difficult. How are they supposed to also take on advocating for women of Color or women of size. Yeah, you’re right. If you’re already exhausted, there’s no way you’re going to have the resources to do that. Once you become aware of how to listen to your own needs, how to set the boundaries by paying attention to what feels right for you, you start to heal and feel stronger and have more energy and time to give to the other givers around you.
Rebecca: [19:48] That is exactly what I wanted to have come across. That it’s not about shame and needing to work on something for yourself, especially for a topic of like stress and overwhelm. It’s like far too easy to just take this privilege and narrow view of, “Yeah, we’re just talking about getting some tchotchkes and then everything’s going to be fine.” We’re actually really talking about our common humanity and our collective wellbeing, which involves having an awareness for the needs of the most marginalized. It’s going to take a lot of collective human givers to come together and to work together to basically make the world better. I don’t know. Is a burnout-free world even possible? That’s an interesting question.
Emily: [20:40] So that we’ll know the things we discovered in the process of writing it is that the whole idea of self care is a little bit of a trap. The idea that like, “It’s your job.” I call self care the fallout shelter build in your basement cause apparently is your job to protect yourself from nuclear war. Of course, who can afford to build a fallout shelter in your basement.
Amelia: [21:04] Only some of us.
Emily: [21:05] Not Everybody. Right?
Amelia: [21:06] Hell, if you can build a burnt fallout shelter, you do that. Do the self care. Get the sleep, get the physical activity. Eat the whole foods and nurture yourself. Turn with kindness and compassion towards your difficult feelings. Do all the stuff because that’s how you’re going to be strong enough to be in the fight. But ultimately, the cure for burnout is not self care. We, human beings, are not designed to do big things alone. We are built to do them together. The cure for burnout is not self care, but simply care. All of us caring for each other and turning toward each others difficult feelings with kindness and compassion. Working to make sure we all have access to adequate rest and adequate nourishment and adequate love.
Rebecca: [21:54] And that’s what we need to be focused on too. Otherwise, we’re just going to be … I mean, first of all, only including the most privileged. But then secondly, it’s just nothing is ever going to change, right? Three generations from now, we’ll still be dealing with burnout and the expectations that, “Hey, you caused this. You can fix it.” The personal responsibility message that we get across the board just completely ignores all the social aspects of what it means to have health or to have a wellbeing. It’s really dangerous and toxic. To me, it’s like, “Okay, you have these problems. You’re to blame for them. You take action to solve them.”
[22:41] It just gets rid of the idea that we are a community. That, we each have our own individual lived experiences in ways in which we are suffering. We can try to get better. That is essential, right? That secure your oxygen mask philosophy. At the same time, it is, for the more privileged, it’s going to be the easier thing to just stay there and just focus on you. I just think that conversations that are pushing culture to a better place are willing to go there to talk about that it’s also actually not just about you. There’s a whole system instructors. It’s been existing since before you were born.
Emily: [23:23] It’s not a coincidence that these kinds of messages originate from people in oppressed identities. Women of Color, fat women, trans women, women living with disabilities. The original language of self care comes from people living with mental illness, needing to do basic work in order to maintain their stability within the community. It got co-opted by capitalism and turned into this thin young, shiny-haired White lady on a yoga mat, apparently talking about her home equity loan, which is a commercial. I just thought I just thought. It was like two thin young, White women on yoga mats, literally in yoga poses, standing on their heads just talking about finances. I was like, “Oh, I mean there it is literally right in front of me. Capitalism and yoga.” Oh dear.
Rebecca: [24:21] A certain kind of yoga. You got to do yoga in your bikini now. That’s to be shredded, ripped yoga.
Emily: [00:00] So, we are so with the privilege that we have, we want to be like lifting up and amplifying and turning attention toward the voices of people like Ivy, Felicia and Jessamyn Stanley, list of extraordinary women of Color, trans women, women with disabilities who are having really in conversations. May I recommend for everyone Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy workbook. I’m a White lady, who feels like I’ve really done a lot of work. I really may let the progress. This is a 30-day challenge to confront your internal resistant little pieces of White superiority. It was rough to be confronted with the residual pieces of stuff that I had not yet found when I thought I was one of the good White people. It turns out, in the end, you’re one of the good White people. It’s a White supremacy.
[25:27] The Me and White Supremacy workbook by Layla Saad. S-A-A-D is her last name. She lives in Qatar. It’s brilliant. I really recommend it for everybody.
Rebecca: [25:36] All right, well, Burnout’s available everywhere books are sold. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Amelia: [25:43] Thank you so much.
Emily: [25:43] Thank you so much. We did not plan that…
Rebecca: [25:46] It’s a twin thing.