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Why We Are All on Edge and Burned Out and What to Do About It

Let’s have a quick thought experiment: How would you make an animal docile, depressed, and apathetic?

You might start by making it feel low in status. Pitting it against its peers who are all bigger, stronger, or smarter. Pushing it down the hierarchical totem pole. Or maybe you follow classic experiments that deprived animals of a sense of control. Make their world feel uncertain and uncontrollable. Once they realized they didn’t have a shot or can’t make an impact, they stopped trying. Or maybe you isolate them, moving them to a cage away from their family and peers. If you’re particularly cruel, maybe you keep another animal within eyesight, filled with food, friends, and fun. Or you deprive them of their ability to move, to get sunlight, to get fresh air.

We’ve sadly seen similar effects in lab experiments in the 20th century, or from natural experiments with animals living in unacceptable conditions in captivity. We’d all agree such conditions would be cruel, and that our mice, monkey, or dog, would likely turn into a nervous, apathetic, miserable mess. They may live in a chronic protect and defend mode, hyperaware of any physical or social threat.

Yet, to a smaller degree, modern society has mastered pushing or pulling us towards the same environment our poor animal friends occupy.

  • We are constantly told we aren’t measuring up.
  • We’re increasingly isolated.
  • The world and our place in it feels fragmented and uncertain
  • Our jobs often make us feel micromanaged like we have no way to progress, like we lack any control in the area that much of society tells us should provide a paycheck and a purpose.

Is it any wonder many of us feel apathetic, listless, like we can’t muster the energy to try? Or that so many people are on edge, over-reacting to any slight feeling of discomfort. People attack each other online over a subtle disagreement, or a minor inconvenience. They flip out in grocery lines, or when being asked to wear a mask on a plane. When we live in a chronic state of low-level anxiety, of protect and defend mode, it’s easy to see why people flip out.

I can’t help but think that part of the reason why our world seems like it’s gone a bit mad, is that we are like our poor tormented animals. We’ve let our basic psychological needs fall by the wayside. We’ve gone from eating vegetables and nutritious meals to fill our needs, and replacing it with some quick-fix candy. We find our connection in superficial form. We seek a secure sense of self in groups and ideologies that promise to make the world add up, but do anything but. We put all our eggs in the work basket, hoping that it fulfills our need of competence, meaning, and purpose all at the same time.

And as a result, we occupy a unique combination of burned out, apathetic, while also being on edge, under threat, and sensitive to any slight that comes our way.

What are we to do? Fill our basic needs in a diverse way.

According to recent research, our foundational needs are substitutable. If you are feeling down or despondent because your work lacks meaning, finding purpose at home with your family or in your spiritual pursuits actually stems the tide, dampening down the negative impact that lacking meaning in your work normally provides. Psychologists refer to this as fluid compensation. When a psychological need is under threat in one area, we look to satisfy that need elsewhere, and it largely works. A few guiding principles:

 

Shift and define your comparison point.

Go back a few millennia, and you knew a couple of dozen people who lived nearby. Your tribe or community was small. You may have encountered a few hundred people in a lifetime. Fast forward, and the numbers got bigger. But for most of us, we competed and compared locally. It was easy to find your role, to establish yourself as useful and good at something.

Fast forward to today, and our comparison point has gone global. We have to measure up against nearly everyone. Being the fastest on the block or in your school is no longer good enough, when you find out you rank 4,598th nationally.

While we can’t do anything about globalization. We can define our comparison point. Where are you now, and what are you trying to accomplish? Are you competing against a prior version of yourself?  Make your comparison point local, and try to take the next logical step. Sure, it’s great to have big dreams and shoot for the stars, but that shouldn’t be the standard. It’s a dream, one that may be feasible, and can even inspire, but not the focus of your day-to-day.

 

Find competence and status in something

Be good at something. Notice, I didn’t say great, or the best in the world. We all need something that makes us feel competent. It could be your work, the fun runs you race on weekends, or some hobby that you pursue on the side. As famed neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky has noted “we can be part of multiple hierarchies. And while you may be low ranking in of them, you could be high ranking in another. You have like the crappiest job in your corporation, but you’re the captain of the softball team for the company. You better bet that’s somebody who’s going to find all sorts of ways that 9 to 5, Monday through Friday is just stupid paying the bills. What really matters is the prestige on the weekend.”

Have friends or family that you connect with on a deeper level, where you feel like you can be yourself.

Just about any friends or connection can be a good thing, be it online or in the real world. But our online friendships tend to be of the shallow variety. We stick to the surface level, portraying the public you, which is fine and understandable. But we need connections that run deeper. People we feel comfortable and secure around. That makes us feel like we belong, and that if we are in trouble, they’ll be there for us.

If we don’t feel like we belong, we’ll fill this need with something else. It’s why cults prey on the vulnerable. Creating a false sense of security and belonging.

To Be Wise, Embrace Complexity

Self-complexity refers to the diversity of your self-aspects, or the roles you occupy that reflects who you are. A women might be a mother, wife, artist, student, or doctor. Each is an important aspect of who she is, helping to define her sense of self. The more and varied roles, the more self-complexity we have.

When individuals score low on a measure of self-complexity, they have much wider swings in their mood, emotions, and sense of self. Their self-worth is like a ping pong ball, bouncing back and forth, entirely dependent on whether they won or lost whatever game they are playing. On the other end of the spectrum, higher levels of self-complexity buffer the effects of stress. We can withstand threats because our coaching self might be under threat, but our value of being a husband, teacher, or mentor are there to provide us with the security we need.

According to psychologists Jack Bauer, wisdom arises from “a demonstrated heightened capacity for thinking complexly and coherently about the self and others with humane concern.” Bauer goes on to say, “wisdom involves the capacity to predict what will turn out well in the end.” To obtain wisdom, we need to be open to the complexity and nuance of life, and then integrate that in a meaningful way. Wisdom is a result of being able to move from simplistic to relatively complex stories, that still make sense. It’s wrestling with the nuance and contradictions.

 –Steve

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