by Jim Young, author of “Expansive Intimacy: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout“
Besides affecting our emotions, energy, and mood, burnout has troubling behavioral and social consequences. When faced with the intense levels of stress that cause burnout, people often turn towards unhealthy coping habits that eventually lead to isolation. Worse? That isolation can lead to a shorter, less enjoyable life.
In fact, when it comes to the things we worry about shortening our lives, loneliness is not typically what comes to mind. Yet, studies have shown that loneliness can shorten our lifespan by fifteen years, the same impact as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or being obese. Conversely, the Harvard Study of Adult Development – the most comprehensive study of human happiness – has demonstrated that the #1 strategy for living a long and happy life is to engage in intimate relationships.
One of his most important findings in the field of burnout research shows how we can easily slide into habits that seem innocuous at first, but that lead us into a spiraling pattern of social withdrawal. These routine decisions that are intended to reduce our stress can, when left unchecked, become a slippery slope into burnout.
Examples might look like winding down with a drink at the end of the day, taking a rain check on an activity to chill out, or grabbing your favorite comfort food on the way back from a long day in the office. Now, this isn’t to say that any of these behaviors are problematic at face value. It’s when they begin to erode our social bonds that we enter the danger zone.
In my book, “Expansive Intimacy: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout“, I explored this common phenomenon in detail. In particular, the unspoken rules for men encourage us to stay in control, avoid sharing our feelings, and to never ask for help. Playing by them, it’s easy to see how a guy could check out when life gets hard. Let’s look at an example that came up in my research.
One of the men I talked with described how a series of small, seemingly innocuous decisions pushed him to the brink. Edward had been accumulating stress over a period of years as he worked a high-level job while simultaneously caring for a sick relative. Before those obligations began taking up so much of his time, he loved to go on hikes and attend live performances with his buddies. Group outings to local trails, music clubs, and minor league baseball games brought energy, connection, and joy into his life.
As his stresses mounted, Edward continued to hold them in, never sharing with others the troubles he was having. Under the weight of those burdens, he started to make new choices with his free time. First he opted out of the hiking excursions. Even though he missed seeing his hiking buddies, he couldn’t muster the energy. He hung on to the clubs and ballparks, largely because he could drink there. The nachos, burgers, and fries were also a big draw. Eventually, those went, too, in favor of staying home with a few drinks and some takeout food.
His new routine felt comforting at first. It didn’t require energy or coordination. But as weeks stretched into months, then years, the unconscious spiral took hold. As Edward turned away from his social life, things got worse. His health deteriorated. He eventually became obese. Worst of all, Edward’s mental health suffered due to the lack of connection. In letting go of important friendships, he had become lonely and depressed.
Edward’s spiral of isolation left him without anyone to turn to when things got really bad.
This is where expansive intimacy comes in. When we allow ourselves to be our true selves with more and more people in our lives, we have places to take not only our stresses, but also the joys, worries, ideas, sadness, anger, and desires of our lives. Having a range of people in our lives to be there for us as we work through all of our natural human feelings creates balance. With an array of outlets like that, we can snuff out burnout – and other destructive consequences – before they take us down.
To be clear, when I say “intimacy,” I don’t mean sex. Besides romantic intimacy, which is reserved for certain relationships, we can connect deeply with others in a wide variety of ways. We can bond around intellectual topics, active experiences, spiritual beliefs, and the ways that our emotions flow through us. We can do this with friends, colleagues, family members, and more. In short, we can be our real selves in all kinds of ways with all kinds of people.
For people in a situation like Edward’s, it can feel hard to connect with other people. Oftentimes it’s because we feel ashamed of our circumstances, like we’re somehow defective because we’ve hit a rough stretch. This, too, is natural. Yet, as I explore in “Expansive Intimacy“, sharing our struggles with others is actually the key to building those life-sustaining connections we need.
The good news for Edward is that by embracing this idea, he’s turned his life around. He has opened up to people, developed a range of new relationships, and brought balance back to his life. He’s out there hiking, going to concerts, and enjoying ballgames again. He’s also actively moving through the difficult moments that life invariably presents, leaning into the ever growing circle of trusted people in his life.
In other words, Edward has used expansive intimacy to defeat his burnout and get back to a thriving life.
Jim Young is an executive coach who works with leaders to root out the burnout in their lives and their businesses and the author of “Expansive Intimacy: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout“.