The Burn-in Virus: Lingering Loss, Prematurely Buried Grief, and the Rise of Grief Ghosts

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Part III began with a vignette that revealed how denying past loss and trauma confounds and contaminates one’s present functioning. It also illustrated how one may need to experience burnout in order to acknowledge and ultimately grapple with primal burn-in “Grief Ghosts.” Next there was a classic definition of burnout followed by an outline of five major sources of burnout and a poignant and playful upgrade to the “Four Stages of Burnout.”

Definition of Burn-in


Now it’s time to define more carefully the newly conceived “Burn-in” and to differentiate burn-in (with its typically more internal, yin energy and “draining” essence) from burnout (with its more external, “straining” yang nature). Akin to burnout, burn-in is also a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical, and emotional strain. However, in contrast to the external demands, excessive responsibilities, and over (or under) whelming grind of burnout, burn-in involves the silent, chronic drain of harboring unconsciously repressed or consciously resisted lingering and reverberating memories and smoldering emotions connected to recent and past, physical and psychological losses, transitions, and traumas. And, perhaps most disorienting, painful emotions and memories long denied or prematurely buried become the crucible for the birth of “Grief Ghosts.”

Let me simplify this “Three Step Rise of Grief Ghosts”:

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1. Lingering Loss. You experience a painful physical or psychological loss whether from the distant or recent past. The nature of the loss is denied or, more likely, acknowledged but quickly pushed to the back of your mind, out of everyday emotional consciousness. “It’s time to move on.” Of course, the more powerful the loss the greater is the potential for kindling grief ghosts. (In general, lingering, unrecognized or minimized loss + absent or aborted grief x time is the formula for ghostly production.)

2. Prematurely Buried Grief. The energy and feelings connected to the loss and the aborted or alienated grief process means painful emotions and memories are smoldering and reverberating inside. The longer and tighter one tries to keep the lid on this psychic crucible the more potent the condition for this combustible mix to become increasingly pressure-packed and incessantly loud, and to swarm furiously. Clear thought and decision-making processes are scrambled; heightened emotions if not numbed can become overwhelming. Other life transitions, traumas, and losses experienced along the burn-in path may only compound and intensify this fuming and rumbling process if, once again, the grief process is basically avoided.

3. Burn-in and the Rise of Grief Ghosts. Finally, one will implode or explode; constantly smoldering and smoking pain or shame not only is exhausting, it burns away your emotional defenses as well as your mind-body-heart-spirit insides; alas, it may be hard not to make an ash of yourself! Your combustible “burn-in” psychic mix, like the high temperatures and pressure that forms metamorphic rocks, now morphs into “Grief Ghosts.” Or subterranean, conflicting and clashing past and present voices in your head, like colliding tectonic plates, may spark the rise of metaphoric ghosts. Whatever the genesis, you are suddenly dealing with two battlefronts: a) the immediate real world problem in the present and b) and the unleashed spectral presence of formerly dormant, now painful, confusing, and often critical grief ghosts. And your inner reserve and resolve feels depleted if not devastated. You are susceptible to emotional overreaction or regressing to old self-defeating “survival” patterns especially during times of crisis, trauma, loss, and high stress or when in the throes of challenging performance, identity-related transition, and/or intimate relating.

Another Immobilizing Metaphor

Let me try a more contemporary metaphor. Painful losses and evolving phantasms that have not been honestly, courageously, and meaningfully mourned can go viral. It’s as if an undetected virus has been slowly yet steadily corrupting your inner hard-drive, your mother board and operating system, along with the random access memory, while eventually releasing a disruptive Trojan-phantom program called “The Rise of Grief Ghosts.” Form becomes deformed, function morphs into dysfunction. Over time, burn-in emotions – from fear, frustration, guilt, anger, and ennui to panic, rage, shame, numbness, despair, along with mania and melancholia – smolder, disrupt, combust and, finally, often erupt. You may be in a battle with the now looming and swirling (as opposed to the once silently erosive) grief ghosts for control over your mind-body-spirit and family-work-life balance ship of state. Grief ghosts – overt or covert – if not emotionally engaged and grieved wear down resiliency and increase susceptibility to heightened post-traumatic effects. And naturally, this spectral eruption not only leads to disorienting, reactive, and self-defeating or self-destructive behavior but also contaminates communications and interactions with others.

