Rebuilding the Fire
From Burnout to Breakout
Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc"
During this season of regeneration, a variety of spiritual and visual symbols of death,
rebirth and liberation invariably float to consciousness - from the resurrection of Jesus
to Passover liberation, including the Angel of Death and the parting of the Red Sea. But
the symbol that sings to my springtime soul most deeply transcends traditional religious
faith; it exists on a more mythical plane. I'm referring to that paradoxical creature, the
Phoenix. This mythological bird soared to new heights after being consumed by it's own
For the phoenix to rise from the ashes One must know the pain To transform the fire to
A Poignant Paradox of Peak Performance
Recently, I received a compelling email from a reader concerned that his ambitious fire
and desire were going out. He was grappling with questions of burnout - a symbolic psychic
death - and with setting new goals, that is, rising once again. But the reader provided an
ironic twist. He now felt trapped by his peak performance. T. had achieved a status of
martial arts champion at the Taekwando World Championships. In his field of business, he
was one of the top leaders in his state. (I must admit, I'm experiencing some envy as I
write this.) He had climbed to the top of more than one mountain, deservedly basking in
glorified and rarefied heights. Yet, T. is left asking, "Have I reached a level of
burnout due to...'what's next?!' What could I possibly achieve next?"
Our reader has an advantage over many: "(He) will not be terrified of future
success or failure." And he knows "there are many goals out there." But
ironically, this last piece of knowledge may contribute to his being stuck. And it may
also be the key to discovering the pass in the impasse.
Mid-Life/Career Passage: Three Keys
Many undergo a "mid-life" or "mid-career" crisis. (And some who are
precocious may start it prematurely.) Like our email protagonist, these individuals feel a
sense of ennui; something's lacking. Their life does not feel genuine; the career no
longer fits their professional and personal skin. Does one risk shedding a once bright
coat of armor?
These folks may be experiencing a fate similar to Bjorn Borg, the late '70s- early '80s
tennis great. Borg, after a nearly invincible five year run, dramatically burned out on
the circuit. Perhaps one can only win the French and Wimbledon Championships back to back
so many times. Maybe it's the endless hours of practice repetition. Or does the large ego
bruise easily because you can't beat "Mac the Brat" at the US Open? Whatever the
combination of factors, despite the money, travel and glory...there's the Bjorn Bored
Syndrome: when Mastery times Monotony provides an index of MISERY!
Your niche of success has you now feeling stuck in the ditch of excess. It's definitely
a critical crossroad, if not a "crisis." And as the Chinese symbol visually
affirmed long ago, crisis is double-edged: you are enveloped in "danger" yet
"opportunity." So here are three crisis keys for descending from the peak,
retreating into your passionate shadows - in the most spiritually profound sense - and
preparing for a renewed transformational journey.
1. Pursuing Life from the Inside Out. I suspect some of our reader's dilemma stems from
a desire to fall back on a familiar problem-solving strategy -- "looking for the many
goals out there" that he can master. Sometimes a personal inner search must precede
passionate seeking and goal setting.
Gail Sheehy, in her bestseller, Passages, about transitions throughout the life cycle,
had a chapter on "The Mid-Life Crisis." She posed four vital questions for
assessing vulnerability and the intensity of the need to engage this mid-life,
multidimensional maelstrom: a) Ideal vs. Real Self. How wide is the gap between
self-aspiration and self- definition? And is this discrepancy a window for motivation or a
black hole of depression? b) Security vs. Danger. What's the ratio between the predictable
and the unexpected in your life? Does security yield confidence or ennui? Does danger mean
challenging excitement or anxious despair or rigid constriction? c) Time Sense. Is time
running out or does the horizon seem limitless? Of course, the former can propel you into
goal-seeking while the latter may induce languorous inertia or dilettantism. d) Aliveness
or Stagnation. This is a global measure, an existential indicator of one's heart and gut.
Do you look forward to getting up in the morning? Do you have a genuine or, even better, a
passionate connection with the people and projects, with the overall path, of your life?
Though sometimes we first must reach out to go deep inside. Seeking counseling or a
coach, as T. did, is a wise move.
2. Passion Play. How does one rebuild the motivational fire or "keep it
alive" to quote our existential subject. I believe, first, one must let go and
acknowledge the loss. An image comes to mind of the professional athlete, caught by aging,
slowed reflexes and, often, injury who fights against time and diminshed productivity. The
stars who linger past their prime. They try to deny their mortality; dread losing the
limelight and entering the uncertain, real world shadows. They do not want to grieve the
end of their run. However, when encountering a major transition, we all need to confront
what I call, "The Four 'F's of Loss": 1) loss of a familiar past, 2) loss of a
predictable future, 3) loss of face, and 4) loss of a focus.
