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Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Author:Emily Nagoski

Redefining winning made the recording session far less agonizing. But better still, a year later, when the group met again, several singers approached Amelia privately to tell her, “That Monitor thing? That’s changed, like, my whole life.”

     You’ll find a worksheet at the end of the chapter to help you brainstorm incremental goals that will keep your Monitor satisfied, but the super-short guidelines are: soon, certain, positive, concrete, specific, and personal.11 Soon: Your goal should be achievable without requiring patience. Certain: Your goal should be within your control. Positive: It should be something that feels good, not just something that avoids suffering. Concrete: Measurable. You can ask Andrew, “Are you filled with joy?” and he can say yes or no. Specific: Not general, like “fill people with joy,” but specific: Fill Andrew with joy. Personal: Tailor your goal. If you don’t care about Andrew’s state of mind, forget Andrew. Who is your Andrew? Maybe you’re your own Andrew.

Redefining winning in terms of incremental goals is not the same as giving yourself rewards for making progress—such rewards are counterintuitively ineffective and may even be detrimental.12 When you redefine winning, you set goals that are achievements in themselves—and success is its own reward.

Change the Expectancy: Redefine Failing

For goals that are abstract, impossible, or otherwise intangible, you can reduce frustration by establishing a nonstandard relationship with winning. But sometimes you’re aiming for a clearly defined, concrete goal that can’t be redefined. For these, you will need a nonstandard relationship with failing. You may do all the things you’re supposed to do, without getting where you’re trying to go, only to end up somewhere else pretty amazing. Or, as Douglas Adams’s character Dirk Gently puts it, “I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” Widen your focus to see the inadvertent benefits you stumble across along the way. This sort of reframing makes failing almost (almost) impossible, since it acknowledges that there’s more to success than winning.

     And we don’t just mean the “We played our best!” spirit of your six-year-old’s soccer team. There are endless examples of people not achieving their specific goal but achieving something important, something world-changing, along their path to failure. Post-it notes were invented when a chemist tried and failed to make a strong glue; it turned out his very weak glue had a very popular use. The pacemaker was invented when Wilson Greatbatch was trying to create an instrument to measure heart rate, and he built his prototype wrong. Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the White House set the stage for record-breaking numbers of women to enter and win political contests and other leadership positions in the United States. Post-its and pacemakers and a tidal wave of women entering American politics were world-changing outcomes of someone’s failure to accomplish something else.

It’s the most demanding form of positive reappraisal, and none of this takes away the pain of failure and loss. Part of recovering from a loss is turning toward your grief with kindness and compassion, as well as completing the cycle of stress brought on by failure. But another part is recognizing failing’s unintended positive outcomes.


Planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal are the adaptive coping strategies, meaning they generally work and they carry minimal risk of unwanted consequences. There are other coping strategies that don’t necessarily help, and some strategies that are actively destructive. These maladaptive strategies include things like self-defeating confrontation, suppressing your stress, and avoidance. We often turn to such strategies when we feel out of control in a stressful situation and are desperately trying to regain control.

      An example of self-defeating confrontation is, “I stood my ground and fought!” Standing our ground is important in principle and can be effective when we’re not overwhelmed, but not when we’re stressed and out of control. When you’re still fighting even while you’re overwhelmed, it’s less a valiant struggle and more that you have your back to the wall and are surrounded on all sides. Ask for help instead.

Suppressing is, “I didn’t let it get to me.” If something matters, it should get to you! It should activate a stress response cycle. Denying that you experience the stress prevents you from dealing with the stress—and we know from chapter 1 what happens if you do that. If you notice yourself acting as though you’re fine when you’re deeply distressed, again: ask for help.

Avoidance has a couple different flavors. There’s “I waited for a miracle to happen,” which abdicates personal responsibility for creating change, and there’s “I ate until I couldn’t feel my feelings,” which numbs you out. These can both be useful stop-gap measures when the stress, worry, frustration, rage, or despair are overwhelming. Sometimes we need to numb out with Netflix and a pint of H?ggen-Dazs. Once, Emily was teaching about “completing the cycle” and the importance of actually feeling your feelings and one person asked, “Is this true if you’re, like, caring for a terminally ill parent? Is it bad to just shut everything out sometimes and spend all day watching Pride and Prejudice?”

Heck no. Sometimes you need to close the door on the world and allow yourself to feel comfortable and safe—as long as it’s not the only thing you’re doing. Think of it as a short-term survival strategy. You also need a plan and a sense of what value there is in the struggle.

      Perhaps the most reliably maladaptive response to distress is “rumination.” Like a cow chewing its cud, we regurgitate our suffering over and over, gnawing on it to extract every last bit of pain. If you find your thoughts and feelings go back again and again to your suffering, ask for help.

     “This is why people quit self-care,” Julie said to Amelia, opening a bakery box to reveal a gooey chocolate cake. She cut a big slice. “When you paint the dingiest wall in a room, it just makes the other walls look dingier. You said, ‘Process your stress, which is separate from processing the stressor.’ Well, I did that, and it helped, and now I’m thinking about getting a divorce, and it’s basically because of you. Dig in!” She offered a slab of cake on a plate.

“What the huh?” Amelia said, accepting the slab.

“The huh” was that Julie had spent a month learning to recognize the stressors in her life, and then completing her stress response cycles. That was all it took for her to notice that one of her chronic stressors was her husband, Jeremy.