Dynamics and Consequences of Prematurely Buried Grief (PBG)

Whatever the motivation, Prematurely Buried Grief (PBG) is a heavy yet quietly stealthy bio-psycho-social weight that, alas, one often “gets used to” carrying over time and, sadly, its debilitating impact is often unnoticed. PBG’s maladaptive effect frequently eludes the bearer’s as well as observers’ notice until it’s too late. (I have likened it to running a race with an invisible 25 lb. weight attached to your ankle. Almost everything becomes a strain.) This PBG individual is germinating grief ghosts and is susceptible to “burn-in” or “burn-in induced burnout.” (See Part III of this series for a case example of the latter. Grief ghosts denied, of course, can also lead to mental health issues including depression and substance abuse, as well as transfigure emotional pain into panic or trauma.)

Sufficiently grieving a significant loss that prevents the incubation of grief ghosts and contributes to understanding and growth is rarely a one-trial learning curve. As was outlined in Part III, there are initial grief stages and various emotional states to be engaged in the months, sometimes years ahead. In addition, fully tapping into this underground resource becomes an ongoing, lifetime process of memory and reflection, identification with and integration of the psycho-spiritual essence and value of the person, place, thing, dream, or illusion mourned. The specific nature of a head, heart, and soul expanding or contracting grief journey is channeled by the bio-psycho-social history, personality, emotional support, as well as the degree of order and challenge, rigidity and flexibility in the individual’s eco-cultural landscape and mindscape.

Burn-in sits heavy on many people’s minds and bodies, hearts and souls. Yet many are leery of entering the dark and deep labyrinth of grief, afraid of discovering a shadowy monster within, or that once unleashed, the streaming tears will turn into an uncontrollable raging river. And combined with the cultural messages such as “don’t look back; just move on,” “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “aren’t you overdoing the martyr role,” not surprisingly, this hulking, smoldering ghost and the need to meaningfully and deeply grieve is often barely recognized in a “TNT” – “Time, Numbers, & Technology” – driven and distracted world. Be advised, at this very moment, these ghosts are loitering in your office halls and on your work floors. In fact, some of the grief ghost carriers distract themselves by always getting into other people’s business. Very quickly a “ghost carrier” can become a “stress carrier.”

Key Fuel Sources for the Burn-in Smolder

So what nature and nurture life experiences and predispositions become kindling for “Burn-in?” Key sources include:

a) lingering life cycle – natural and normative, developmental and transitional – losses insufficiently mourned – whether from natural devastation, e.g., loss of a home and a community in a tornado or hurricane, to man-made decisions and disasters e.g. drug abuse, gang violence, and other health-risk life style choices, to downsizings and divorces, bankruptcies and foreclosures, or fatal vehicular accidents; these types of loss often affect more than the material, impacting one’s identity and belief in the future,

b) traumatic experiences denied, prematurely buried, “not discussed in public,” or pushed aside by false pride or shame, e.g., mental illness issues in a family, rape, political torture or prison/immigration camp experience, or PTSD in the military,

c) the gradual loss or deflation of a dream, e.g., having to change self-defining career paths, drop out of school, sell or step away from a personal business or home, whether, for example, because: 1) it’s no longer profitable, 2) increasing age or infirmity makes it difficult to sustain the practice or upkeep, or 3) it has grown beyond your expertise, maturity, and control,

d) the poignant pain of early childhood deaths and illnesses, separations, and abandonments on both individuals and members of the family system, e.g., a parent’s “breakdown” and subsequent lingering depression or diminished emotional presence on a relationship with a child; (e.g., research shows that adults with major early loss issues when exposed to hazardous situations are more susceptible to post-traumatic effects),

e) childhood abuse or bullying; of course, bullying is not confined to the schoolyard – childhood and domestic abuse occurs in the bedroom and worksite bullying is found in the boardroom and on the work floor: the issue of workplace bullying is beginning to share the spotlight with sexual harassment; both may leave indelible scars, and

f) genetic-family predisposition for depression or other mind-body disabilities, along with the stigmatizing societal labels attached by self and others, all may fuel a smoldering, if not burning fire that consumes self-esteem.

