Mental fatigue takes its toll on the soul

“As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.” – David Brooks

Burnout sucks. It’s easy to tell yourself you just need to work fewer hours or take more days off, but sometimes there’s a consistent loss of value in what you’re doing when you feel exhausted. Letting go might shake your understanding of reality.

Alloy, L., & Abramson, L. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108 (4), 441-485 DOI: 10.1037/0096-3445.108.4.441

In high school, my track and field coach used to tell us, “If you’re sore, you’re not trying hard enough, and, if you’re not sore, you need to try harder.” It’s hard to deny that, in our meritocratic individualistic society, our work is our religion. It’s our measure of self-worth and success in the world. We tell ourselves to push ourselves to our limits, until we drop to our knees. For those of us who become exhausted from our work, this sort of tiredness can be flattering. Who wouldn’t want to tell themselves that they’re just working “too hard for themselves”? Working even harder might mean getting only enough sleep necessary to function, opting for a sandwich instead of a relaxing hour-lunch, or shaving while you’re in your car. But, aside from the physical demands of life, the burned out soul perceives his/her world differently. And this could lead to mental health issues.

Someone suffering from depression might feel their exhaustion as a symptom of weirdness. They just don’t fit in with society’s standards so they struggle with unique psychological pressures. The romanticized ideal of exhaustion comforts the depressed individual as a misunderstood genius or a drummer with a different beat. And, with this mental fatigue, their efforts may be a fragile, fruitless pursuit.

We come to question our own worth. We give ourselves excuses like we’ve been brought to where we are by sheer luck, opportunity, or some magical force that swayed us to where we are. We can barely find ourselves with much to say about ourselves when we constantly find out more and more about the world.

In one extreme, imposter syndrome causes individuals to devalue their own efforts while, in the other, the Dunning-Krueger effect causes people to overestimate their own abilities. Under more commonplace circumstances, many underestimate luck when things go well for them while blaming poor results on external mishaps. This interpretation of randomness, though, makes decision-making difficult and causes us to forget about who we really are. Even for people who don’t value their own worth as much as they should, this sort of luck is better seen as something that affects everyone and the universe altogether, rather than simply a force that pushes and pulls on an individual’s efforts to success. If people can remember that hard work plays a significant role in success while still acknowledging the amazing fortunes that have brought them to where they are, they may kindle that fighting spirit that keeps them going.

As Professor of Economics Robert H. Frank explains, people who recognize the value of good fortune in their lives:

“are much more likely than others to contribute to their community and to support the kinds of public investments that created and maintained the environments that made their own success possible. They’re also substantially happier than others, and their gratitude itself appears to steer additional material prosperity their way.”

Psychologists L. B. Alloy and L. Y. Abramson showed self-assessments of depressed students were more accurate and realistic than the self-assessments of others. Their hypothesis remains controversial: not only does it lack a general consensus among the scientific community, but it raises thorny ethical questions about depression. While it’s commonsense that mental illness is more than just a physiological response, the extent to which a bodily response should account for humanistic traits of responsibility and autonomy are up for debate. And understanding the depressed mind, overwhelmed and unconfident, might partly explain how we’ve come to value exhaustion.

With this sort of depressive realism, those who are depressed might understand the world more accurately than other people. They can more readily understand how much of their life is due to their own efforts and how much is due to the hand of the universe. And, as a result of this misunderstanding between themselves and the rest of the world, they struggle.This isn’t to say we should value depression as a badge of honor, virtuous symbol, or goal to attain. Instead, it’s more about being more realistic about why and how we feel the way that we do.

This interpretation has its drawbacks, though. Contrary to the hypothesis by Alloy and Abramson, we commonly view depressed people as having a negative view on reality, not a more realistic one. They may be less willing to value their own efforts, and more likely to blame things as the result of fortune. And all human beings, depressed or not, have their biases in their interpretations of the world.

How do we understand our own exhaustion? Turning to literature is always there. Dr. Lydgate from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” loses sight of his ideals while Jay Gatsby of Fitzgerald’s novel supposedly represents the darker side of the American Dream. Individual accounts of mental illness, such as blogs and social media forums, give a personalized lens of how tiring life can be. The meticulous, slow-and-steady pace of psychotherapy may help us find us find our “pool of tranquility,” as psychoanalyst Josh Cohen puts it. These methods can help us make sense of things, but understanding the roles that luck, fortune, handwork, or whatever it is that has brought you to where you are in life can help you make sense of your exhaustion, be it due to an existential crisis or a few long shifts at work.

We’ll be grateful for everything else in life, too.

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