For we must let go to feel fully the pain, to tap into constructive discontent, to
break open the box and discover anew our furies and passions. Especially passions based on
our emotional and spiritual sides. Passion goes beyond the sexual realm. A good dictionary
often pairs "passion" and "suffering"...as in "The Passion
Play": the sufferings of Jesus or more generically the sufferings of a martyr.
(Imagine all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman! You
didn't think I was going to abandon completely our Easter and Passover themes ;-)
Suffering and Its Creative Discontents
And the clean suffering of passion, feeling and seeing purely, in an unclouded almost
childlike way, has been often linked to psychic death and creative rebirth. Pablo Picasso,
the 20thc. artistic giant, who often spoke of striving for childlike perception, observed:
"Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." We must break
down old unchallenged habits of mind and senses, scrub psychic flotsam and jetsam, that
confound our psychological, sensual and spiritual clarity. The fires of passion purify
illusions and pair humility and conviction; righteous pride flames grandiosities. True
suffering calms critical voices, soothes and releases us from dreaded fears. And, if we
can meander awhile, accept our aloneness, blazing suffering sheds light on "the dark
night of the soul."
As French philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss,
we understand that the loved one [or loved position, achievement, etc.] obstructed a whole
corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain. And how do we accept the fact of
loss? As I have penned: "Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a
powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the
clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical
fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of disillusion bear fruitful renewal." So
my friend, grieve and celebrate the descent from the peak. There are truly new and
revolutionary inner mountains to climb, caves to descend or, perhaps, rivers and swamps to
3. Exploring the Shadow Side. Once you are living and letting go from the inside out
and are diving into your passionate pool of pain...you are ready for the final
exploration: discovering your shadow side. Carl Jung, a pioneering psychoanalyst and
theoretician, saw "the shadow" as primal dimensions of the psyche, presently
beyond our consciousness; part of our collective unconscious. Many are not comfortable
acknowledging, let alone experiencing, these dimensions. For example, Jung believes we all
have masculine and feminine sides. The shadow influences our persona - the face, if not
the mask, we present to the outer world.
And the nature of the shadow/mask is colored, if not molded by the critical, shaming,
self-doubting interactions from the past. We internalize hurtful and invalidating
communication. Also, we absorb and defend against - consciously and unconsciously - the
degree of humiliation, anxiety, rage, depression, emptiness, etc. of our early significant
others. (Not to mention the biochemical gifts and vulnerabilities we inherit.) These
painful messages and introjects (e.g., believing that you are bad or unworthy when an
authority figure accuses you of being selfish for wanting to express genuine needs or
feelings of upset) become the psychic albatross we carry on our journey.
Only by embracing our shadow side can we lighten - both illuminate and unburden - our
emotional load. Only by courageously exploring can we discover the seeds of vitality and
genuine identity embedded and disguised in the threatening shadows, masks and old voices.
The Wonders of Wandering and Communing
It takes time and quiet to wander meaningfully. Character, it is said, develops in
interaction with others. Integrity is forged in solitude. One must have the strength to be
vulnerable and be alone, to meander in the desert, to descend into the cave; to encounter
the primal oasis and pool where the opposites of life, where both shadow and light, where
that complex yet cohesive integrity, dwells. Here one discovers the expansive spirit.
Exploring and integrating our introvertish and extravertish natures is a profound
mid-life task. And this is the final truth: To transform and rejuvenate a path means
uniting our overt personality strengths and covert, suppressed shadow; it means building
an uncommon, synergistic bond between our outer environment and our inner self; it means
embracing the primal past, allowing it to breathe and dance, to laugh and cry...right now.
And then come back from the desert, from the mountain top, from the subterranean nether
world, and share your insights with others.
I will close with a favorite passage forged by the intense, persistent friction of
profound self-doubt and determination: Errors of judgment or design rarely consign one to
incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness.
Our so-called failures may be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of
opportunity and experience that widen and deepen the risk-taking passage. If we can just
immerse ourselves in these unpredictably rejuvenating waters.
Until then, of course...Practice Safe Stress!
a) email if you'd like to subscribe to my new, free newsletter, b) Leading a
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