All six of these environmental, experiential, and emotional sources and mind-body states and traits intensify the challenge of understanding and managing one’s moods and mindsets, developing work performance competency, as well as evolving emotionally intelligent and successful relationship skills. These hazardous conditions and predispositions often set the stage for eventual burn-in-or burnout implosion or explosion.

Key Structural and Diagnostic Characteristics of Burn-in

As noted earlier, unlike the external demands, excessive responsibilities, and over (or under) whelming everyday grind of burnout, burn-in involves the silent, chronic drain of harboring unconsciously repressed or consciously resisted lingering and reverberating memories and smoldering emotions connected to recent and past losses, transitions, and traumas. And, perhaps most disorienting, painful memories long denied or prematurely buried become the crucible for the birth of “Grief Ghosts.” In viral fashion, these poignant, prematurely buried losses and subsequent ghosts eat away or contaminate your energy, psychic equilibrium, memory, and concentration, along with your self-esteem, identity, and integrity. At minimum, these silent specters have you frequently questioning and doubting yourself. Grief ghosts – overt or covert – if not emotionally engaged and grieved wear down resiliency and increase susceptibility to negative post-traumatic effects. Painful memories from the past get stirred making resiliency or recovery in the face of trauma that more daunting. And naturally, this spectral eruption not only leads to disorienting, reactive, and self-defeating or self-destructive behavior but also contaminates communications and interactions with others.

Let’s examine “Five Burn-in Structural and Diagnostic Characteristics”:

1. Ecosystem vs. Echo-system. In contrast to burnout’s chronically stressful ecosystem, the foundation of burn-in is a distracting echo-system. That is, in addition to the aforementioned drain of lingering loss and premature or insufficient mourning, there’s the interference of old grief ghost voices. This reverberating static may distract, anxiously overwhelm, or out shout existing thoughts and feelings, beliefs and values that are not grounded in genuine self-awareness and self-confidence.

And sometimes, mere recall of these ghosts is not sufficient to silence the reverberating and endlessly ringing static; to achieve mind-body-spirit harmony you have to psychologically if not physically wrestle with the pain and the loss. There are times we all must enter that “dark and hollow night of the soul” cave, embrace our shame and fight for our survival, integrity, and peace of mind. For the lingering and worsening pain of ongoing grief that is not sufficiently acknowledged, that is ignored, deferred, diminished, dismissed, shunned, or denied provides the crucible for consolidating raw emotional energy, heartache, or agony into looming, lurking, and loitering grief ghosts. (The entire litany of grief ghosts will be provided in a future series segment.)

Consider this poignant and reverberating example. A friend and colleague, a former Artillery Officer in Vietnam, was perplexed as to why he was feeling so unsettled a week after 9/11. He’d seen plenty of mayhem in his tour of duty, and had knowingly talked with me about it. His powerful war-time experience did not seem to be the crux of his dis-ease. I thought a moment, and then asked, “Didn’t your first wife die years before in a fire that broke out in your home?” Now J. somberly added that he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to rescue her. Suddenly, a knowing look came across his face: “I hadn’t thought of that.” The burning towers of 9/11 had amplified an echo that subliminally was pulling at J.’s gut and heart strings. The grief ghost had come alive; however once embraced emotionally, its powers to disorient and disturb were defused in the moment of epiphany. And if these personal losses are periodically recollected and reflected upon, especially at times of vulnerable loss or separation, those early painful memories may become poignant ones. Grief ghosts will likely remain in hibernation, to be awakened at the time and place of your choosing. Or, when you realize that during crisis periods grief ghosts are often spontaneously aroused, there presence will be less damning and disorienting.

2. From Wearing Out to Shame and Doubt. Because burn-in is often a slow burn, the loss of your role or identity is gradual not surgical, the exhaustion may creep up on you, before you realize the extent of your depletion and disorientation. However, there have likely been signposts along the burn-in path: increasing errors or diminished performance, loss of interest in familiar or favorite activities, going into a social shell or, conversely, in the throes of conflict, displaying “out of character” defensive, exaggerated, agitated, insensitive, or hostile reactions. Clearly, there are some parallels with a depressive or agitated-depressive state. And as your energetic, conscious, decision-making self withdraws or feels stuck, fertile psychic ground emerges for the increasing presence of grief ghosts. And with longevity comes even greater distraction.

