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

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne describes a system in which one class of people,7 the “human givers,” are expected to offer their time, attention, affection, and bodies willingly, placidly, to the other class of people, the “human beings.”8 The implication in these terms is that human beings have a moral obligation to be or express their humanity, while human givers have a moral obligation to give their humanity to the human beings. Guess which one women are.

In day-to-day life, the dynamic is more complicated and subtle, but let’s imagine the cartoon version: The human givers are the “attentive, loving subordinates” to the human beings.9 The givers’ role is to give their whole humanity to the beings, so that the beings can be their full humanity. Givers are expected to abdicate any resource or power they may happen to acquire—their jobs, their love, their bodies. Those belong to the beings.

Human givers must, at all times, be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, which means they must never be ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs. Givers are not supposed to need anything. If they dare to ask for or, God forbid, demand anything, that’s a violation of their role as a giver and they may be punished. And if a giver doesn’t obediently and sweetly hand over whatever a being wants, for that, too, the giver may be punished, shamed, or even destroyed.

     If we had set out to design a system to induce burnout in half the population, we could not have constructed anything more efficient.

Emotional exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion and can’t move through the tunnel. In Human Giver Syndrome, the giver isn’t allowed to inconvenience anyone with anything so messy as emotions, so givers are trapped in a situation where they are not free to move through the tunnel. They might even be punished for it.

Your body, with its instinct for self-preservation, knows, on some level, that Human Giver Syndrome is slowly killing you. That’s why you keep trying mindfulness and green smoothies and self-care trend after self-care trend. But that instinct for self-preservation is battling a syndrome that insists that self-preservation is selfish, so your efforts to care for yourself might actually make things worse, activating even more punishment from the world or from yourself, because how dare you?

Human Giver Syndrome is our disease.

The book you’re reading is our prescription.

How the Book Is Organized

We’ve divided Burnout into three parts. Part I is “What You Take with You.”

In the Star Wars movie Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker sees an evil cave. Looking toward the entrance in dread, he asks his teacher Yoda, “What’s in there?”

     Yoda answers, “Only what you take with you.”

This beginning section of the book explains three internal resources that we carry with us as we take our heroine’s journey: the stress response cycle, “the Monitor” (the brain mechanism that controls the emotion of frustration), and meaning in life. Meaning is often misunderstood as “the thing we’ll find at the end of the tunnel,” but it’s not. It’s why we go through the tunnel, regardless of what we find on the other end. (Spoiler alert: meaning is good for us.)

Which brings us to Part II. We call it “The Real Enemy.”

That’s a reference to The Hunger Games, in which young Katniss Everdeen is forced into a “game” organized by the dystopian sci-fi government, in which she has to kill other children.

Her mentor says to her, “Remember who the real enemy is.” It’s not the people the government wants her to kill, and who are trying to kill her. The real enemy is the government that set this whole system up in the first place.

Can you guess what the enemy is in this book?

[Cue ominous music] The Patriarchy. Ugh.

Most self-help books for women leave this chapter out and instead discuss only the things readers can control, but that’s like teaching someone the best winning strategy of a game without mentioning that the game is rigged. Fortunately, when we understand how the game is rigged, we can start playing by our own rules.

And then Part III—the thrilling conclusion—is the science of winning the war against these “real enemies.” It turns out there are concrete, specific things we can do each and every day, to grow mighty and conquer the enemy.

We call this part “Wax On, Wax Off.”

In the original Karate Kid movie, Mr. Miyagi teaches Danny LaRusso karate by having the kid wax his car.

     “Wax on,” says Mr. Miyagi, rotating his palm clockwise. “Wax off,” he says, rotating his other palm counterclockwise, and he adds, “Don’t forget to breathe.” He also has Danny sand the deck, stain the fence, and paint the house.

Why the repetitive, mundane tasks?

Because in the mundane tasks live the protective gestures that help us grow strong enough to defend ourselves and the people we love, and to make peace with our enemies.

“Wax on, wax off” is what makes you stronger: connection, rest, and self-compassion.

Throughout the book, you’ll follow the stories of two women: Julie, an overwhelmed public school teacher whose body will revolt against her, forcing her to pay attention to it; and Sophie, an engineer who will decide she is not here for the patriarchy.These women are composites: In the same way a movie is made of thousands of still images, edited together to tell a story, they are composed of fragments of dozens of real-life women. We’re using this technique partly to protect the identities of the real women and partly because this larger narrative arc more effectively explains the science than stand-alone vignettes can. The research doesn’t come close to addressing every woman’s experience, but we hope that these stories will give you that sense of how each individual’s experience is unique and yet, at the same time, universal.

And each chapter ends with a “tl;dr” list. Tl;dr is the Internet abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read.” If you write a five-hundred-word post on Facebook or a multiparagraph comment on Instagram, someone may well reply, “tl;dr.” Our tl;dr lists contain the ideas you can share with your best friend when she calls you in tears, the facts you can use to disprove myths when they come up in conversation, and the thoughts we hope come to you when your racing mind keeps you awake at night.


In this book, we use science as a tool to help women live better lives. We’ve turned to diverse domains of science, including affective neuroscience, psychophysiology, positive psychology, ethology, game theory, computational biology, and many others. So a few words of caution about science.