The Four Stages of Burnout: The Erosive Spiral – Shrink Rap(TM) Version

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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

If no matter what you do or how hard you try
Or how often escapes a bone weary sigh…
You still can’t say “No” or won’t ever let go
Because of time, money, and mostly ego.
So you carry around a two-ton albatross –
Not just a cross to bear; it’s a bear of a cross
Now, as they say, there’s a big price to pay:
The energy drain is the least of the pain.
Are you aware of the looming despair?
There’s not enough sympathy to dispel the apathy.
When once you were shrewd, it’s now rude or crude
Or you dismiss any obstacle with a laugh all too cynical
Who did you outsmart for that burnt out Purple Heart?

You may wonder how I know what I know:
“Have I been snooping outside your window?”
Alas, like you, a once non-stop hero
Flashdancing and whirling to that burnout tango.


Before talking burnout recovery, try walking a personal journey
While I have written pages, let’s distill critical gauges –
From stepping into the darkened maze
To a twisting path that may even craze.
To prevent going viral, grasp the “Erosive Spiral”
Let’s erase all doubt – “The Four Stages of Burnout.”

Four Stages for the Ages

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First Stage

The first stage is a warning – yellow light caution:
Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion
From nine to five you still are alive
But you’re not a dope; it’s been a tightrope.
You’ve made it home, like crossing a ridge
The very first thing – head for the fridge.
Get the Lite Beer or the Ben & Jerry’s
Forget the good cheer, just numb all those worries.
Put on the big screen, so you’re a slouch
It’s either “The Scream” or squashed out on the couch.

Second Stage

The second stage I call Doubt and Shame
Now you know you’re off of your game
The growing fear: others realize the same.
When finally asked to take on a new project
You quickly wonder: “Are my skills really suspect?”
And the latest rub: am I getting the snub?
Perhaps it’s time for the “Frequent Sighers Club.”

Third Stage

At long last, you’ve had it with being uncertain
Build an iron curtain around all your hurtin
Forget about once being a charmer
Start strapping on third stage heavy armor –
You’re not yet full of malice…alas, one big hard Callous.
Though you can give a clinic on being a Cynic.
It’s time for a self-centered run: “Just look out for #1.”
Or you’ve seen him on cable; now do your best Gable:
Sorry to tell you, ma’am; “Frankly, I don’t give a damn!”

Don’t fall for the hype about that “strong silent type”:
A bottled up shell is its own quiet hell.
And at times “strong silent” is subtly violent:
For me to be strong…you must be silent!

Fourth Stage

As you know well; burnout can be one hell of a shell
With a push, that hard cover, at the fourth stage
May quickly fly off into impotent rage –
Failure and Helplessness now morph into Crisis:
Caught in a bind, losing one’s mind
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t
Should I keep trying; is it time to punt?
Damned if I stay, damned if I leave
Will the shame never end, can I get a reprieve?
If I could just go back to being a grouch
Now the next stop…the Stress Doc’s couch. Ouch!

While painfully scary, do not be so leery,
It’s a doubled-edged stage; let me tell you a story
Of a tough egg on the outside; inside hollow and mushy
Now known as Hump D, his path would prove bumpy

Covered with bling, compulsively doing his thing
Always burning the candle, livin large on the wall
This big eggo was just beggin for a great fall.
So don’t feel too sorry for Mr. Dumpty
He needed to hit bottom, right on his rumpsky!

Closing Moral

Breaking out of a burnout hell
May take cracking holes in that once rigid shell.
Most won’t reach out as long as there’s doubt.
Famous last words from Rambos and Nerds
From those Rambettes and high flyin Birds:
“Who needs help off the shelf…I can do it myself!”
Alas, it’s now crisis crossroad, no longer “more or less” –
Reach out and meaningfully progress
Hide out and critically regress.

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