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Self-esteem and exhaustion: Interview with burn-out expert Frank Berndt

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Stress and exhaustion are almost de rigueur. Those who do not make an effort are considered aimless and lazy. Sometimes the pressure to perform also causes us to burn out. Burn-out expert Frank Berndt reveals why this is – and how we can prevent it.

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Everyone feels exhausted from time to time, especially in times of crisis. When does this become a burnout?

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When distinguishing between normal exhaustion and burn-out, the ability to regenerate is crucial. If I’m tired from work but have energy and motivation again after the weekend or vacation, then that’s a completely normal state. But as soon as I no longer manage to regenerate in my free time, I should become vigilant.

The burn-out syndrome describes a state of exhaustion that is closely related to one’s own job. Are there sectors that are particularly affected?

When I started working with burnout sufferers 25 years ago, most of them were in social work. That has changed fundamentally. Today we have clients from all professional groups and income brackets. However, there is one limitation: people who do more physical than mental or emotional work knock on our door much less often. This is also due to the fact that the classic office job these days is often associated with constant availability and a home office, while the employed lumberjack really has to call it a day as soon as he puts down the axe.

What pressure to perform and digitization have to do with burn-out

Why has the clinical picture actually spread so widely in public perception?

The cases of burn-out have indeed continued to increase since the digital revolution. Today it is normal for us to be constantly reachable through our smartphones. And if you look around the train station, most people have their eyes on the screen all the time. As a result, we don’t have the time to switch off and let our thoughts wander, our brain is constantly confronted with new input and is therefore permanently energized. Added to this is the pressure to perform that society often puts on us.

Is that the only reason?

Of course, the increasing acceptance of mental illness also plays a role. For a long time, mental illness was considered a social taboo. It’s a lot easier to complain about back pain. I can say “I’m fine, but my back is causing problems”. The back belongs to me, it’s a part of me, but that’s not me. Try the same sentence with the psyche: “I’m fine, but my psyche is causing problems”. It is not that easy! My psyche, that’s me. And if my psyche has a problem, then I have the problem – it’s not just “my back” from which I could distance myself.

Exhaustion: When the résumé turns into a sprint

Constant availability and social pressure to perform are part of everyday life for most people. Nevertheless, the whole thing does not end in burn-out for everyone. What people are knocking on your door?

The most common requests for advice come from two main groups. These are first-time employees who have been in the job for between five and seven years. The other group has clearly more years of work behind them; those affected are mostly between the ages of 45 and 58. And if we look at the world of work, that makes perfect sense. Our resume is a marathon. But there are people who run at it right from the start and misjudge the distance to be covered. This means that they go to work with very high demands on themselves and give it their all – so that these people are often burned out after just a few years. But sometimes it also happens that people have been working for decades – in the ‘marathon picture’ they’re at 30 kilometers – and then realize: crap, I’ve still got a lot of years to come. Those who were then not economical enough with their resources quickly collapse under the mixture of exhaustion and pressure.

What happens after the burn-out diagnosis?

Burn-out often arises from the interplay of a personal disposition and external conditions. So we look for starting points in the client’s environment that we can change and investigate the causes internally. For example, we try to develop new perspectives on the situation together and find out why the patient is exploiting himself.

Let’s take a step back: what can I do to avoid ending up in your burnout consultation in the first place?

The most important point in prevention is self-esteem. By that I don’t mean the much advertised self-esteem, but the very practical action. It’s about how I treat myself, how I talk and think about myself. My schedule reveals a lot about whether I value myself or not, as does my availability by phone. In all these years, I have not had a single burn-out candidate in counseling who valued himself. Conversely, this means that if I treat myself as I would a good friend, then I reduce the risk of this disease enormously.

What is important when it comes to self-esteem

And how can self-esteem look like in practice?

Self-esteem begins with a healthy diet and regular exercise sessions. If I appreciate my body, then of course I do something good for it. Regular breaks and actively setting boundaries are also part of this. The point is that all of this is purely cognitively clear to most people. Even those affected by burnout usually know exactly what would theoretically help them. But they just don’t do it. And that’s not because of convenience, but mostly because of emotions getting in the way of desired behavior. For example, saying “no” often means that I have to alienate someone else. This is where the fear of rejection kicks in.

Our emotions like to get in the way and prevent us from doing good for ourselves. Still, we need to take action to feel better. How can I break this vicious circle?

For example, we find perfectionism everywhere in life. That’s why I’ve gotten into the habit of not tidying up my apartment when friends come over. It takes a lot of the pressure off my friends because they don’t feel like they have to tidy up the next time I come over to visit. And that can be extended to all areas of life. None of us is always perfect, we have rough edges – just like untidy apartments, bad weather on vacation or lousy food in the restaurant. We should give up the habit of only showing off the highlights! It would be incredibly relieving if we could see our fellow human beings more often as they really are.

Social networks like Instagram and Facebook don’t exactly make it easy for us. And otherwise the focus in Germany is often on performance. It is often of primary interest what activity we carry out. Do we even know who we are?

In our society it is almost normal to define yourself by your job. The whole thing becomes a problem when the job determines our entire identity. Unfortunately, that happens far too often. And if the work then stops because you are too exhausted or simply lack motivation, then you are left with nothing very quickly. We should therefore ask ourselves whether we want to go along with this social consensus or whether we should rather define ourselves in terms of more than our job.


Source: Stern

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