3. Amplification of a Ghostly Voice. Over an extended time, the ignored loitering ghost’s voice, while perhaps once operating at a subterranean decibel level, now gets louder and louder, gets more emotionally shrill and accusatory. These past judgmental authority voices often generate a critical static that disrupts our psychic wavelength clarity and distorts or exacerbates memory channels. The potential for amplification only increases in the throes of crisis or as you encounter new and challenging work-life-family transitions, performance-role challenges, and potentially intimate relationships. A new father was struck by how his father’s emotional expressions, ones he did not want to replicate, seemed to unconsciously fly out of his mouth. The more I hear a person declare, “The last person I’ll ever be like is my old man,” the surer I am of a haunted psyche.

4. The Lingering and Introjected Personal-Emotional Toll. Disengaged or alienated grief dries up the emotional juice provided by a once living and breathing, inspiring, and/or infuriating important person, place, position, and/or emotional period in one’s life. As noted, disconnection with the emotions surrounding loss turns burn-in energy and pressure into lingering or loitering ghosts. (Please don’t take my experience having inspiring conversations and vexing head and heart battles with a deceased’s voice and internalized essence for the “real” thing, that is, an actual belief in the material existence of ghosts.)

Leaving the ghostly argument to others, consider this startling psychological phenomenon. Most of us know, often first hand, that children are shaped by positive and negative messages from significant others. The praise or ridicule of an authority figure usually has a powerful impact. What often escapes understanding is that they/we also internalize (unconsciously take on or “introject”) the negative and positive emotions and self-images (conscious and otherwise) that these vital and meaningful others have about themselves. Surely, this early, unconsciously internalized psycho-family drama, especially when painful and beyond a child’s comprehension (or even awareness if there are family secrets) is fodder for the birth and evolution of grief ghosts.

This introjected transfusion includes silent emotional energy (positive and negative), degree of self-regard, and the eventual overt and covert communication with insufficiently mourned, lingering, lurking, and even lashing out ghosts. For me, this is a mind-blower. That is, for example, a parent’s or grandparent’s shame or confidence (or lack thereof) unwittingly becomes part of our sense of self and degree of self-esteem, our level of confidence and trust in our competence. The nature of this introjection ultimately impacts how we communicate with our own self as well as with our capacity to relate with others. We are an active and receptive player in a family-ghostly drama, often beyond our apprehension, whether we want to be or not. And the longer the internalized emotions-lingering ghost walks alone, isolated, unrecognized, denied, dismissed, or shunned, the louder and more judgmental the covert voice or look, the heavier the emotional toll and loitering fine. (Insert Hamlet’s Ghost here.) Clearly, when not released through grieving, the negative energy, lingering losses, and critical voices from the past are often interred in our bones and brain.

5. The Disruptive Interpersonal Toll. Remember, restless, rejected ghosts make us susceptible to dysfunctional conflict as we displace onto others old hurts and humiliations. Grief ghost static often induces a low threshold for feeling “disrespected” yet also may generate compensatory hubris, i.e., arrogance or false pride. Personality traits or behaviors we find objectionable often escape self-righteous awareness; those same negative or undesirable qualities of others reside in the grief ghosts of our own making. Ignoring the reality of being quietly consumed by past grief-personal ghosts contaminates and compromises an ability to engage and fight objectively, constructively, and, certainly, with compassion those supposedly difficult people in our present family-social-vocational arenas. This increasingly wearing and wary shadowy phantom subtly yet chronically drains us of vital energy for work, play, and love.

Closing Summary

This essay has provided a comprehensive definition of “burn-in” while also outlining the dynamics and consequences of “Prematurely Buried Grief” (PBG). In addition, key sources fueling burn-in were enumerated and, finally, “Five Burn-in Structural and Diagnostic Characteristics” were introduced. Next time, “Six Self-Assessment Questions for Successfully Negotiating the Crisis-Grief Transition Passage.” Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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