Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

But each one of these women worked to be “of service” in ways that violated their roles as human givers. And if you do that—say, by leaving someone else’s needs unmet, or not being pretty and calm while you do it, or claiming power that “rightfully” belongs not to a human giver but to a human being—the world smacks you down.

They say, “What’s the matter with you?”

They say, “Get back in line.”

This is a theme we’ll encounter over and over through the rest of this book: Behave yourself. Follow the rules. Or else.

     Human Giver Syndrome goes so far as to insist we’re wrong to see ourselves as heroines battling an enemy. A giver has no needs and thus has nothing to fight for. Joseph Campbell himself, father of the “Hero’s Journey” framework, summarized it succinctly when presented with a “Heroine’s Journey” to consider. He said, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize she’s the place people are trying to get to.”21

Women are a “place”; only men are “people” on a journey, with a villain to defeat. Women’s Something Larger is men.

Tell that to Malala; lots of people did. Tell it to U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in combat during the Iraq War and then became the first Asian American woman and the first disabled woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Tell it to Tona Brown, the first out transwoman of color to play Carnegie Hall. Tell it to Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go to space and now the director of the Johnson Space Center. Tell it to every woman who ever worked a soul-eroding factory job or cleaned other people’s houses eighty hours a week or danced at a strip club, all to pay the bills, to keep the heat on, so her kids wouldn’t be cold at night—or to get an education, to become a leader in her discipline.

Tell her, “What’s wrong with you? Get back in line. You don’t need to go anywhere; you just need to be the place a man is trying to get to.”

We say it all the time, to other women and to ourselves. To suffer from Human Giver Syndrome is to be convinced, on some level, that everyone should suffer along with us. And so if we see someone who looks like they’re not even trying, we feel outraged. When we see women who aren’t trying to control their appearance or their emotions so that they aren’t making anyone uncomfortable, or who use their time, money, and labor to improve their own well-being rather than someone else’s, “What’s the matter with her?” we say to ourselves. “If I have to follow the rules, so does she! She needs to get back in line.” And we call that unruly woman fat or bossy or full of herself. As if those are bad things.

     In a sense, Human Giver Syndrome is the first villain in our story. It tries to make you ignore your Something Larger, because you’re supposed to dedicate all your resources to Human Beings. But how can we escape or defeat the villain in our own story when we’re busy policing others to keep them from defeating it?

The good news is, when you engage with your Something Larger and thus make meaning in your life, you’re actually healing Human Giver Syndrome, both in yourself and in the people around you.

Make Meaning, Heal Human Giver Syndrome

Human Giver Syndrome used to tell women that their place—their only place—was in the home (and in some places, it still does). Betty Friedan documented how giving was weaponized to manipulate housewives of the 1950s and ’60s, forcing them away from the workplace they had inhabited during the Second World War by insisting that homemaking was the (only) Something Larger that would fulfill them as women. And if, as Betty Freidan so memorably put it, they didn’t “have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor,”22 it wasn’t anyone’s fault but their own. If homemaking left them unfulfilled or dissatisfied, then they were broken as women. Until Freidan named this “problem that has no name,” millions of women had been suffering in silence.

The second-wave feminist movement created a new force that allowed women to push for something different or just more and not be asked, “What’s the matter with you?” It opened up new possibilities for women. It motivated personal life changes and political action and a cultural shift that, in turn, changed the culture itself.

There was backlash—there always is. Human Giver Syndome punishes those who try to treat it, and many paid a price for their resistance or rebellion. But the long-term result was an incrementally fairer world.

     Human Giver Syndrome will try to stop you from pursuing meaning. Your job is to not stop. Keep engaging with your Something Larger. Use planful problem-solving. Keep completing the cycle. #Persist.

But of course, sometimes it’s not that easy.

     Sophie engages with her Something Larger—SCIENCE FOR ALL!—in many different ways. Her work, of course, is one way. Her mentoring of young women in STEM is another. Her consulting and speaking about making STEM more welcoming for women of color is still another. She works extremely hard, many hours a day, in environments that are often pretty toxic, and she makes a real difference in the world. Hundreds of people could tell you how she has changed their lives for the better.

Sophie’s Star Trek fandom is her most playful source of meaning. When she was a little girl, Sophie saw Lieutenant Uhura on TV and knew that she could be a black girl and a scientist and an explorer and be taken seriously. And because she saw that it was possible, she believed nothing could stand between her and that goal.

And what is she now? An engineer.

Sophie’s a hardcore fan. She even has an Uhura costume—not a Zoe Saldana Uhura costume, or even a 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture beige jumpsuit, but a season three minidress, as worn by Nichelle Nichols, scoop collar, bracelet sleeves, and all, in engineering red. She wears it to Star Trek conventions, where she connects with fellow fans who dwell with her in an optimistic future where anyone can be an engineer, an explorer. For her, cosplay is practice living inside a world where that future already exists.

      And in a way, it does already exist—in her. From the pointed toes of her mid-calf boots to the top of her bouffant wig, Sophie is six feet five inches of everything Star Trek aspired to—and of the vision Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared when he convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay in the role of Lieutenant Uhura.23 As Nichols tells the story, “For the first time, we are being seen by the world over as we should be seen. [King] says, ‘Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?’?”

Making the world a better place for all scientists is not just patient explanations of what privilege is and stories of “accidental” exclusion of women and people of color. It can also be a bright red minidress and winged eyeliner. When Sophie climbs out of her car at a Trekker convention and hands her keys to the valet, every human turns to look and admire. Everyone wants to take pictures with her.

And when they find out she is an actual, real-life engineer, many times their brains turn inside out.

Uhura’s first name is Nyota, the Swahili word for “star.”

As in, what we reach for.

Making Meaning When Terrible Things Happen

When life is stable, we don’t need much sense of meaning to stay well. We engage regularly with our Something Larger, and our brains metabolize those experiences to keep us feeling like the world makes sense and our existence has purpose. Hooray!


Sometimes life gets rocky.

Emily Nagoski's books