Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

“I started noticing how much work I was putting into managing his feelings,” she said, “how much additional stress I had because of his stress. Then last week it was Diana’s fall recital, and I told Jeremy, ‘It’s time to go,’ and he groaned, ‘All those kids and that terrible music,’ and I tried to make him feel better, you know? It’s not like this is my first choice for spending three hours of my life, but this is what we do. So I said, ‘This is a special moment. We get to see our daughter on stage,’ trying to help him see the bright side. And you know what he said? He said, ‘You can make me go but you can’t make me like it.’ Make him go! Make him like it! Recitals are parenting! Why am I having to ‘make’ him parent?! And why am I having to make him feel better? Nobody makes me feel better, I have to do that myself! I have to find things to enjoy about things that are not enjoyable. I have to find a way not to complain about things I don’t like or want in my life. So that night, we got into a fight about it, and he said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. Don’t try to make me feel good. Don’t try to look on the bright side. Complain if you want to!’

      “So that’s what I did. Usually, my first instinct is to just do something myself because he never does it—the dishes, the laundry, wiping the kitchen counters—and instead I complained. And you’ll never guess what happened. A week later, he said, ‘What’s wrong with you? All you do is complain and criticize! You’re so negative!’ I’m so negative! Can you believe that? I said, ‘You told me to complain when I wanted to complain. You said don’t try to manage your feelings. And if I’m not managing your feelings then I’m telling you that just running the dishwasher does not count as cleaning the kitchen.’

“And then he says—brace yourself for this—he says, ‘You know, if you want something done your way, you have to do it yourself.’?”

“Hence considering divorce,” Amelia said.

“Except sometimes it’s great. It’s amazing,” Julie said. She stopped for more cake, washing it down with dark beer, then she went on, “You know how slot machines are designed to hook you? Like, most of the time, you’re just shoving good money after bad, but every now and then it pays out just enough to make you feel like you should keep going? That’s my marriage,” Julie said. “So I quit. I don’t know what I quit, I don’t know for how long, but I quit. I quit everything but chocolate cake.”

      It’s normal for change to be difficult. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Sometimes a solution to one problem creates another. Sometimes there’s not enough organization and positive attitude in the world to save a marriage. Sometimes—as Julie would eventually find—what it takes to save a marriage is saving yourself.

When to Give Up

The Monitor has a pivot point, where it switches its assessment of your goal from “attainable” to “unattainable.” You may find yourself oscillating between pushing onward and giving up, between frustrated rage—“This goal is attainable, and screw these jerks in my way!”—and helpless despair—“I can’t do it, I give up, everything is terrible!”

It’s easier to manage emotions effectively when we can name them.13 We couldn’t find a name for this emotion, even though every person we know has experienced it. So we gave it a name:


You can call it whatever feels right for you, but we like this silly word. We experience it at difficult jobs, as in “I hate this place, I hate these people, I’m going to quit! But no, I’m trapped here, I need the money, I have to wait until I have a new job lined up, I’m never getting out of this hole!” You’re stuck in Foop Town. It happens in school, as in “I’m going to finish this semester and nothing and no one can stop me, no matter how much crap they throw at me! Ugh, I can’t do it, I give up, I’m a failure!” Foop-o-rama. It happens in difficult relationships, as in “I’m sure I can save this relationship, I just need to try harder! But no, it’s hopeless, they’ll never change, I’m not good enough at feelings to help them be a better person, but ugh, it’s not my job to change them! But ugh, I should change me.” über-foop.

     So how do you know when it’s time to stop the planful problem-solving, drop the positive reappraisal, and just…quit?

Science has an answer for when to walk away—sort of. It’s framed in terms of an “explore/exploit problem,” as in “Should I explore new terrain, or should I exploit the terrain I’m in?” Animals in the wild are good at it.

Imagine a little bird or a squirrel searching for seeds and nuts in a patch of forest. At a certain point, she’ll spend more and more time searching, with less and less success, as she discovers and hoards most of the available food in that patch. Her Monitor is well tuned to the environment and automatically triggers a decision to move on to the next patch. It’s not a rational, cognitive decision; her instincts are connected to the world, reading the environment, and they signal her to move on, taking into account the cost of the change, including traveling to a new patch, risk of predation, and so on.14

If you want to try using this principle rationally, all you have to do is write four lists:

What are the benefits of continuing?

What are the benefits of stopping?

What are the costs of continuing?

What are the costs of stopping?

And then you look at those four lists and make a decision based on your estimates of maximizing benefit and minimizing cost. Remember to consider both the long-term and the short-term costs and benefits. And if you decide to continue, remember to include completing the cycle in your plan.


Should I stay or quit: ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? (e.g., my job, my relationship, my diet, my place of worship, my substance use, my habit of overcommitting…)

* * *

     But a lot of the time, knowing when to give up comes to us not from rational, explicit cost-benefit analysis; it comes to us the same way it comes to the bird and the squirrel—in a quiet intuition that is outside rationality. We simply hear the voice inside us saying, “You’ve done all you can here. It’s time to move on.”

Humans—especially women—have an extraordinary capacity to ignore this voice. We live in a culture that values “self-control,” “grit,” and persistence. Many of us are taught to see a shift in goals as “weakness” and “failure,” where another culture would see courage, strength, and openness to new possibilities. We have been taught that letting go of a goal is the same as failing. We share stories of people overcoming the odds to achieve remarkable things in the face of great resistance, which is inspiring. But these stories too often imply that we are the controllers of our destinies—as if we control the amount of nuts and seeds in a particular patch of forest. If we “fail” to achieve a goal, it’s because there is something wrong with us. We didn’t fight hard enough. We didn’t “believe.”

Our tendency to cling to the broken thing we have rather than let it go and reach for something new isn’t just a result of social learning. The stress (fear, anxiety, etc.) underlying the belief changes our decision-making, so that the more stressed we feel about change, the less likely we are to do it. Say a squirrel hears a noise in the leaves somewhere close by, so she stops for a moment, listens…hears nothing else. But she’s vigilant now. Her stress response is activated. And she stays foraging in her current patch, because there’s more risk in trying a new patch, what with that potential hidden predator rustling the leaves. It doesn’t matter how many more nuts and seeds are in the next patch if there’s also a hawk there that will eat her.

And the resource abundance of the environment you’re in changes how you decide to quit or stay. In a resource-rich environment, people actually quit and move on to the next opportunity sooner, because the risk of the move is lower. It’s easier to change jobs when you’ve got four offers. It’s easier to leave a bad relationship when you can go straight to a loving relationship with someone else.

     For so many reasons, quitting is hard, and we can’t tell you what the right decision is. But knowing the factors that shape our reluctance to give up, we can say this: If you’re feeling not just frustrated and challenged, but helpless, isolated, and trapped, like you want to hide in a cave, or like you’d rather put your hand in a toilet full of tadpoles than spend one more day doing the thing, you should definitely quit whatever it is.


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