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[Commentary] The 30-Something Burn-Out

The 30-Something Burn-Out


What is it?

Society and culture conditioned us what success means and how many 30-somethings appeared to be successful. Social media painted the positive highlights in the lives of our friends, public figures and even ourselves. It is an onset of an underlying problem when our Social Media life appears to be more exciting, instead of the reflection, of our actual life.

Christina Maslach, Psychology professor at University of California, conceptualised burn-out as emotional exhaustion, dehumanization and diminished personal accomplishment. While this provides a superficial explanation with in-depth psychological reasoning, the issues with burn-out continued, if not worsen, in this decade as compared to the last century.

If fatigue and lethargy are the early symptoms of burn-out, insomnia and panic attacks may be the mid-term symptoms. Education trained us to spot problems and find solutions. We know when we are reaching the tipping point, but we also need to recognise that instead of just pressing on, taking a step back can also help.

According to developmental psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, the key focus in our 30s is love and care – intimacy versus isolation and generativity versus stagnation. While it is possible to skip stages, the incomplete earlier life stages can affect us at this time, when our lives are going on full force with insufficient physical and emotional support.

More research are being done on children, adolescents and elderly, as opposed to adults. As 30-somethings, we should be able to manage our lives properly, and when we cannot, there is something wrong with us. Hence, for some of us who have difficulties coping in some aspects, we get classified in ‘emerging adulthood’ because we ‘failed to launch’.

How is this affecting us?

When our decisions and actions are aligned to our core being, we feel at peace. But in our daily lives, there are many choices and actions we need to do that may not align to what we really want to do. And when it happens over a period of time, it slowly eats into our mental and emotional well-being.

While ‘comparisonitis’ is a recent term and most of us are aware of the pitfalls, sometimes the influence is subtle and from sources which are not blindingly obvious. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is reflected everywhere, from subliminal advertising messages, to in-your-face consumer products.

The availability of financial resources affects our quality of life, which is very prevalent in the Singapore culture. People get into debts in order to buy the items we think can improve our lives, without realising it actually creates a downward spiral. After some time, then we realised that we are trapped in the rat race of making more money to sustain this lifestyle.

For Singaporeans, it appears we have fulfilled the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy for physiological and safety needs. Our environment may not be able to fulfil our need for love and belonging, and esteem. And at the same time, we were taught to pursue self-actualisation and self-transcendence.

As 30-something, we need to juggle a multifaceted life, with new challenges daily from relationships, work and personal development. On top of that, most of us had multiple roles to fulfil – spouse/partner, son/daughter, mother/father, friend, relative, colleague, boss, employee, business associate, neighbour, mentor, guardian, etc.

Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at University of Oxford, hypothesised that a human cognitive has a limit to 150 stable social relationships at any one time. While there are other anthropologists who proposed the numbers between 231 and 290, having too many superficial connections may be more exhausting than maintaining a few deeper emotional connections.

Personality-related causes of burnout are harder to treat as it is caused by psychological issues during our childhood development. Psychotherapies like Lifespan Integration (based on Peggy Pace’s 2003 book) may help to ease the workaholic, perfectionist, or narcissistic part in us. But it requires our humility and vulnerability to let the therapy work since no one wants to be a defective person.

What is the solution?

Google the word ‘burnout’ and there are 112 million pages on this topic, with 12 million pages on symptoms and 14 million pages to prevent it (figures based on May 2015 search). With so many strategies and advice, as well as offers for help, why are we still plaque with this growing epidemic among the younger generations?

The most common solutions for occupational burnout are leaving the current job, changing career and taking a sabbatical/break to recuperate. These short term solutions are usually effective when burnout is caused by external factors like the job, co-workers, clients, etc. It boils down to our individual coping mechanism that we developed since childhood.

While we can detect that we are overwhelmed with burnout symptoms, most of us may not realise the detrimental effects until it is too late – e.g. breakdown of relationships or development of illnesses. It eats into our mind bit-by-bit day-by-day, and it can go unnoticed for years as there is no-one-size-fits-all eruption.

Perhaps the way to combat burnout is to learn from the Bhutanese, think about death daily and accept all our emotions. In this way, our brain will subconsciously refocus on positive thoughts. When we know death is coming, the most important things in our life supersede all unimportant problems.

There are research on how meditation may be an effective treatment for burnout and mental disorders with and without the aid of medication. Some has doubts on this low cost and low intensive treatment, while others find it too time-consuming without instantaneous results. For someone who is already burnt-out, it can be difficult to quieten the mind as a start.

Psychological resilience research is ongoing and may be a link to negating burn-out in young adults. The earlier generations been through tough environment conditions made them more resilient than the younger generation. While resiliency cannot be taught as a subject, it is like a muscle – the more we use the resilient muscle, the stronger it becomes.

As there are no diagnostic tests to determine whether one is experiencing burnout or a short burst of overwhelm, it may be easier to put it as a clinical case of depression instead. Although it is not measurable from a scientific standpoint currently, it does not make this mental problem any less significant.

How to make the best out of it?

Based on the generic fight, flight or freeze mode, some eat comfort food, go for a shopping spree, take a holiday or spend time with loved ones as methods to cope with life crisis. Even when we fully recover from the first burn-out, we are not immune and likely will experience again throughout adulthood.

After living for 30-something years, there are parts of us that we love, some parts need improvement, and other parts we rather not have. Burn-out happens where we keep trying to improve (e.g. make more money) and hide our ugly side from others (e.g. positive highlights on social media), we forget to focus on the strengths and positive parts we love.

Like most wounds, time is necessary in the healing. Whether it is time off from work, me-time away from others, or rest time to recuperate, having this space to relax and reflect is essential to recover from burnout. In our 30s, when we have commitments, family and responsibilities, time becomes a luxury that not everyone can afford.

Doris Chow

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