Home > Most Popular > Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

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

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren made news when, as she was attempting to speak in the Senate, she was silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senator Warren’s goal, when McConnell stopped her, was to read a letter from Coretta Scott King about the racist judicial record of then-Senator Jeff Sessions. McConnell said, in what would become a notorious comment, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Senators Tom Udall, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Jeff Merkley subsequently read parts of that same letter, without reprimand.15

Hmmm, what’s different about Senator Warren, compared to Senators Udall, Brown, Sanders, and Merkley? Like Udall and Brown, she’s the senior senator from her state; like Sanders, she’s a New Englander. Is she the only one with a law degree? No, Udall is a lawyer, too; that can’t be it.

It’s a head scratcher.

Whatever McConnell’s motivation, women heard his words and recognized the ways they, too, had been silenced. “Nevertheless, she persisted” instantly became a rallying cry for women everywhere who had been told to sit down and shut up. The quote began a storm of social media and blog posts associating #shepersisted with Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Sonia Sotomayor, Tammy Duckworth, Laverne Cox, and many other women who had faced adversity of all kinds and ultimately thrived.16

     It resonated so powerfully because persisting is what women do, each and every day. Often we persist because we literally have no choice. We have children to feed and a world to change, and we can’t stop just because it’s hard. Overcoming obstacles like the Mitch McConnells of the world isn’t just a necessary step on the way to our goals; overcoming those obstacles is part of our success! Yay!

But raise your hand if it gets exhausting. Raise your hand if you’ve wanted to quit. Raise your hand if you’ve asked yourself, How much more do I have to do before I’ve done enough? How much of myself do I have to give? How smoothly do I have to polish myself before I can move through the world without friction?

Us too.

Women’s difficulty is rarely lack of persistence—on the contrary. We stand gazing at the possibilities of what the world can be—what we can be. Our world can be fair; our communities can be safe; our homes can be tidy; our children can put their shoes on when it’s time for school! But there is a deep, wide chasm between us and the realization of those possibilities. Our default action in the face of that chasm is to do whatever it takes to get to the other side, and keep on doing it, no matter what, until we get there.

But then we get exhausted and we wonder if we can accomplish any of the things we hope for, without destroying ourselves in the process. We ask ourselves if it’s time to quit.

Life is rarely perfect. Nearly always, there is a gap between how things are and how we wish, hope, expect, or plan for them to be. The quality of our lives is not measured by the amount of time we spend in a state of perfection. On the contrary, people of vision—think of the principal social justice leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—see the largest gap between what is and what ought to be, and they know they will not live to see a world that fully achieves their vision of what’s possible. A gap between reality and perfection is not abnormal or a sign of dysfunction; it’s a normal part of life. In fact, as we’ve seen, the Monitor thrives when things are a little frustrating, when there’s always some fresh challenge, some new skill to develop, some unknown territory to chart. The quality of our lives, day to day, is measured by our freedom to choose to stay or leave. That freedom comes when we have abundance enough and safety enough to let go of what is broken and reach for something new.17

     Sophie’s strategy of monetizing her expertise is planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal at its most pragmatic. Is the world insisting you be good at something you never chose to be good at? Turn it into a business opportunity that solves the problem!

People of color, women, people with disabilities, and members of other disenfranchised groups have persisted in the face of impossible frustrations, often crediting their most difficult trials with their most empowering personal growth.

What keeps us striving when we know that we, ourselves, won’t see the changes we’re fighting for? Why do we persist when we hope only to make life better for the next generation?

The answer to those questions is “meaning beyond ourselves.” That science is the subject of the next chapter.

A goal is not a life—but it may be what gives shape and direction to the way we live each day. If our goals are what we want to accomplish, “meaning” is why we want to accomplish them. We continue to do our best raising a child, even when that child makes us consider running away to join the circus. We persist at a frustrating job because we know we’re making a difference in people’s lives. We pursue our art, even when we know we may never make a living at it, because we simply would not be fully ourselves if we stopped. Though your goals may differ from ours, they share a common, overarching theme: they give us a sense of engagement with something larger than ourselves.


? Frustration happens when our progress toward a goal feels more effortful than we expect it to be.

? You can manage frustration by using planful problem-solving for stressors you can control, and positive reappraisal for stressors you can’t control.

? When we’re struggling, we may reach a point of oscillating between frustrated rage and helpless despair. Solution: Choose the right time to give up, which might be now or might be never; either way, the choice puts you back in the driver’s seat.

? Your brain has a built-in mechanism to assess when it’s time to quit. Listen to its quiet voice. Or do a worksheet; sometimes that’s easier.


To cope with the frustration of trying to achieve a goal that’s all but impossible—e.g., “perfection”—or else eternally in-progress—e.g., “successfully” parenting a child—start by redefining what it means to “win” at this goal.

Frustrating Goal

What is it about this goal that frustrates your Monitor? Is it unattainable? Do you feel ambivalent about it? Was it someone else’s dumb idea? Is there part of it that makes you feel helpless? Are there too many frustrating yet unavoidable obstacles between you and “winning”?

Brainstorm at least twenty options for definitions of “winning” that will satisfy your Monitor. Make sure you have plenty of silly, impractical ideas, as well as a few that could actually work. Brainstorming works best when you don’t filter! For some people, it also works better when you collaborate; if that’s you, ask a friend to help.

Now choose your three favorites and score them based on the criteria for Monitor-pleasing goals:

Soon: When will you know you’ve succeeded? Your goal should be achievable without requiring patience.

Certain: How confident are you that you can succeed? Your goal should be within your control.

Positive: What improvement will you experience when you win? It should be something that feels good, not just something that avoids suffering.

Concrete: Measurable. How will you know you’ve succeeded? There is an external indication that you have succeeded.

Specific: As opposed to general. You should be able to visualize precisely what success will look like.

Personal: Why does this goal matter to you? How much does it matter? Tailor your goal so that it matters to you.

Reread your description of what made this goal frustrating. Now you can select whichever new definition of “winning” best addresses those problems!



    Some time after Julie’s chocolate cake meltdown, she invited Amelia over, because, she said, she had some venting to do.